Newtonville Books on Walnut Street in Newton is giving its customers an ultimatum - let us know you want us in town, or the store will close in 2012.
The store's lease expires next March, and owner Jaime Clarke says the store is seeking 500 patrons to become "members" with a financial pledge. If it doesn't hit its goal by the time the lease is up, the lease won't be renewed.
"We're feeling out whether the community values us," said Clarke, who has owned the store since 2007 with his wife, Mary Cotton. "Members of our bookstore can see themselves as patrons of the literary arts."
Memberships cost $50 for an individual and $75 for a family, and confer a number of benefits.
"There's a 20 percent discount on all our merchandise and 30 percent off all audiobooks, as well as the option to rent for free any of the movies we carry, all of which are based on books," Clarke said. "Members also get a free tote bag, and we're going to cook up a number of other free promotions."
Clarke said the membership program isn't new, but the drive to reach 500 members by next year was spurred in part by Borders declaring bankruptcy earlier this year.
"That spooked everyone. Many customers would come in and ask us how we were doing," Clarke said. "If independent bookstores are going to survive a future with an uncertain economy, online retailers, and e-books, we're going to have to get creative."
Clarke said the membership drive allows him to have a conversation with his customers about what an independent bookstore brings to the community.
"An independent bookstore is more than just a place to get cheap books," Clarke said. "We provide an enormous amount of literary programming to the community, with our readers' series, Grub Street workshops, and newsletter. We underwrite that programming with our book sales."
Clarke said that the bookstore's programming would remain free to all, and not be restricted to members.
"We need to know if what we provide is of consequence to the neighborhood," Clarke said. "There's no hard feelings if it's not, but we don't want to renew the lease for another five or 10 years if we're just seen as a place to get cheap books."
So far, Clarke said, the drive is going well. A weekly count on the bookstore's website shows the number of members already pledged at 266 - over half the goal.
"The first few months, it's going to be our passionate regulars, friends and family," Clarke said. "After that we have to see if the rest of the community wants to do it."
Clarke said he believed the store would reach the membership target in time.
"I really think there's a place for us in Newton because we're such a literary culture," Clarke said. "We hope this becomes a template of something other independent bookstores in other places can do to survive."
Sarah Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.