It has been an open secret for years, but Borders confirmed that the book industry was truly in trouble by filing for bankruptcy in 2011. A reputable chain of 399 physical stores vanished, demonstrating that name and reputation alone are not enough in this time of internet and mobile domination. While hardcover books are still outselling their digital equivalents, there is no doubt that a major shift is already underway. Printed book sales fell by £98m last year in the UK alone. The loss of shelf space and traditional discovery mechanisms is literally begging for new entrants to the market. New online initiatives such as Oyster and Amazon’s Kindle Owners’ Lending Library show that new — all you can eat — business models have the potential to revolutionize the book market, just as Spotify has in the music industry.
In the Netherlands, Polare followed a path similar to Borders. The bookstore chain filed for bankruptcy last February, just 8 months after its introduction in June 2013. The company was newly formed by merging two of the largest Dutch bookstore chains, both of which were in financial trouble. Polare briefly ran 20 high profile branches throughout the country. Yet, the new owner, Dutch investment company ProCures, seemingly never took the opportunity to innovate while building this new brand. Probably the main reason for Polare’s short-life. We, Tim Gouw and Maarten van den Heuvel, were stunned by this observation and decided to shake things up a bit.
After a long Sunday afternoon in a local coffeehouse, we launched polaregaatdoor.nl (in English: “Polare continues”). A single page website presented as if it was published by Polare itself, showing their latest and most innovative plans to save the chain from its seemingly inevitable bankruptcy. Offering the revolutionary concept of ‘Polare Experiences’, a yearly subscription service to help readers get the most out of stories. Soon after launching the site, it gained massive attention through social media. Our servers were overloaded within minutes. Everybody in the Dutch book scene was talking about this. While there was initially some confusion, the truth eventually came out that this was actually a hoax.
Nevertheless, there were still 20 bookstores out there about to close their doors and hundreds of employees fearing for their jobs. So we wondered: can we turn this hoax into something bigger? With the right dose of creativity, fresh ideas and innovation, there’s surely still a huge market for local brick and mortar bookstores. Together with a small group of highly respectable book retailers and industry experts, we decided that something had to be done in order to save these beautiful stores.
After all, hoaxing and lack of innovation aside, the general public’s feeling surrounding the bankruptcy news was one of sadness. We were talking about a literary legacy of Dutch book institutions, among which were bookstores in Amsterdam, The Hague and the world-famous Dominicanen in an 800-year old Maastricht church. Quite literally a piece of cultural history was on the verge of disappearing.
From that moment on, everything is moving rapidly and entrepreneurs are found for the majority of the bookstores. The website is transformed into a crowdfunding platform that presents the entrepreneurs’ individual visions to takeover and innovate their local bookstores. Funding had to be arranged for all bookstores to ensure our position at the curator’s negotiation table. A crowdfunding campaign is setup and locals and investors alike are invited to invest in their favorite ideas. Investments start at €100 with 25% interest over a 5 year period.
The campaign was incredibly successful, resulting in the biggest Dutch crowdfunding success to date, according to Mark Laagewaard, CEO of CrowdAboutNow. The first store achieved its funding goal of €75K within a stunning 48 hours, and this number doubled in less than a week. In the end, multiple stores were funded with a total of 250,000 euros by more than 1,000 investors in less than two weeks.
On the 7th of April, Polare-curator Kees van de Meent announced that 16 stores were sold to local entrepreneurs and are ready to continue their business within weeks. Nine of those were represented by us. This huge success shows that people share our belief that bookstores on Main Street still have the potential to offer a valuable experience that can exist beside the Amazons and Oysters of this world. We’ve got €250K to prove that.