Diesel bookstore in Brentwood Country Mart joins the growing number of indie booksellers turning to crowdfunding and community support to stay afloat

By Bliss Bowen

Diesel co-owner John Evans is hoping a GoFundMe campaign and community support will see the Santa Monica bookstore through the COVID crisis
Photos by Kimberly Jaffe

Change and compromise have defined our lives this year in myriad ways, as we’ve armed ourselves against a stalker virus by wearing masks, physically distancing, transforming our homes into work and school stations, avoiding crowds, and meeting and shopping online. That last behavioral shift has gut-punched small businesses — particularly independent booksellers such as Diesel, a vital gathering ground for the Westside literary community since opening in 2008.

Diesel has traditionally benefited from brisk foot traffic in the Brentwood Country Mart at the edge of Santa Monica. But on Sept. 3, co-owners John Evans and Alison Reid launched a GoFundMe campaign to help the store (and another Diesel location in Del Mar, San Diego) stay afloat in a rising tide of debt.

“Foot traffic everywhere is so far down,” Evans said recently. “We stayed open in the sense of shipping and curbside pickup throughout the whole time [of the shutdown] as an essential service — which we were reassured every day was an essential service. Some people came only to the bookstore and never went to any other place whatsoever during the first three months of the COVID [shutdown], which is fascinating, whether it’s doctors coming from St. John’s in their scrubs, or whatever.

“Sales were down 70% to 80% through the spring,” continued Evans. “Our rent was exactly the same. So was our health care and staffing and all that stuff we were maintaining for everyone; those things are important, and there’s no time like COVID for recognizing the need for health care. Between March and September, it was between 55% and 80% down for sales. You can see what’s happening there.”

Diesel’s landlord and publishers with whom the store does business have extended payment terms, Evans said, “but they’re not abating anything. The debt keeps mounting, and it will just bury the store.”

Thus the attempt to plug their leaky financial boat with crowdfunding help. By late September, Diesel’s GoFundMe campaign had raised almost $135,000 of its $400,000 goal. Asked if there’s a make-or-break date by which Diesel needs to reach that goal to sustain itself, Evans said initial response was strong enough to extend their timeline. “We’re trying to make it into next year, trying to thread the needle and be able to pay the back stuff for the last five months so we can continue as sales increase,” he explained. “It’s the indebtedness that’s weighing down the boat. … We’ve already modified our buying intensely and returned a bunch of books; that decreased our indebtedness but we need to decrease it a lot more.”

In the meantime, the store remains open. Will there be another COVID surge? Will Congress provide more Paycheck Protection Program relief before the election? After? Will the U.S. Postal Service slow down deliveries? The American Booksellers Association is urging independent bookstores to adopt the motto “October is the new December” and encouraging shoppers to buy locally. But will that quantifiably improve sales numbers? No one knows the answers, or the implications, for anything.

COVID-19 is not solely to blame for the struggles of independent bookstores; despite promising growth in 2019, they were fighting against the riptides of corporatization and Amazon. According to the American Booksellers Association (bookweb.org), retail sales at US bookstores were down 7.6% in December 2019, and in February, ABA member stores reported a 2.7% decrease in sales. By July 2020, Publishers Weekly was reporting that Amazon, which reportedly commands 70% of online book sales, experienced a 48% uptick in online sales during 2020’s second quarter.

But as with so many other things in American life, COVID is forcing a reckoning about what we value, the ways in which we define and develop community, and how we support those things with action. And it is generating another threat likely to be graver for independent bookstores than corporate chains: the slowing down of printing and distribution processes just before the crucial holiday retail season.

“There’s a paper problem, there’s a printing problem, and there’s a distribution problem,” Evans observed. “All of those are going to become very big come the holidays. You can see now that places are encouraging people, [to do] holiday shopping early. Also, you don’t want to be in crowds, right? But because of all the problems, book publishers aren’t sure exactly how well certain books, especially those people look for as gifts, are going to do because of all the different conditions and restrictions independent bookstores across the country are under and whether or not there will be another wave of COVID. So they’re very conservative in their print runs. That means when something really sells, they have to reprint. But all the printing is slowed down, shut down, socially distanced — [in] China — there are so many different issues. Those books will not be as available.”

Who will get whatever copies become available? No one knows. Everything is in flux. Regardless of the outcome, Evans says publishers are sustaining lower risk and higher profits than independent booksellers.

“What’s happening structurally is some publishers are doing better than they were in the previous six months because people have time to read.

But that money is going to places that are not very sustaining for the community. So the danger is that, three to six months from now, when a third of independent book businesses may close — which is what’s predicted — people as they start to circulate will go, ‘OMG, what’s happened to the landscape?’ Because it’s all been destroyed not just by fire but by this COVID thing. They’ll be left with Amazon, which is … like fast food or ice cream. It’s exciting. It’s fast. But it’s bad for you.”

Bookstores are businesses, obviously, but they’re also a service. They’re in a unique position to reflect and define a community’s character. And in a year whipsawed by historic changes, readers continue to seek out booksellers for books relating to the coronavirus pandemic, the climate crisis, George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter movement, the shredding of constitutional norms and the relentless churn of political scandals.

“Watching the culture all the time, which is what you do as a bookseller, you see all the edges of the culture top and bottom and off to the sides, all the things that are moving toward the center,” Evans noted. “It’s fascinating to watch the culture morph. [Take] Black Lives Matter — it’s fascinating to see how many copies of books people still come in to buy like ‘White Fragility’ and ‘How to Be an Antiracist.’ It’s largely sensationalized in the news, but it’s a fascinating trend in the middle of COVID. It’s transformative.”

As mindful book lovers are aware, shopping is politics. “We always know that wherever we spend our dollar is a political statement. We choose the world we live in by how we spend our money,” Evans points out.

One obvious way to support independent bookstores now is to buy books — physical, hold-in-your-hand books, right there in the brick-and-mortar store. That option isn’t tenable for all consumers, but there are alternatives. Buy gift certificates (physical or digital), ebooks or audiobooks, whether it’s from Diesel, Eso Won Books in Leimert Park (which experienced a surge in orders this summer), Malik Books in Baldwin Hills (like Eso Won, one of LA’s few Black-owned bookstores), the Last Bookstore in Downtown LA (which has been hosting online book clubs and discussions), Larry Edmunds Bookshop in Hollywood (whose spring GoFundMe campaign kept the business operating) or Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena (which just announced the next few months’ sales numbers will decide its future and is currently accepting donations via its website).

“We are encouraging people to buy gift certificates, and to use the distribution possibilities of our website for shipping,” Evans said. “We can get things to people as fast as Amazon can. In March and April, Amazon wasn’t shipping books. We were. They decided it wasn’t an essential service. We think it is.”

The human scale of such service develops relationships with customers and other local businesses, and now proffers reciprocal benefits.

To Evans, it’s a kind of ecosystem: “What makes a bookstore is certainly not just Alison and I, nor is it just our booksellers. It’s the UPS driver. It’s the customers that come there who recommend books to me. It’s so civilizing, and communal, and humanizing.”

The delight or purpose of a bookstore is discovery — “browsing, recommendations, a kind of communal experience,” says Evans — while algorithms employed by online retailers only reflect your past choices and represent constriction.

“An independent bookseller shows you possibility and future and growth and expansion,” says Evans. “It shows you who you want to be, or who you don’t even know yet you want to be.”

To donate to Diesel’s GoFundMe campaign, go to https://tinyurl.com/dieselgofundme.

Visit Diesel at 225 26th St., Ste. 33, Santa Monica; call for details at (310) 576-9960 or go to dieselbookstore.com.