The tattered, weathered sign flapping limply on the corner speaks volumes about what’s currently going on inside Outwrite Books. Last spring, owner Philip Rafshoon issued an “open letter to our community.” The missive was meant as a rallying cry to inform supporters that the city’s most visible LGBT business on the corner of 10th Street and Piedmont Avenue was in trouble in the age of eBooks. This month, the 18-year-old business announced its first-ever fundraiser set for tonight at chef Riccardo Ullio‘s new Escorpion Tequila Bar and Cantina from 7 p.m. until close. Ullio will be donating 20 percent of the evening’s sales to Outwrite for planned renovations and improvements.
While some longtime Outwrite shoppers immediately circled the date on the calendar, others wondered aloud on Facebook and Twitter why a for-profit business needs a fundraiser. Rafshoon himself has largely stayed publicly mum on the details of Outwrite’s current financial difficulties. In an exclusive 30-minute interview with Intel, Rafshoon spoke in detail for the first time about Outwrite’s current plight.
Q: I’ve tried to read the tea leaves in the two community announcements you’ve sent out but there’s not a lot of detail provided. Break it down for us. What are harsh realities of Outwrite’s current financial situation?
A: “The harsh realities are this: We have to increase the business significantly. We have to fast-forward the store into the 21st century. In our initial letter, we asked for three things: We asked people to step up and shop, volunteer their time and services and we asked experts to lend ideas to help us implement those ideas. People immediately mobbed the store and showed us their support by buying things. But that was a very short-lived thing. People have short memories.”
Q: What’s the worst-case scenario here?
A: “The worst-case scenario is the economy stays tanked, doesn’t recover and that we can’t turn things around quickly enough. We need to get people in the door and spending money. Because the worst-case scenario is that somewhere down the line we wouldn’t be able to make it.”
Q: Since last Spring’s first letter to the community and now this month’s fundraising announcement, various rumors have been flying around the city about the extent of Outwrite’s financial difficulties. Everything from you’re behind in your rent to the business isn’t salvageable to everything is just fine. Can you discuss what is reality?
A: I think by [this week] we will no longer be behind on our rent. But we are behind on some bills and some payments. Everything is not just fine. We try to be upbeat when people are in the store. But the reality is the big LGBT stores that are left in the country are Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia and Outwrite. Lambda Rising in Washington D.C. is gone. A Different Light in New York is gone. Their location in Los Angeles is closed. And the A Different Light location in San Francisco just closed a few months ago. Out Loud in Nashville just closed. That’s the reality of what’s going on in the LGBT book shop industry right now. It’s not pretty. People have asked me, ‘Why do this? Why put out a call for support? If you can’t figure it out and the people who work in the store every day can’t figure it, why continue?’ My answer is this: We’ve got to give the community a chance to step up and help. We can’t just close the doors.”
Q: Have you considered that you may not be putting a fine enough point on how dire this is? At no point in either of these community letters do you spell out ‘Without your support, Outwrite might cease to exist.’ Why not?
A: You’ve nailed the problem very well. We might come to that point. But there’s a saturation point. People aren’t going to come in here if every day, we’re pleading for money. It’s not in tune with our mission here. Just before you arrived, we had some shoppers in here from England. They’re visiting. They bought a ton of stuff. They don’t need to see a pity party when they walk in the door. Money is tight everywhere. People understand that. It’s a reality for everyone but it’s a very strong reality for us. This problem isn’t going to be solved by people coming in here because they feel sorry for us. We’ve got to make substantive changes to the business. From layout changes and merchandise changes to upgrades.”
Q: Break it down for me. Are book sales still the meat and potatoes of sales revenue here with coffee, calendars, DVDs, magazines, CDs and sandwiches coming in further down the balance sheet?
A: “Correct. In the long run, we want the food and the drink sales to be a much higher percentage of the business and I think we can get there.”
Q: In your mind, what does the future Outwrite book shop look like?
A: “We’re studying successful business models to help us play catch up as a book store. I’m looking at Vroman’s in Pasadena, Books Inc. in San Francisco and Politics & Prose in Washington D.C. A lot of that success is marketing and social media based. We’re very far behind on Twitter and Four Square and all that. Capital improvements like a big screen TV, getting the store painted and carpeted, new signage, QR codes so people can buy eBooks while they’re in the store. There will be a different range of products, a more comfortable lounge area, more signings, readings, book clubs and musicians.”
Q: I want to give you a chance to answer the critics who are saying, “Outwrite is a for-profit business. Why should I go to a fundraiser for a for-profit business?”
A: “It’s a for-profit business but we’re also a community center. We do something for the community that no one else does. We provide services, we provide space for the community. We function as a LGBT de facto community center because this city doesn’t have one. It’s a tough one but we’re prepared to take the heat on it. This is just the first fundraiser. We want to measure the response and see what people are willing to step up and do.”
Q: If i handed you a bullhorn outside on the corner of 10th and Piedmont right now, what would you tell the city?
A: “Step up. Come in daily. Lend us your ideas. Help the store move forward into 2012. Come in for our events. The authors will still sign the back of your Kindle. It just won’t be as cool. Books still matter. And I promise, Lady Gaga will be performing at some point!”