I had a very inspiring and rejuvenating reading in Manhattan at Bluestockings Bookstore this weekend. Bluestockings is a worker-owned, volunteer staffed collective bookstore in the East Village. After my storytelling and reading was through, I opened the floor up to questions. Naturally, I fielded a few questions about the appropriate planting space for tomatoes and how to remediate toxic soil, as well as my future dreams for urban agriculture. But when it came to questions about The Head & The Hand, the conversation took a turn toward the questions that I have been grappling with on a daily basis as I work to build the press. How do you keep doing good while you’re trying to stay in business?
The topic came up after I explained the ethics of The Head & The Hand Press. The woman in the audience who asked the initial question of how the press was structured then qualified her question by inquiring if producing the books for The Head & The Hand was going to be something that actually supported peoples’ lives. Although I admitted that we were not at the point of profitability just yet, I assured her that viability was our main goal.
Her question was interesting in the context of the space. All around us were a staff that was operating an extremely well run cafe bookstore as if they were getting paid. In reality, the only satisfaction they were getting was through their love of community and spreading positive ideas to that community. Their dedication to their cause and not a paycheck reminded me of the entire staff at The Head & The Hand that is sticking with the idea of this press even though they are not getting paid just yet because it is something they believe in.
As I answered the woman’s question I went on to give my view of the non-profit. In my opinion there are plenty of non-profits that are filling those immensely important gaps for the most vulnerable in our society. However, I have to admit that it discourages me when projects that have traditionally existed in the market place are now thrown into the ever decreasing pool of public and private grant money.
For me, I want to keep my business of selling books to adults as a for-profit so that I can invest money into a non-profit that is promoting literacy amongst the next generation of disadvantaged readers whom may not have the means to do so themselves. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t do the most amount of good I can while I sell those books. In my simplest ideal, I want to ensure that everyone involved in every step of the book production process is given a fair deal; from the worker-owned company Thomson-Shore who prints our books, to the fair artist agreements that we want to maintain, to making sure that independent bookstores like Bluestockings are getting a fair cut so they can keep the doors open in their neighborhood.
So how do we keep the social ideals of the non-profit and the fairness of the collective alive as we exist in this market place? That’s a question that I hope to answer over time as we put our business plan into action. But to see the reaction of the audience as they nodded to my explanation of our for-profit ideals, and to see the dedicated work of the volunteers in the cafe who cared more about what they were producing than the money they were making, it gave me hope. I think it’s the cliche that people leave New York feeling jaded about trying to survive in the arts. But I left Bluestockings with the most confidence I have felt in a long time. So thanks to them and if you happen to be in the East Village and are looking for a copy of Seeds of Discent, or another good book, give them some business.