This past weekend marked the one-year anniversary for Boneshaker Books, an organization that, to my mind, should be hailed as Minneapolis’s greatest champion of the written word. With a business model based on the likes of The Wooden Shoe in Philadelphia and Bluestockings in New York, the all-volunteer collective behind Boneshaker are showing Minneapolis what it really means to love books.
Located in the smallish corner of a building at the corner of 23rd avenue and Franklin—a space that used to house corporate offices for the Seward Co-op—Boneshaker Books began as simple idea passed around among six volunteers at the now closed Arise! bookstore. Having only three weeks to get the store open, the collective members—Maggie Ludlow, Amanda Luker, Michelle Lee, Jason Paschall, Tom Schumacher, and Ann Hall—worked like maniacs to get the space decorated, furnished with the handmade bookshelves that now line the walls, and filled with merchandise.
“Last year was ‘Phase 1’ of Boneshaker,” says Amanda Luker. “This year we have a few goals. We intend on converting one of the back offices into a children’s nook for story hour and to house a larger collection of children’s literature. We also plan on hosting more events, and making our space even better for hosting authors, having reading groups, and showing films. We will be doing some fun events to raise some money this spring, including a gourmet vegan Valentine’s dinner on February 14.”
How will they have the time to do all of that? Operating during normal business hours, the Boneshaker collective—who all work day jobs outside of this labor of love—has taken on 40+ volunteers who are responsible for each working one 3-4 hour shift per week. So many people in the neighborhood want to volunteer that they’re going to soon have to create a waiting list of people who hope to help. Having too much help has created some interesting, and unconventional, business challenges. “I would say the biggest challenge in an all-volunteer organization with over 40 volunteers is communication,” Luker said. “We knew that would be a problem before opening, so we tried to have good documentation in place and make the flow of information as easy as possible. After a year, we’re also wrestling with how to turn over some of our power as ‘the collective’ to other volunteers who are just as competent—if not more so—and figuring out how to do that while also maintaining our vision.”
Being a collective means that the money from book sales goes directly back to the store for paying rent, electricity, and ordering more titles—which Luker says vary in style and substance only slightly from the selection at Arise! “We have almost all the same titles you would have found at Arise!—perhaps even more and better radical literature—but we also put a spotlight on literature, kid’s books, and science fiction. People can’t just read political theory all day…they need some escapism, too. We’re ‘mixing pop and politics,’ as Billy Bragg said.”
Luker went on to say that every book in Boneshaker is there “because someone wants it there,” which to is perhaps one of the greatest differences between a collective like Boneshaker and a mainstream store like you might find at the mall. One interesting way the collective went about financing the opening of the store was to promise donors of $250 or more that a book of their choosing would be stocked on the shelf forever. These donors are known as their “Skeleton Crew Members.” These books form the foundation of the Boneshaker inventory.
Aside from their unique challenges and offerings, Boneshaker Books has some of the same needs and aspirations as mainstream merchants. Like many businesses today, Bonehsaker struggles to get their name out into the ether of potential customers and other book lovers. “Today you have to figure out ways to create buzz—and then keep up the momentum to stay on people’s radars. We have to be constant cheerleaders for ourselves, and we’re still learning the best ways to attract attention, especially since we’re located on a side street, tucked away from foot traffic,” Luker said. Aside from scheduling new, bigger, and louder events for the coming year (their events are Lit Punch eligible), Boneshaker also offers a service yet unseen in the Twin Cities: free book delivery by bike for special orders.
Like any good business, the collective is planning for the future in exciting and ambitious ways. “In the long term,” said Luker, “we want to figure out extend feelings of ownership to the community—to our donors, our volunteers, our customers. Perhaps that will mean a co-op or CSA-type model; we don’t know yet. But we suspect this is key to creating a lasting bookstore institution in the age of the Internet.”