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The Impended Closing of Webster’s is a Disability Issue, Not a Forthcoming Video Game

          Since the Fourth of July weekend massacre, I cannot go into Webster’s Cafe and Bookstore. On Thursday, I saw Cary, bracing herself in the doorway at Irving’s, weeping, her blonde hair contrasting a face so red it reminded me of a tomato. Her pain seemed to seep out every pore. “I have been selling books for nearly 14 years. I do not know what else to do.”

 I have been buying books from Cary, Anne, Robbie, Elaine, and the new guys at Webster’s where I ate my breakfast--7 AM weekdays; 8 weekends--(and other nutritious meals besides). For the past two years, ever since I was discharged from the hospital for nearly dying from diabetes, I have been a regular. As long as my social security check held out, each month I ate reading the poetry books and buying them as well as books on diabetes, art, history, and who did what to whom and why.

To help prepare for elections (certainly a patriotic act), proprietor Elaine Meder-Wilgus provided audiences in the 90 resident Addison Court (where I live with the elderly and disabled) with coffee and tasty snacks—helping in voter registration and absentee ballot drives and boosting attendance (food is a great audience draw for) candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives, legislative assembly, mayor, members of the State College Borough Council, and appreciation for the Alpha Fire Company.

For me Elaine has been an iconic figure, an earth mother guiding and bestowing energy and support for my column on disabilities and the elderly in Voices of Central Pennsylvania, for creating a space where I can take my children, for serving as a mail drop so my editors at Voices could give me proofs, and for creating an environment for a wide-range of progressive causes. When I asked Elaine whether she would provide food for Republicans, she said, “Of course.” Last Labor Day weekend I saw our Representative Glen Thompson (R PA) arrive early for an early morning breakfast with the Addison Court residents, drinking Webster’s regular coffee appreciatively, coffee which arrived just as early as he did.

The fact that Elaine is a rotten businesswoman is no big surprise. The number of things I am rotten at is considerable. So, Elaine’s magic does not extend to money. So what. Her magic extends to such a large part of my life, that she is entitled to a little forgiveness, including forgiveness for failing to fight in a focused way.

In the first of many meetings (transcripts of which are available on the web) she asked for help. She asked us to write 500 word essays on what Webster’s means to me. Her helpers have circulated petitions in hard copy and online. Special sections of Facebook are now dedicated to the impending demise. Elaine has recorded a lengthy You Tube video. A music concert is in the works. Between emails of people requesting their names be spelled correctly on online transcripts, I expect to see now, any day, the Webster’s going out of business movie followed by the Webster’s going out of business video game.

I do not mean to suggest that the talented and energetic supporters of Webster’s are unfocused in their efforts, unable to focus on reality and actually save Webster’s in its current location. I am saying outright, brothers and sisters, you are unfocused. The following is what needs to be done:<?xml:namespace prefix = o />

1.      Understand that the reason Webster’s is in danger of closing is because Elaine has failed to pay the landlord. Her current due bill is for $40,000.

2.      Reportedly, Webster’s landlord is Scott Kresge, who has power of attorney for his elderly mother who is the actual owner.

3.      According to Elaine, when she offered to pay the landlord the $40,000 owed, he refused and said he had another tenant.

4.      Elaine does not have a lease and she has a history of late payments and the landlord gave her notice to leave the premises within 30 days and did so during the July 4th weekend when she did not have time to consult her attorney.

5.      To my knowledge (based on today’s You Tube video) Elaine still has not consulted with an attorney on whether the 30 day vacation request is valid or whether she has additional time. Answers would be useful. To all you lawyers out there, is there not one of you, en route to the concert, who can clarify what rights Elaine has? (Maybe I missed the answer and should be confined to the cyberspace transcripts.)

6.      Joan of Arc did not say, when she was fighting to save France, “If this does not succeed, maybe we can relocate to the old Verizon building, across the street from the State College municipal building.” Elaine’s initial instinct to get rid of the books in her store and talk about an alternate location is a mistake. You do not give up a battle before you have lost it. Now, the bookstore reminds me of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem Old Ironsides, “The harpies of the shore shall pick / The eagle of the sea.”

7.      Clearly, the solution to the problem is to make an arrangement with the landlord. Carol Gold suggested creating a Foundation based on the concept that Webster’s serves as a church for those of us who attend regularly. Carol said that Elaine would be free to spend the funds any way she pleases. That would be a mistake. In the current situation Elaine herself has stated that she cannot be trusted to spend money wisely. The Foundation, or some other financial contrivance, could serve as a guarantor that from now on Webster’s will be paying its rent on time because the Foundation has enough money to do so, and is required to make timely payments to the landlord.

8.      If the landlord refuses to accept such an arrangement, then pressure should be brought to bear.

9.      The first thing the State College Borough Council should do on Monday, after hearing impassioned rhetoric, is to pass a sense of the State College Borough Resolution stating that Webster’s Bookstore and Café at 128 S. Allen Street is a Borough resource, the last real bookstore in State College, and that it should not be allowed to fail.

10.  Get the Council, which we helped elect, to do some work to keep Webster’s at its current location. If Webster’s goes, oh town fathers and mothers, so goes the town. The danger of State College becoming a one street town, viz. a long bar going up and down College Street, is considerable. Revenue to keep and maintain State College is hard to come by. Penn State is draining revenue when it constructs or takes over property in the jurisdiction and pays compensation that is lower than property taxes. The Commonwealth budget, on which State College has depended in the past, cannot be relied upon. Webster’s will be replaced by what? Another store that sells State College athletic clothing. Another franchise. Another indication that incipience will be followed by decay. The Council cannot allow Webster’s to disappear at its current location on Allen Street. Words like “eminent domain” come to mind. Do they apply? If you send a delegation to the landlord and you can assure the landlord of not only the back rent but also future rent on a timely basis, oh mayor and council leaders, and the delegation fails, are there not enough smart attorneys among you who can figure out how to take jurisdiction of the premises and declare it a landmark? Sometimes political men and women of good will have to do what needs to be done. It would be a sin to deprive the disabled and elderly downtown residents of the right to buy a book.

11.  Let us not forget the 12 employees of Webster’s. These are difficult economic times. I know most of Elaine’s employees, and right now they are hurting financially as well. Giving the employees some of the money being raised and giving it to them now will go a long way to making sure that they will be around when the store returns to normal. I still want a copy of Revolt of the Angels in French, and they are my only hope.

12.  Customers, bring back the books you obtained at half price. The bookstore looks deserted without them.

13.  Figure out, you money moguls out there, how to create a financial apparatus which will make it possible for Elaine to do what she does best, viz. work magic and not worry about filthy lucre.

--Joel Solkoff.

[Joel Solkoff is a monthly columnist for Voices of Central Pennsylvania on disability and elderly issues http://www.disabilitiesjoelsolkoffblogs.blogspot.com/ Joel can be reached at jsolkoff@gmail.com Joel remembers when, in 1948, Harry Truman nationalized the coal mines during a coal strike, and Army troops dug coal. Maybe he was wrong but Truman was a gutsy guy. Maybe there is, among our town leaders, the willingness to follow Truman’s example of gutsiness on a local basis.]

 

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Wow Joel, this is the best writing I've seen on the situation

Damn, man, you have provided the critical success information that was needed in order to really understand what is happening. Thank you. I can imagine you catching some flack for this, but this was what needed to be understood.

I knew, based on my business experience, that something much like what you have just stated MUST be the backstory.

This whole situation is complex, and it will get much more complex before then next few months are past.

Kudos, brother.

Take a step back

I find it humorous that you have made an effort to push people to a productive manner of saving a place that ultimately could be better. I have been to Webster's approximately 5 times in the last decade. The building is small cramped and in desperate need of renovation. I agree with you that to lose Webster's downtown location would be a painful loss to the community. However, relocating to a newer and potentially larger building cannot possibly be construed as bad. Many of you have sought to vilify the landlord’s decision to evict them for reasons that are beyond me. You have stated that economically times are tough, that the many employees of Webster’s aren't doing so well themselves. Elaine owes Mr. Kresge $40,000; how much rent is that? Are not the Kresge's entitled to be able to pay their property taxes? Are they not simply making the best choice for them? There is no good or bad here, there is simply an action with an equal, albeit predictable, reaction. She is lucky she is not being sued. On the argument that the 30 days may not be legal there is no lease arguing for that and, being that he has power of attorney over the property, he most likely consulted with his attorney over the issue. I would be greatly opposed to the idea of any level of government stepping in to perform a bailout, which is essentially what this boils down too. Elaine has a poor business sense, you've already said it.

To allow her to continue at her current location will not teach anyone anything. You're all fan of the liberal arts, right? Pick up a history book and apply its lessons. I would highly encourage you to read a history of England’s Parliament and how and why it came to be as it is today (13th century is a good starting place). What Elaine needs is an executive staff, one that requires multiple signatures before money goes anywhere. As a former president of a student group on campus, I couldn’t move more than $5 without a signature from two other people. These principles are not hard to come by.

On a secondary note regarding the involvement of Government; what kind of precedent would be instituted? The legacy left by this would be guaranteed to haunt locals in the future, undoubtedly inflicted by the university which many locals look on with disdain. Law is a combination of good ideas, bad ideas, and precedent and the repercussions are rarely predicted. A decision has been handed against you, take a step back and look at it. How many times have people gone in without analyzing a situation from both ends. This fight will only drain time and resources that could be viably spent finding a future home. Karma is a funny thing, you may only see the low point but I see no reason why a better future can’t be found if you are willing to work toward it.

Stop looking at this as a defeat and call it a tactical retreat. You may have lost the battle but you haven't lost your brains.

Oh yeah, how is that for a 500 word essay?

 
 

I've been saying similar things

I've been saying similar things in the various places I am posting, emphasizing that it's a privately owned business as it currently stands, and that Elaine and the owners-of-record are legally responsible and the ones who have to make the hard decisions.

And that unless the problems with their current business model can be corrected, ultimately the wisest decision for them as private business owners could be to close it down and take the losses.

The question then becomes, can (and should) something equivalent too or better than websters as a community watering hole get created? If the community now knows that it really likes having a cafe/bookstore as a meeting place, can one be made that doesn't lose money?

I was glad to have Joel put a number on the amount of money involved. We can't know if it's an accurate number, but it sounds believeable.

I don't actually think Joel's proposed political solutions can work, but I really liked this:

"I do not mean to suggest that the talented and energetic supporters of Webster’s are unfocused in their efforts, unable to focus on reality and actually save Webster’s in its current location. I am saying outright, brothers and sisters, you are unfocused."

Joel, where did you come up with this figure?

Inquiring minds want to know, whence comes the 40K number, and what's the plus/minus on it?

The $40,000 figure

Bill

On Monday July 5th at about 2 PM, I went into Webster's, purchased some coffee and a cookie (not too high in sugar), found out that Anne Triolo, Elaine's friend, the person who named Webster's, my friend, and a book selling person was in. She promptly told me that Elaine owed $40,000 in back rent and that Elaine had received an eviction notice.

I talked to Elaine directly, asked whether I could help in trying to raise the money. Elaine confirmed that the sum was $40,000, that she already had access to the money, but the landlord refused because he had another tenant. I then went to the Corner Room, where John Harris, the philosopher, who is also a neighbor and friend, was having his afternoon coffee. He was joined by Art Goldschmidt, former president of Voices and also a friend, and he heard me tell the bad news about Webster's. He and John were eager to talk to Elaine directly, left, and returned. It is my impression that Elaine confirmed to Art and John the $40,000 figure.

You could always ask Elaine. She has been unusually forthcoming.

Joel

That sounds likely enough to be accurate then

"$40,000 in back rent". That's beginning to be real money. It's anecdotal evidence, and as I am wont to say, "people always lie about sex, money, and power", so it's almost certainly not completely accurate, but, I bet it's "close enough for government work".

It's extremely valuable to have at least one reference number, thank you for being bold enough or foolhardy enough to offer it.

As someone who has presided over failing businesses, I empathize a lot with Elaine and the owners-of-record, and I figure that we all don't have a lot of right to exhort her to do anything, because she and they are the ones who will pay the ultimate prices and deal with the lawsuits and creditors and consequences.

Fingers crossed that this all turns out better than we should realistically hope. And this is the time the real work starts, now that the initial excitement is beginning to ebb.

Here's a blog post that responds to this post

http://cafewindow.blogspot.com/

Mr. Solkoff and I agree on one point: there is some disorganization here, and that disorganization runs the risk of destroying Webster's' chances for survival. The resistance has a huge task before it: it must come up with an organized and carefully detailed plan of action. And it seems to be happening. People are fielding suggestions, researching financial options, and offering ideas about where to relocate and how to use the resources that are available. But if that doesn't come together in a single, clear plan that Elaine agrees to -- a plan that provides some measure of financial stability -- then we all risk losing Webster's.

I believe it is time to take a hard look at the business as it stands. Numbers have to be made available, and even more difficult decisions will have to be made based on them. For example, it might be worth consolidating the business back into a single downtown space (and if that's the case, we have to consider the needs not only of the 12 employees of the Allen Street store, but also those at Aaron Drive and at the warehouse). Any plan to move forward must be holistic: if the organizers want to save the downtown store, then they have to consider the interplay of finances and operations across locations.

I understand that Mr. Solkoff himself feels strongly in favor of keeping Webster's alive (and on Allen Street). As with the other community organizers, I feel his heart is in the right place. And I certainly commend him for raising the points he raises. I agree with him that more factual information needs to be available before a real plan can be put into place -- but I believe those facts should come directly from Elaine and her attorney. If nothing else is clear, there are a great many people dedicating to saving Webster's.

We Need A Business Professional

We need a business professional to draft a viable business plan.  We all love Websters, but we need someone educated and experienced in helping businesses thrive to find a way to organize the many variables at work here.  I don't know if we pay someone, or if someone comes forward to volunteer, but an expert would do (IMHO) a better job than a large group of loving and sincere and caring people without that experience.

 

We provide the support, but we need an expert to draw up the plan.

Very true, this situation calls for advanced skills

Yes, the advanced skills of hardcore business professionals are needed in a situation like this. Altho I suspect that they would be obligated to give us advice that we would rather not hear, such as, bankruptcy is an honorable way to dissolve a failing business.

But, we don't have the legal right to do much of anything about the Webster's incorporation's problem as things stand right now. As outsiders, we could pay biz pros to analyze the Websters business model as well as they could without being able to see the books, and tell us what you'd have to do to run a business like that successfully. And that would sure be interesting to learn.

Besides, I don't think there's any reason to think that Elaines not a good businessperson, or that Websters B.C. Inc isn't a well run incorporation. Businesses fail, and it's not always because they were badly run. Each business has a unique history and set of forces at work within it, and when circumstances change, and the economy changes, a system that once worked sometimes just can't work.

So I expect she has her own team of business professionals advising her already,

"40k in back rent", if true, is actually an impressive accomplishment. It means that despite what must have been a catastrophic change in cash flow, the business kept running, the employees were paid and managed, and the growing debt contained (somewhat) while they negotiated for a hail mary loan.

Business Professional

I agree 100% that this is  (obviously) Elaine's business, and she is the only one with the right to make choices for her business.  I was merely suggesting that, if such a professional is not already involved, it would be wise to bring someone in for exactly the reasons suggested.  Times have changed, and a viable business model 10 years ago may not work now.  An expert might be able to put into play even small changes that would make Websters a more viable business model in 2010. 

Advice ≠ Support

It seems that people are so seduced by Joel's "facts", especially the impressive five-digit dollar amount, that no one has bothered to consider any of the other aspects of his article. 

Bill was so enthralled by Joel's tidbits that he deemed it the best writing he'd seen on the issue. Never mind the absolutely unnecessary anecdotes that Joel distastefully executes in order to paint a picture of this issue, or the utter lack of continuity between his own suggestions and his actual article. Webster's supporters need to become more focused? Well, for starters they can consider disentangling their own desire to talk about themselves and stick to what is important.

"The fact that Elaine is a rotten businesswoman is no big surprise. The number of things I am rotten at is considerable." 

Don't worry folks! We are all torn about Webster's impending closing, but in light of Joel's ineptitudes we can easily accuse Elaine of whatever we like, as long as we chastise ourselves in the process. Joel continues to show us how his assumptions of Elaine are compensated by his egoism: "Her magic extends to such a large part of my life, that she is entitled to a little forgiveness". I hadn't realized that when Joel wanted us Webster's supporters to get focused, he literally meant: "Focus on me!"

The fact is, Bill's later post is correct. There is no reason to berate Elaine's skills as a business owner. Brendan's comparison of Elaine's business (which includes two cafes, catering gigs, a used bookstore, and online book sales) to the duties of being a "president of a student group on campus" is ridiculous and shameful. Never mind the disparities between holding a position in an organization supported by Penn State's cushy revenue to that of running your own small business, Brendan has extensive experience with the economic realities of Webster's from his five visits there over the past decade. Brendan is limited to biyearly visits to Webster's because of the enormous time constraints that come with trying to make current events analogous to history of England's Parliament. 

Its astounding that Joel can list all the things Elaine has done for him, immediately speak of her crassly, and then continue to try and show Webster's value as a location of goodwill and community, all the while neglecting to reflect the ethos that has earned Webster's its place in so many hearts. Webster's isn't about securing some desired book in your own downtown area, its about providing a space where people can invest time in meaningful activities with other thoughtful people while being responsible to the community and the environment. The people who are participating in the petitions, essays, and other forms of support are not unfocused, they are simply reminding others of the value Webster's has for our community. None of them expect these acts to whisk our favorite cafe away from danger. They understand that the financial issues of Webster's can only be handled by those in charge, and have resigned from giving terrible advice to instead showing heartfelt support. 

Let Elaine and those she deems qualified figure out what is best for Webster's financially. The public at large has gained nothing from speculating about actual figures, or from sensationalizing what has been for some people actual turmoil and struggle. 

 

Well, let me be specific about what impressed me.

"Bill was so enthralled by Joel's tidbits that he deemed it the best writing he'd seen on the issue."

Here's what impressed me - Joel had the guts to say a number. $40k must have been common knowledge in some circles, but they weren't the circles I was in, and as someone with a bit of business experience I knew that the number had to be large, and that we observers needed to know it in order to make any meaningful plans.

Hence my response "Damn, man, you have provided the critical success information that was needed in order to really understand what is happening. Thank you. I can imagine you catching some flack for this, but this was what needed to be understood.".

Frankly, I didn't pay close attention to Joel's other commentary. I know how he writes, he likes hyperbole and is agressive - maybe it's the wheelchair experience that does that, he has a "take no prisoners" approach to writing that I think is refreshing even when I disagree.

I really liked what he said about people being unfocused, and I thought his willingness to put his neck on the chopping block and both quote a figure and suggest bold (if not entirely legal and practical) plans was a step in the right direction.

His post galvanized everyone. Yes, that impresses me. I admire frankness. I admire guts.

As for his stuff about Elaine - look, people are going to think hard thoughts about Elaine, especially non-business people that don't understand what it's really like to own and be responsible for a failing business. (Every business owner who hears this story is thinking "wow, I wonder how she managed that...", with admiration. It's an amazing business story. Only non-business people see it as shameful, because they don't understand what it really means.)

It's probably a psychological failing of mine, but I believe we have to be willing to face the hard undercurrents and truths. I'd make a terrible PR flack, I expect.

Thats why I loved your post too. Kudos to you as well.

 

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