A group of former nonprofit workers got together a few years ago and decided to create a bookstore that could also be a community hub. The result of their efforts is the cooperatively run Book Suey, an occasional cooperative bookstore that launched in Hamtramck, Michigan (a two-mile-square city surrounded almost completely by Detroit) in November 2017. The founders’ goal is to provide “access to books, connection to local writers and publishers, and meaningful conversation in a safe and welcoming environment.”
A roster of member-owners that fluctuates but currently numbers eight, operates the bookstore. They staff the space on a rotating basis during twice-weekly business hours on Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings. Book Suey is located in Bank Suey, a corner building in downtown Hamtramck named in honor of its former incarnations (a bank in the 1920s, then more recently a Chinese takeout spot) that has become a community space.
Shareable spoke with co-founding member-owners Eric Anderson and Maria Montoya to learn more about the project’s origin and operations, as well as what the member-owners see for the future.
Shareable: How did the cooperative bookstore Book Suey get started?
Maria Montoya (MM): A group of us were working for an education nonprofit that was closing and were thinking about what to do next. Eric looked into what it would take to operate a bookstore. One day he came to work with the American Booksellers Association Guide to owning a bookstore. He got us all coffee, and we [realized] we could really start a cooperative bookstore.
At first, it was kind of like a funny thing we’d talk about while drinking rosé in the summer. But pretty soon other friends got involved. One of the first things was to find a space that would not need to be open full-time. We began a pop-up book shop in Bank Suey [that was open in conjunction with] mission-aligned community events.
What have been some of the biggest challenges operating the store?
MM: It’s challenging having such a diverse group of folks that you’re constantly making decisions with because we’re so different. Because we’re not open full-time or operating at full capacity, we’re still learning, going into our second year, what’s going to work for us as a group. Working as a cooperative group impacts our book choices, the speakers that we’re bringing in, all of the things that we decide to do, even being open on Wednesday and Saturday, the events that we attend and participate in, etc. But that’s what makes us special. We’re constantly thinking and challenging ourselves about: “Why do we do this? Why do we not have this?” I think that’s what also makes us different from a regular bookstore.
We are starting to have customers who would love to see us open more, love to see us attend events. But some of us have full-time jobs, some have very young kids. How do we continue to grow our hours and ability to be open when we’re not paid? Everybody’s working a certain number of shifts a month. The minute we decide to add another four-hour shift it’s a big commitment for everybody.
Since Michigan has no official cooperative business entity, how did you go about setting up the legal structure for the co-op?
Eric Anderson (EA): It is written into Michigan law [that] corporations [can] become co-ops. But it doesn’t really work for smaller businesses that just want to be a different type of co-op without having to deal with the complex corporate law.
So we reached out to the Center for Community-based Enterprise (C2BE). Ultimately we didn’t need their services to help us plan out of the business. But we did use their templates. They had just finished up a handbook for an LLC functioning as a worker-owned cooperative. [It had] articles of organization templates we drew from.
What are some of the requirements for Book Suey member-owners?
EA: Our requirements are partially based on international cooperative principles. We require a financial contribution, the contribution of time, and general positive energy and passion for literacy, books, and deeper thinking. Being open and honest with each other about our own time, our capacity, our interests, and what we can contribute reasonably are very important. We all have lots of things going on in our lives. A lot of us have day jobs.
We define work as voluntary participation in tasks that benefit the business. We have to do things that are vital to the business. Not everybody is like, “Oh yeah, I just love doing the dishes. I love taking out the trash.” So it is important for everybody to learn all the different aspects of the business. We’re not going to force everybody to do financial accounting. We’re not going to force everybody to do marketing. That’s the benefit of the co-op is that we have different interests and different skills and different strengths.
Although you’ve shown a profit, so far all of the labor is unpaid, and you’ve had a deep discount on rent. Is the vision for Book Suey to serve more as a community development organization or as a business that financially supports its member-owners?
EA: We see a bookstore more as a vehicle for deeper conversations and for promoting literacy. The business aspect of things — we just see that as a way of bringing people together and creating a space to come in and talk and relax and hopefully slow down and think deeper about things. So that’s what we are trying to do.
Traditionally in worker-owned cooperatives, the benefit they’ve defined is a financial benefit or living wage for worker-owners or worker members. At least right now, that’s not a priority for Book Suey. And that won’t be a priority unless we all of a sudden have five or six new member-owners join and shift the direction.
We are proud of the work that our team has done to identify some small grant opportunities to be able to pay writers who have come in and shared their work with people. That’s more important for us, to be able to financially contribute to the literary arts scene and writers and political artists.
What future goals or aspirations do you have for Book Suey?
MM: My hope for the future is that when you come to Hamtramck, this is a place where people can sit and have a conversation. They don’t have to necessarily make a purchase. If they’re looking for community, looking to go to a place where people are thinking and talking about events in the world and also books, [I hope] this is a place that comes to mind.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.