New London bookstore to become co-op

New London - The Monte Cristo Bookshop will be converted from a private enterprise to a nonprofit cooperative run by a nine-member board of directors, co-owner Christopher Jones said Monday.

Jones said he has come to an agreement with Michael Whitehouse, a 34-year-old marketing consultant from Groton, to serve as executive director of the Green Street bookshop, which Jones and his wife, Gina, co-founded in downtown two years ago. A meeting at 7 p.m. Aug. 11 at the bookstore will be held to explain the bookstore's new structure and seek people interested in becoming involved as volunteers.

Jones announced in June that the city's only downtown bookstore would have to change ownership or shut down as he and his wife pursued new career paths starting this month. The store was profitable but not lucrative enough to support a family, he said at the time.

"This is exciting," Jones said in a telephone interview Monday. "The way the store was put together and the way it was run has proven to me the community has what it takes to support something like this."

Whitehouse said he oversaw a similar conversion of his first business, Phoenix Games, to a nonprofit called Worlds Apart Games that is still run as a collective in the Amherst, Mass., area. As Whitehouse described it, he opened the game store fresh out of college but, after five years in business, he made only a pittance, despite creating a "vibrant community" of gamers.

So he called a meeting, explaining the problem to loyal clientele, who decided to keep the store open as a nonprofit cooperative with unpaid volunteers doing much of the work. The store remains open today, six years after its conversion, and its website claims about 2,000 members.

"It's gratifying to me that it keeps going," Whitehouse said.

Whitehouse, who moved to southeastern Connecticut in March when his wife Amy started a new job here in property management, said he saw a similar community spirit in New London. At first interested in buying the independent bookshop, he said he realized when he examined the store's financials that the only way the business could work was by running it as a nonprofit cooperative.

A new father and newly transplanted, he decided that running a bookshop would allow him to spend time with his baby while showcasing his marketing and consulting abilities, he said. He stands ready to put up to 40 hours a week into the enterprise initially, he said, while hoping to be able to gradually reduce his hours as more volunteers step forward.

The Joneses are donating the inventory of the bookshop to the nonprofit, and the couple plan to continue helping out for at least a few months as the new ownership model takes root. A grand reopening event is planned Aug. 23-24 as the transition is completed.

Whitehouse said he sees no need for a large capital infusion since the bookstore is already profitable, but he expected to hold a weekend book sale after the transition to provide an initial cushion for the new organization. Jones likened the early stages of the cooperative to the volunteer organization first assembled by the successful Fiddleheads Food Co-op in the former California Fruit building on Broad Street.

"Overall store direction and nominations of board members will be set by general membership through periodic membership meetings," according to a press release.

Whitehouse said he has yet to finalize the legalities of the transition to a cooperative, but believes the bookshop could be run as a "non tax-exempt nonprofit" that would pay sales and property taxes like a regular business. Profits could be plowed into extra marketing, event costs, writers workshops or even scholarships, he said.

Nonprofit bookstores are unusual, but not unheard of around the country, according to Jones and Whitehouse. One such business, Kepler's Books in Menlo Park, Calif., has been extremely successful and drawn national attention, Jones said.

"I'm looking forward to it," said Jones, who is returning to school to pursue a computer science degree. "More chefs in the kitchen will ease the burden."

l.howard@theday.com

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