By Alex Israel
Contrary to signage and social media posts, Book Culture on Columbus is not in need of financial assistance from the neighborhood, according to co-owner John R. MacArthur.
MacArthur, who is perhaps more well-known for his role as the president and publisher of Harper’s Magazine, has been a co-owner of Book Culture on Columbus alongside founder Chris Doeblin since it was registered as a limited liability company in 2014. Beyond the Upper West Side shop (located at 450 Columbus Avenue, between 81st and 82nd Streets), Book Culture has three additional locations—two in Morningside Heights and one in Long Island City—that operate under a separate business entity, Book Culture Incorporated.
Doeblin sparked a community-wide conversation earlier this year by requesting assistance to support the independent business. In June, he first shared a public letter addressing city and state leaders, warning the business was “in danger of closing soon”; in July, he turned to the community looking for $750,000 in funding because “no city or state action [was] likely to occur soon, or at all”; in August, he told WSR he had raised $200,000 from the community, but that publishers were shrinking their lines of credit because of “their exposure to risk.”
MacArthur believes Doeblin is misleading patrons and potential lenders by using the Columbus store to raise money for a separate business, and he wants to ensure that the public is aware of where lenders are sending their cash. “Nobody seems to know that these are two separate companies,” said MacArthur during a phone interview with WSR. “And that he’s raising money on the false premise that Book Culture on Columbus is on the verge of failure when it’s not. I won’t permit it to go bankrupt.”
While the companies may technically be separate entities, Doeblin doesn’t see it that way. “The LLC started out of an opportunity to grow and a vision that my wife and I created for Book Culture,” wrote Doeblin in an email to WSR. “Book Culture Inc. is the parent company and the administrator of the LLC. All of the buying and bookkeeping, strategy, marketing etc. are provided by the parent corporation.”
“From the outset, no books would have been shipped to our LLC if our parent co and I did not back those accounts,” he wrote.
Signage posted at Book Culture on Columbus reads “Book Culture Needs Your Help!”, directing the community to “invest in a business that gives back to the community” by “becom[ing] a community lender.” The Book Culture website indicates $304,500 has been raised by 57 sponsors—41% of the way to their goal. The site asks for “a minimum loan amount of $5,000,” proposing that Book Culture will repay the loan over time with 4% interest. Neither the website nor the signage make any distinction about the separate business entities.
“I want to halt the deceptive fundraising,” said MacArthur, who has requested that Doeblin remove the signage from the Columbus storefront and update the website language to distinguish the businesses. “I don’t want ordinary, neighborhood people lending money to [Doeblin] on a false premise. In effect, they’re lending money to me, and I’m not asking for it—I don’t want it!”
Doeblin, however, sees the messaging as part of a larger issue. As a store owner, he feels a responsibility “to try and better our community” by creating awareness about the plight of independent businesses in the city. “Our LLC is getting books and merchandise and support from the Community Lender program. It is designed to help all the Book Culture stores,” wrote Doeblin, defending his communications about the program. “Because we are using the Community Lender program to support all of the stores and because this is a citywide issue I think it is important that the signage remains.”
Book Culture Inc., which was registered with New York’s Department of State in 2007 according to the Division of Corporations Entity Information database, may be in need of some financial assistance, MacArthur said. But Book Culture on Columbus was until recently doing just fine—and MacArthur is willing to contribute the funds himself to get it back to where it was.
While he was unable to provide any specifics about previous or current finances of the business, MacArthur ensured WSR that in its first few years Book Culture on Columbus operated as a relatively successful business—even turning a “tiny profit” in its third year. “Unquestionably sales have gone way down from where we were five or six months ago when we were still booming,” he went on, blaming Doeblin for a depletion in the store’s stock of books.
Doeblin affirmed the Columbus store’s initial profitability—attributing it to the “creative vision” of Book Culture Inc.—as well as its recent downturn—attributing it to the city’s hike in minimum wages. “Like all of the stores we have opened so far, the first 4 years there enjoyed very rapid growth and profitability,” he wrote. “The last year and half showed us the plateau in growth and then the sharp rise in minimum wages which pushed up expenses enormously causing losses and diminishing credit lines.”
While Doeblin said layoffs, job losses, and decline in sales are currently prevalent across all his stores, he confirmed the past success of the LLC in relation to the other locations. “We had double-digit growth for almost 4 years running at the Columbus store. By comparison there was basically no growth at our parent company’s stores during that time,” he wrote.
Per the original ownership agreement, Doeblin owns 45.96 percent of the LLC, MacArthur owns 40 percent, and Annie Hedrick (formerly the book buyer for the store, who declined to comment for this story) owns the remaining 14.04 percent.
We asked MacArthur if the store’s prior profitability is why he is willing to invest more into it.
“This is my neighborhood,” he said, describing his initial enthusiasm and investment in getting the LLC up and running on the Upper West Side in 2014. (Doeblin still values this contribution; “Mr. MacArthur’s generous financial investment was important to our opening the store on Columbus Ave,” he writes. “I remain very respectful and appreciative of that.”)
“When I started out, I didn’t want to run a bookstore. I just wanted there to be a bookstore in my neighborhood,” said MacArthur. “Now I’m trying to keep the thing going and run it properly.”
Slightly under five years after opening, MacArthur said he offered to buy Doeblin and Hedrick out of their shares of the business, and later offered to loan Doeblin the funds needed to get through the summer. They did not reach an agreement in either situation, and Doeblin moved forward with the community fundraising concept.
Doeblin attributed his rejections of MacArthur’s offers to concerns about their fairness. “I have approached him for assistance or to have him buy our share of the company but he hasn’t made a fair offer,” he wrote. “We are extremely vulnerable—but we are not going to be part of forfeiting our personal legacy, joy and what was our dream and our vision and enterprise, for next to nothing. And we aren’t going to simply abide a very wealthy family taking control of the assets of a family that lives paycheck to paycheck.”
Doeblin also feels he has put too much into the business to allow someone else to take full control. “[MacArthur] did offer to lend money but only on the condition that he take control of the store and that none of the money be used to support the other stores,” he wrote. “We built something that is an anchor and a joy to its community and we built it with a different kind of investment—the investment of our own selves. Something that so often gets lost when considering what something is worth.”
MacArthur takes offense to Doeblin’s characterizations about wealth and effort. “I’m a little bit offended, because Harper’s and I personally have put a huge amount of work into this store,” he said, listing off a series of high-profile characters from his network who he and the Harper’s team had scheduled to appear at the store.
Doeblin still plans to push forward with the community fundraising, and is looking optimistically toward the future. He says he has asked MacArthur to consider lending again, but was met with no response. “A bookstore is a good thing, just about everywhere. All the Book Culture stores are deeply meaningful and valuable to the communities they serve and we will do everything we can to keep them open.”
Despite his disagreement with Doeblin’s approach to fundraising, MacArthur says he is still doing what he can to support the store. He says he will continue to coordinate ‘Harper’s Presents’ talks and seminars, pointing to an event featuring Harper’s contributing editor Scott Horton and author Sidney Blumenthal hosted at the Columbus store as recently as last week.
MacArthur still hopes to get Book Culture on Columbus back on track towards success—and stocked shelves. “If we work out our differences and I can get control of the store, I make this promise to the neighborhood and everybody: I will pay off the debt and I will get the store back up and running the way it should be.”
Until then, his message to the community? “Lender beware.”