By CHARLOTTE MURTISHAW
GREENFIELD – Groan if you want, but while most people used lockdown as a time to at least think about reading more books, Greenfield resident Andrew Ritchey took it a step further: he and a friend decided to reinvent book distribution. In September, Ritchey and New York-based friend Jamie Johnston started an online bookstore named Massive Bookshop out of Ritchey’s house.
The concept is simple and familiar: Customers go online, order books, and then receive the books. That being said, there’s much more under the surface. With a goal of growing into a worker-owned cooperative, Massive Bookshop is anti-Amazon and “anti-profit.” recycling all earnings back into stocking books or community organizations. All expenses and earnings are broken down in monthly newsletters to subscribers.
Ritchey talked with the Montague Reporter about the inspirations behind the left-leaning bookstore, how it all works, and the illusion of the necessity of rent.
MR: What brought you to this? What’s the vision?
AR: The idea for the Massive Bookshop started in conversation with my friend Jamie, who is also in the book business. We were talking about how to do a book cooperative in an interesting way, particularly with the pandemic revealing all of the different weak points in the supply chain, and showing how retail businesses on Main Street are really vulnerable – especially businesses like book businesses, which are dependent on having lots of people continually in the store browsing.
I had worked for the co-op grocery store in town, Green Fields Market, and so I was also thinking about groceries, and seeing what had been happening in the Valley with farms coming together and delivering groceries to people or doing pickups.
We are selling the books online, but we want it to feel like it’s a storefront. We want it to feel like you go to the webpage and see featured books and featured collections and it feels kind of like walking in and seeing a shelf display, a particular subject or particular author. A lot of the work we’ve been putting into the website has been trying to do that. It makes sense to me.
A lot of people are selling books online and they just go on Amazon or they sell on other third-party marketplaces. There are also local bookstores that have a website, but in some cases the website doesn’t even have their inventory; you have to call them to ask if they have titles. In other cases the stuff they have online is not stuff they have in stock, which is the opposite extreme in terms of a bookstore website.
MR: I’m really interested by this idea of a “local internet business,” and was wondering if you’d be willing to talk a little bit more about what that means to you.
AR: With the pandemic we’ve seen a lot of businesses getting set up this way, so immediately there were tons of examples, like the Sunderland Farm Collaborative… It’s basically just a collaboration between several of the local farms. They just set up a website, and it’s great, because you can order from a bunch of different farms and they coordinate everything, so you might get some produce from Kitchen Garden Farm and some mushrooms from Mycoterra.
But it also to me seems like an interesting model of what a local online business can be like. With books in particular, rent is a huge problem, a huge barrier. If you think about local bookstores, like World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield for example, which had that big space on Main Street – they’ve been there for years and they had to move down the street to a much smaller space where they can’t stock even half the inventory that they had at the other store. I looked at that space on Main Street when they moved, and Cohn & Company wanted $2,500 a month for that space. It’s a big space, but you’ve got to sell a lot of books to even just cover that rent.
So there’s another way in which this local-online thing provides an opportunity to not pay rent, to not pay whatever percentage of your margin to a landlord, which is – I guess I’ll just say I don’t particularly like landlords. I don’t think that it’s right that that space is $2,500 a month, on Main Street in Greenfield. I don’t even know what retail business could go in there. And indeed, they haven’t rented it to a retail business.
So the pandemic has kind of exposed that, too: Is it really worth it to pay all this rent when it’s possible to reach customers through the internet at a fraction of the cost? The cost for maintaining this website is like $40 a month.
MR: And so is your whole stock just kept in your living space? How are you managing the physical inventory?
AR: Yeah, we have over 600 books in my basement and in my attic. They’re split: the used books are in the basement, and the new books are in the attic. We don’t have to shelve them, so they’re just organized in bins, and it’s been working so far to have that setup. Obviously we can’t stock tens of thousands of books in my house – maybe we could, I don’t know – but that feels like a manageable number to have in stock.
And we also place orders with our distributors, and publishers and suppliers we have a deal with. One of those distributors, Ingram, does direct-to-home shipping, so instead of us warehousing the books, we can just have a distributor mail books directly to the customer.
MR: I was imagining you probably learn about a lot of interesting stuff through the orders.
AR: Exactly. That’s the most fun for me. I’ve been doing a lot of special orders for people, and I’ve been finding out about tons of books.
The inventory that we started with was mostly my personal collection of books, just from years and years of buying books. I wanted us to have at least 500 books in stock that we could deliver to people. But more and more, people are making these special requests, so I’m finding out not only about specific books, but really cool publishers that I didn’t know about, authors that I didn’t know about – so when we buy books, I’m getting books from those publishers and those authors now in addition to the ones requested.
Part of the vision for the store as well is for it to be cooperative with the customers, where the inventory is determined in part by the people who are using the store, the kind of books that they like and are interested in.
MR: You mentioned the Sunderland Farm Collaborative. Were there other models or examples you were looking at as you were trying to figure out how to make this particular idea work?
AR: Well, if we can get it working and there’s interest, we want to properly incorporate as a worker-owned cooperative. Once you get into drafting bylaws for worker-owned cooperatives, there are lots of examples.
The one we were looking at was from the Mondragon in Spain – it’s in the Basque country, which is kind of Spain, kind of not – it’s sort of the model for worker-owned cooperatives. When it started, they had one worker cooperative and then it grew into all different segments of the industry of business there. Now they have this network of all these different cooperatives, all worker-owned. So that’s a cool model, not just how to structure a single cooperative but how to have networks of cooperatives.
You asked about specific models, and I feel like for me, the Sunderland Farm Collaborative was the main one in terms of having a cooperative do delivery and pickup, and I just thought it was really interesting. But like I said earlier, basically every local business has set up a website and started taking orders. I could point to a bunch of different businesses – Rise Above [Bakery] in Greenfield has started taking orders online, after the pandemic, and doing pickup.
So there were a bunch of different businesses not necessarily doing the cooperative thing, but doing a local online thing that you mentioned earlier, local internet. That was definitely an inspiration for setting up the website.
MR: I feel like we’re probably on the same level about this, but just keeping in mind that this is like a public information interview, what’s the problem with Amazon?
AR: Well, we have a great book on this subject called The Cost of Free Shipping. That book answers your question, I think. It’s interesting with books, because publishers do not like Amazon because Amazon sells books at a loss. They sell them super, super cheap, and publishers can’t compete with that, and bookstores obviously can’t compete. But publishers are also implicated in that, because they sell their books to distributors who sell them to Amazon. They could just not sell their books to Amazon, and Amazon wouldn’t have them to sell.
But they do. They knowingly sell the books because they want a huge volume of books, and they want to do that because they want to print a ton of books because they get a better margin when they print tons of books. Maybe a publisher can sell a thousand books, but if they print 15,000, they get those books at a much lower price, which is great because their margin improves. But then they have 14,000 books they can’t sell, so what they’ve been doing is sending them to Amazon, because Amazon buys them cheap. That’s kind of been perpetuating this whole cycle.
But if you’re asking me what my problem with Amazon is, it’s more about the way they actually make their money, which is not by selling books, but by collecting data and selling cloud-computing services to the military and all the things that are described in this book, The Cost of Free Shipping.
MR: Would you mind explaining a little bit about this wording that you’re using on the website, “anti-profit”? What does “anti-profit” actually mean in this context?
AR: “Anti-profit” means, in this context, that rather than trying to grow profits, accumulate profits, we’re actively trying to dispense with them, to get rid of them. The business needs to be sustainable, which means we have to continue to have a pool of money to buy books, so what we do is the profit that comes from books that we’ve bought in advance – stuff that we have invested in because we think they’re cool books – the net profit from the sales of those books stays in the business.
But the profits that come to us from the special orders, where someone has already paid for the book upfront, we don’t keep those because we don’t feel like we’re entitled to them. We didn’t even know about the book; we didn’t do any work to actually go get the book or convince somebody to buy it. They’re just telling us about this book, and in some cases when we do that direct-to-home delivery through the distributor, we don’t even pack and ship the book. The profits from those sales all go towards our friends, the community projects. We have two right now: Great Falls Books Through Bars and Touch the Sky.
The idea is if we can continue to get the special orders, that part of it is self-sustaining, because people are paying for the books and then we’re ordering for them, so the books are already bought when we buy them. If we can continue to get special orders and generate profit from that – the profit on the sale of each book from that is about two dollars, one or two dollars – we can continue to support these projects on an ongoing basis, as opposed to doing a fundraiser and being like “Oh, give to this organization.” We’re trying to provide a continuous support for that organization.
I don’t know if that answered your question. The reason that we chose the word “anti-profit” is that we’re not a non-profit organization – I mean legally we’re not, and we’re also just not. We don’t accept donations, this isn’t charity, we don’t think of the projects we support as charity projects. So we need a word other than “non-profit,” and “anti-profit” sort of encapsulates our orientation towards profit-seeking of the traditional capitalist variety.
And we’re a leftish bookstore: radical left theory and practice, movement organizing, communism, socialism, anarchism, anti-racism, anti-capitalism, social justice, etc. will be our specialty – if we can stay in business long enough to have one!
MR: I was thinking about it and I was thinking about the term “anti-racism,” and the way that that doesn’t erase any real dynamics but is instead more oppositionally framed – like “non-profit” is kind of neutered, and at this point we know some of the problems with non-profits, but “anti-profit” is enervated by a nice different sort of energy. I guess, to dive a little more into the weeds on the money question – and this is maybe more of a labor framing – is anyone making money for their labor through this? Are you making any money, or are you kind of just redirecting the flows of books and resources?
AR: Yeah, I’m not getting paid for my labor, and neither is Jamie.
When books that we have scouted – that we bought at book sales, or we bought because we think are cool and wanted to stock – when those books sell, that money stays in the business, the two dollars for each of those sales stays in the business to replenish the book-buying fund. If we don’t keep any of the money from the sale of these books we’re just going to run out of books. But it’s specifically used only for buying books.
The labor question is an interesting one, because obviously people need to make a living wage in order to survive, most people. And it’s important to ensure people are making a living. At the same time, selling your labor puts you in a certain kind of relation to a business, and also to other people. If I were just trying to make my living off this, I would have to sell the books for more money. I would have to charge considerably more than what I pay to get the books in the first place. That puts you in a kind of relation that is, as a small business owner, pretty predatory actually: you’re just feeding off the goodwill of the community in order to survive. And I don’t want to be in that position.
I’m also in a position where my wife is a professor at UMass and we don’t have kids, we own our house, and I’m someone who has generational wealth – I don’t, like, have a trust fund or anything, but like many white middle-class Americans, college-educated, I don’t have any student loan debt; I’m really privileged to be in that position. So it’s actually not necessary for me to squeeze every single penny out of this just to survive.
I’m not working right now. Because of the pandemic, my hours at Roundabout [Books] were cut, then I quit. But I can go out and get a job. Jamie has two full-time jobs and is working constantly, so Jamie doesn’t need to make a living from this, and neither do I.
MR: That’s really helpful, and I really appreciate that, not just the explanation but the orientation. So thank you very much for breaking that down so thoroughly. Just to keep hopscotching around, to go back to your community partnerships: How did those come together, and are there different types of community relationships and interfaces you’d like to build? What are the dreams there?
AR: Uh, hah, what are the dreams? I don’t really know. That’s such a great question, because a lot has changed, actually, since we started.
I wanted to do something with these profits that I didn’t feel entitled to. Great Falls Books Through Bars made sense as our first partner, and I just emailed them and said “this is what we’re doing, we want to support you,” but that has already changed. They have this book wishlist of in-demand but rarely donated books for prisoners, and I realized it would actually be very easy for us to post that listing to our site. We just set this up this month, and people have bought 11 books to donate that they wouldn’t have had, and probably didn’t even know GFBTB wanted these books. As far I’m concerned, that’s been wildly successful – I think it’s amazing that we can donate those books, and there will be more.
So in terms of where these partnerships can go, it’s a totally open question. If an organization or group has an idea, or I get an idea from looking at what they do, then really anything is possible. Hannah, from Looky Here in Greenfield, reached out to us about this [Josef] Albers book and we just bought a bunch of them. That’s more of a focused-around-a-single-title sort of partnership. Touch the Sky I found out about through this food distro that I’m part of that’s been organized by Pioneer Valley Workers Center.
It’s kind of experimental, but it’s already changed quite a bit just in the few months we’ve been doing this, and I don’t know where it’s going to go, but it’s exciting. I’m still learning about local groups that are doing these kinds of projects that aren’t non-profits, that aren’t well-connected with city governments and getting grants and stuff, but are doing really essential work, and often on a totally volunteer basis. Like Great Falls Books Through Bars: they have operating costs, they have expenses, and it’s exciting to be in a position where we can help them meet those expenses.
MR: I notice you developing these different collections, and you’re talking about this cooperative model where customers help determine what’s in the shop, but it also seems like maybe there are some priorities you guys have there – for instance, the “Down With Amazon” section. Do you want to talk a little bit more about those, and what you’re trying to spotlight?
AR: I don’t know if I would call our different collections “priorities.” A lot just depends on books that we have and the books we can get, and of course a ton depends on the requests that we get.
On the front page, like the Amazon collection, that’s stuff that I picked out because I think it’s cool. But the point is less to make it a priority than to give people the experience of being in a bookstore, because something I miss is being able to walk into a store and just browse and come upon a display or something that I didn’t know that I wanted. To have that feel of it being curated, to some degree, I think is really nice, and is part of making it feel like it’s a storefront – as opposed to being just a search bar, where you just search for a book and it’s either there or it’s not. That’s the goal with this.
Jamie hasn’t done one of these collections yet, but I’ve been trying to get her to do one; she’s just very busy. But there’s potential for anyone to do it, anyone who has a specific interest or wants to curate a list – I think that it would be really cool to bring more people into the lists. Like I said, making it a cooperative thing, where people can participate without investing a ton of capital themselves and without like, doing this for a job, but they can still participate in crafting these collections.
MR: Cool. And yeah, that’s one of the things I think about a lot with Amazon, and beyond Amazon even – this is kind of outdated, but like iTunes, for instance – these huge retail platforms where you kind of get the sense that the people that made them that don’t care about books or music or whatever. There has to be a degree of specificity that can only be achieved if someone cares, you know? So I really appreciate that.
AR: Yeah, exactly! Also, on the technical end, a lot of these sites just auto-generate all of the listings. Book sites just get an ISBN and use Amazon’s API, or Amazon uses – I don’t know where Amazon gets their book data, maybe from the distributors, but it’s literally generated by an algorithm.
We do batch uploads, but it is still manual – every single listing that’s featured on that front page is a listing that I’ve manually edited and selected the tags for, and put into the different categories, and thought about. That’s part of it, on the technical end: just the principle of it being like a bookstore, and having that feel of the listing was created by somebody who is actually interested in the book, and not just auto-generated from Amazon’s API.
MR: Just to cap it off, what are the different ways that the community can support Massive Bookshop and vice versa, and what are the different contact points you want people to know about?
AR: Well, people can support the bookshop by using it, and that also supports these community organizations, so that’s the most obvious way to do it. It helps to make the business what it is by bringing books in; the books that are requested become part of our inventory.
The other way they can be a part of it is just by reaching out to us and telling us how they want to be a part of it. And we’re open to really anything; we’re serious, on the About Us page, where it says “If you have an idea about how we might grow, please contact us.” All they have to do is email us and we can start talking about it.
If there are community groups, mutual aid projects, that people are part of that need support, they should reach out to us as well and tell us how we can support them, and we can talk about that together. The principle that undergirds all of this is the cooperative principle. Anyone who can think of any way to cooperate with this, or through this, is great. We’re open to it, and also open to being creative – because we don’t know what we’re doing. [Laughs.]
An abridged version of this interview appeared in the January 7, 2021 edition of the Montague Reporter.