11 July 2010

The politics of local

Ever since the news hit that Webster's Bookstore Café in downtown State College is facing eviction and quite possibly its end, a lot of people have been saying a lot of things. A number of news stories have surfaced, activist groups have formed, and the community in general has rallied around the store with petitions, protests, and letters of support.*

The response has been overwhelming to say the least. I've watched as a mix of emotions have played across the faces of owner Elaine Meder-Wilgus and her employees -- sadness, anger, fear, and in fleeting moments, hope. I've watched as the petitions have circulated and impassioned regulars have announced meetings. I've watched the comments pile up on the support pages on Facebook -- some of them touching, some of them despondent, and some of them hopelessly misinformed. If anything is clear in this situation, it's that there are people who want Webster's to survive -- and these supporters cut across racial, socioeconomic, occupational, political, and sexual lines. There are Borough Council members and university professors, locals and students all fighting to keep this space open -- each and every one of them a regular with a real understanding of just how important Webster's is to the community.

I am concerned, however, that these efforts -- as moving and well-intentioned as they are -- have the potential to make things worse. A recent commentary in VOICES of Central PA (made by Joel Solkoff, a regular who is equally invested in saving the business) accused some of the supporters of being unfocused. This same commentary blasted the store's owner for failing to meet with an attorney, for choosing to liquidate her books rather than fight to stay in the space, and for being a "rotten businesswoman" in general. With all due respect to the author, I feel a need to raise some counterpoints to his commentary. To begin with, let's add some context to the story:
  1. The landlord informed the owner that he wanted Webster's to vacate the store just before the July 4 holiday. The news wasn't made public until July 5th.
  2. The Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts began on July 7th and went through today (July 11th).
As anyone familiar with State College is aware, it is well nigh impossible to get anything of any importance done between the holiday and Arts Fest. Local businesses are swamped during the festivities -- and Webster's was no exception. I am a bit puzzled by Mr. Solkoff's criticism of Elaine for not having met with an attorney during this period. I have been at the store almost every day since the news broke, and I've seen the incredible amount of work Elaine has been doing. To suggest that she is somehow irresponsible or remiss is, frankly, to miss the mark.

In the onrush of support from the community, Elaine has had to make a number of difficult decisions in a short amount of time with limited access to legal and financial offices because of the annual festivities. Mr. Solkoff questions Elaine's business sense and her decision to liquidate her stock of books, yet it's a decision that makes perfect sense given the circumstances. With only 30 days to vacate (an order that is firm, according to the news outlets), financial difficulties, and a warehouse full of books across the street, liquidating the store's stock during Arts Fest was a wise decision.

In a sense, the timing of the landlord's order -- and Elaine's decision to sell off the books -- couldn't have been better: it allowed for a critical mass of supporters to come together and take advantage of the mass influx of people to State College to sign petitions, offer their reflections on the store, and make their dollars count. In the two years I've been frequenting Webster's, I have never seen lines of such epic proportions at the book counter as I have over the last five days. I wonder whether her decision to liquidate during Arts Fest has generated more cash for the store than it might have with business as usual -- hopefully some hard numbers will be released that can clarify this.

Mr. Solkoff's comments imply that Elaine has not made any efforts to contact an attorney. I'm not convinced this is actually the case. It is unclear whether Mr. Solkoff made an effort to contact Elaine directly to ask her whether she's contacted an attorney. With no quoted sources to verify his assertion, it comes across as an unfair -- and unsupported -- accusation. Elaine has repeatedly asked the store's supporters not to vilify the landlord; perhaps we should also be asking people not to vilify the business owner by failing to provide factual context for their statements.

Mr. Solkoff also lambastes Elaine for complying with the landlord's orders rather than immediately resisting them, and for considering finding an alternate space for the store. He says:
Joan of Arc did not say, when she was fighting to save France, “If this does not succeed, maybe we can relocate to the old Verizon building, across the street from the State College municipal building.” Elaine’s initial instinct to get rid of the books in her store and talk about an alternate location is a mistake. You do not give up a battle before you have lost it. Now, the bookstore reminds me of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem Old Ironsides, “The harpies of the shore shall pick / The eagle of the sea.”
It's a wonderful, poetic sentiment that works in theory. The problems with it are that:
  1. it assumes Elaine had the time necessary to look for legal assistance regarding what, again, seems to be a very firm decision from the landlord,
  2. it assumes that Elaine would want to keep the business in its current location in the wake of the landlord's orders (which, I would think, would put a strain on landlord-tenant relations, even if there were some magical solution that would allow the store to stay in its current location),
  3. it assumes that Elaine has the legal and financial resources to fight the decision in the first place, and
  4. it fails to take into account the time-sensitive nature of the circumstances -- 30 days notice to vacate, 11 of which were lost to the holiday and Arts Fest.
I doubt Joan of Arc was under such time pressure. Moreover, as I understand it, Joan of Arc had access to a hell of a lot more resources than Elaine does right now.

Mr. Solkoff and I agree on one point: there is some disorganization here, and that disorganization runs the risk of destroying Webster's' chances for survival. The resistance has a huge task before it: it must come up with an organized and carefully detailed plan of action. And it seems to be happening. People are fielding suggestions, researching financial options, and offering ideas about where to relocate and how to use the resources that are available. But if that doesn't come together in a single, clear plan that Elaine agrees to -- a plan that provides some measure of financial stability -- then we all risk losing Webster's.

I believe it is time to take a hard look at the business as it stands. Numbers have to be made available, and even more difficult decisions will have to be made based on them. For example, it might be worth consolidating the business back into a single downtown space (and if that's the case, we have to consider the needs not only of the 12 employees of the Allen Street store, but also those at Aaron Drive and at the warehouse). Any plan to move forward must be holistic: if the organizers want to save the downtown store, then they have to consider the interplay of finances and operations across locations.

I understand that Mr. Solkoff himself feels strongly in favor of keeping Webster's alive (and on Allen Street). As with the other community organizers, I feel his heart is in the right place. And I certainly commend him for raising the points he raises. I agree with him that more factual information needs to be available before a real plan can be put into place -- but I believe those facts should come directly from Elaine and her attorney. If nothing else is clear, there are a great many people dedicated to saving Webster's. I think there are a lot of great ideas out there, and while I am grateful to Mr. Solkoff for injecting a modicum of realism into the movement, I fear his curious mix of fact and poetry does more harm than good.

For what it's worth, here is my suggestion to everyone involved in the efforts to save the store (organizer and journalist alike): let's stop pointing fingers altogether. Let's roll up our sleeves, get our facts straight, look at the numbers, and make the hard decisions. And once those decisions are made, let's show up with dollars and bodies. Because god knows we need them.

* Here is a list of postings from the Centre Daily Times; there are not one, but two Facebook groups dedicated to the cause here and here; the Daily Collegian has posted a number of stories; VOICES of Central PA, which has a real stake in Webster's has been active from the beginning; even the local NPR station, WPSU, has aired a story about the situation.


  1. Thank you, Placemaker, for an excellent commentary. I, too, was concerned about the potential harm that could result from a number of comments made by Mr. Solkoff about Elaine and the landlord. It is important that when we communicate about Websters, we be as fair and accurate as possible. Rumors and accusations can do tremendous damage.

  2. Dear Placemaker,
    Thank you so much for your spot-on observations! Some of Mr. Solkoff's statements were less than helpful, and your reasoning really brings this to light!

  3. Thank you both for your kind words. I'll be attending the Friends of Webster's meeting tomorrow night -- it sounds like they're working on some good concrete plans for the future.