Indie Retail & Activism: The Business Road to Political Change

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On Wednesday, January 19, booksellers at Winter Institute 6 gathered in the Arlington Ballroom of the Crystal Gateway Marriott for the panel discussion “Indie Retail and Activism: The Business Road to Political Change.” At the session, which was part of a special Legislative Day, three indie  business owners discussed the advocacy process and how vital it is for independent bookstores.

Panelists were Wendy Hudson of Nantucket Bookworks in Nantucket, Massachusetts; Jakob Wolf-Barnett, operations manager of Revolution Cycles in Washington, D.C.; and Rick Karp, president of Cole Hardware in San Francisco. The discussion was moderated by ABA CEO Oren Teicher.

The panelists began by explaining how advocacy became a natural outgrowth of their business philosophy. Wolf-Barnett noted that Revolution Cycles’ goal was to put “more butts on bikes,” and that eventually led to its support for key laws and programs that would help do just that. As an example, Wolf-Barnett mentioned legislation to create bike trails to make riding safer.

“We’re a neighborhood hardware store in the Haight Ashbury,” Karp, of Cole Hardware, said. “We wanted to create a business that is part of the community. Customer service is key, as is getting involved in the community…. We hope that in our doing well for the community, customers might spend a few dollars as well at our store, and make us a profitable business.”

Hudson reported that her first business was a brewery, which she and her husband founded in 1995 (and continue to this day). “We invested $1,500 … and over time built it up,” she said. “My bookstore is more my heart and my mind.” Owning a store on historic Nantucket, Hudson soon found out, means dealing with strict zoning law – and getting involved to help shape or change these laws.

A key issue for any retailer in getting involved in advocacy is time management. Teicher asked the panelists how they balanced “participation in the store and in the community.”

“Being a multi-store business, I soon realized that I couldn’t be in two places at once,” Karp said with a laugh. “Flexibility is key in how you marry your business and time working on your business.”

“[Revolution Cycles] is a relatively young company, and we’ve only been involved in advocacy for about two years,” Wolf-Barnett said, adding that any given advocacy issue has to meet certain criteria before the company invests time and resources in the issue. “You have to choose where you invest your time. Are you good at it? And is it a passion? If not, then support the groups that [have a passion for that issue],” he said.

Hudson explained that since her business is seasonal, she sometimes has more time to advocate on behalf of issues that are important to the store or brewery. That said, no matter what kind of store you have, expect advocacy to require hard work, she added. “It requires being as flexible as you can be, like bookkeeping at 2:00 a.m…. You make time for what you value.”

Teicher asked the panelists to discuss some of the specific issues they have supported. Karp talked about his campaign to protect San Francisco’s unique charm by stopping a Home Depot from opening up there. “I needed to make a hobby out of stopping [the development],” he reported. “I set about learning from other efforts around the country.” Home Depot’s attempts to open a store in San Francisco failed three times, he said, but the fourth time they won. “Then the economy failed, and they walked away. But Lowe’s took it over.”

Karp said his store put the issue in front of customers – a tactic he acknowledged was risky. “Some were in favor of our efforts, some were not,” he said. “We kept customers informed through our newsletter. We felt Home Depot would crack the door open for other chains, and, [since Lowes], it is beginning to happen.” This is one of the reasons, Karp added, that he founded the San Francisco Locally Owned Merchants Alliance (SFLOMA).

For Revolution Cycles, key issues include improving bicycle infrastructure, such as bicycle trails. “We need places to ride,” said Wolf-Barnett. “People who haven’t ridden since they were in college need a safe place to ride…. The key is educating bicyclists on riding safely and encouraging the building of infrastructure [to be able to do so]…. We hold events to promote bike riding, such as the ride around the Washington Monument.”

Hudson reported that some zoning regulations in her town were “anti-business.” When she wanted to place an “Open” flag on the outside of her store, which is in an historic district, it took six meetings with town officials to get it done. “They needed to change the law,” she said. “There are no sidewalk sales allowed.” Now, the key issue for her, as it is with many independent bookstores, is sales tax fairness. “I had a meeting in Boston yesterday [regarding sales tax fairness] – it was last minute,” she said. “People in the community want us to be leaders.”

A tricky issue when it comes to advocacy is whether a retailer should engage its customers or not on a particular issue. The panelists agreed that, when it comes to supporting a politician, you have a good chance of angering many of your customers no matter who you support. “Once, I placed a candidate sign in the window and quickly pissed off half of my customers,” Karp said. “You can’t cross the line of what is good for business. I still support candidates, but more behind the scenes.”

Karp stressed that, no matter the issue, showing up at your legislator’s office is huge and can make a difference on an issue. No matter the size of the store, by showing up, “you become that big fish in that big pond,” he said.

Wolf-Barnett stressed that Revolution Cycles is a non-partisan store. “We’re honored to be associated with the President, regardless of whether he is a Republican or Democrat,” he said. “We are not a political entity; we push a sense of community with events. We try not to focus so much on ‘advocacy,’ since it can have intense connotations.” Instead, the store tries to build events around important issues as a way to get people involved.

Said Karp, “If I go to City Hall and bring a bunch of hardware store owners with me,” the legislator is not likely to be impressed since an issue that effects one hardware store is likely to affect the other. “But if I bring a bookstore to City Hall, then it’s ‘Whoa!,’ and the argument about the issue being important to the community is more powerful.”

“So how do you develop relationships with legislators?” Teicher asked.

Karp again stressed the importance of visiting your legislator in person to discuss your business and the key issues. “I will offer myself as someone to help educate them,” he said. And if you happen to meet them in another location, “don’t put them on the defensive. I am open to casual discussions, whether I like their politics or not.”

“Disagree without being disagreeable,” Hudson said. “I try to put myself where they will be to talk with them in a casual setting. One-on-one is huge.”