Struggling independent bookstore chain asks New York officials for help

Book Culture has been in business in New York City for 22 years. But like many independent book stores before it, Book Culture's days could be numbered.

"We need help," owner Chris Doeblin said. "And I think we're worth it."

Doeblin said that rising labor costs and rent for his four locations (three in Manhattan, one in Queens) have led the small chain to the brink of financial disaster. Now he wants the city and state to throw out a lifeline.

"The best solution, from my point of view, is that the city underwrites or the state underwrites a loan for us to allows us to get the working capital we need to keep going," he said.

Doeblin has made staffing and other cuts but estimates he still needs a loan of $1 million to stay in business. He said banks and traditional lenders have been reluctant to lend to him because of his distressed balance sheet.

In an open letter posted on Facebook Monday (which a day later had been shared hundreds of times), Doeblin called on Mayor Bill de Blasio, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and other elected officials to step up.

"Book Culture does a lot more for our communities than act as an economic engine. Book Culture is an organization that can take an empty storefront and spin it into a wonderful community asset that transforms a neighborhood," Doeblin wrote. "That takes vision, creativity, courage and entrepreneurial talent. This is a set of qualities that a city, any city or community, ought to reward and empower."

He also noted, "The capital pools that allow projects like Amazon's near entree into New York or building projects like Hudson Yards aren't available for small businesses like ours."

Doeblin said he is speaking for all small businesses is the letter.

"Part of my hope and part of my strategy is that we can, by pointing out the obvious, make it necessary benefit for our local government to act on behalf of small businesses," he said.

Longtime Book Culture customers hope elected officials answer the call for help.

"He's absolutely right—they're the ones who need the help because they are not able to compete with Amazon," said Mamadou Diouf, a customer for a decade. "And it's something which is a kind of social investment."

Doeblin said he is exploring all options, including looking for potential buyers. But at this point he said that if he doesn't get significant assistance he will likely have to close by the end of the year.

FOX 5 NY reached out to the mayor, governor, and City Council speaker for responses.

"Every worker in New York City deserves to be paid fairly for their work, but companies like Book Culture shouldn't be driven out of business for doing so," Will Baskin-Gerwitz, a spokesperson for the mayor, said in a statement. "The City has several programs that can keep small businesses thriving, and we hope businesses across the city take advantage of them."

In a statement to FOX 5 NY, a spokesperson for Empire State Development said that his agency, which promotes the state's economic growth, works to support many types of businesses, "from start-ups and mom-and-pop shops to major employers."

"Last year, we provided more than $188 million in loans to small businesses and served more than 1,150 small business owners at our Entrepreneurial Assistance Centers," ESD spokesperson Jack Sterne said in the statement. "We encourage Book Culture to contact ESD to discuss what support, if any, the company may be eligible for."

The office of the City Council speaker has not yet responded.