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Struggling bookstore sends out an SOS

Brigit Books has been a going business for nearly 13 years as a specialty shop focused on women's studies, sexual-alternative and metaphysics titles.

But the store had to move last year when its longtime location was sold. That proved expensive. And competition from chains and the Internet made the climate rougher than ever for an independent bookstore.

Owner Helen A. Roman had trouble paying bills, and distributors quit sending her books. That left her in a bad state: a bookstore that couldn't get new books.

"We've stopped having the latest titles," Roman said last week. "I think that is what has hurt us most."

So Roman put out a call in the summer for 10 supporters, friends or investors. Loan Brigit $1,000 each, she asked, to help us pay past-due bills and restock the shelves, which now mostly hold books about 2 years old.

She set a September deadline. It was not met. Some people offered loans but not enough. Now she is hoping for a financial infusion from the loan offer by Dec. 1 so she can stock for the holidays. She needs more books, even though the store at 406 11th Ave. N carries clothing, music, crafts and gifts.

"We want to be a bookstore. We don't want to be a gift store," Roman said, although she says it is the gifts and clothing that kept the store open once its slide began in 2001. Her partner Kodi Wyndreamer is the other part of the "we." Roman, 26, is the store owner.

"It's not just about survival as a business for us. It's what kind of a business we want to be," Roman said. This is the first business Roman has owned. She believes in it because she sees a customer base out there.

Brigit Books opened in 1989 at 3434 Fourth St. N. Patty Callaghan had owned it 11 years before selling to Roman in 2000. Callaghan saw its mission as a feminist bookstore; Roman calls it a specialty shop of books on women's studies, alternative sexuality and metaphysics. She wants to carry the latest by serious writers, such as Connie May Fowler, Amy Tan and Barbara Kingsolver.

Fowler's latest book, When Katie Wakes, is a memoir about an abusive relationship and how the author broke free. About a dozen copies sit on the front shelves at Brigit. It was published early this year.

The trouble began for Brigit Books last year. Shortly after Roman bought the store, she learned that the property where the store was located on Fourth Street N had been sold and Brigit would have to move.

It reopened at 11th Avenue N at the beginning of 2001. Since the store at the old location was torn down with several other buildings to make way for a new bank building, Brigit couldn't leave any directional information about the new store. It is on the first floor of the old Betty Ann Hotel.

"It was like starting in a brand new city. We'd been in the old location 11 years. Suddenly, we didn't know on any given day if we would have any customers. People thought we had gone out of business," Roman said.

Money from the 2000 holiday season that would have been used to pay off bills so Brigit could start 2001 in the clear instead was used for the move from Fourth Street to 11th Avenue N, Roman said.

As business slowed in 2001, bills began to pile up. By April, Roman owed distributors $3,500, and they stopped sending her books. She also lost the ability to special-order books for customers. State tax liens were filed against Brigit, and Roman is in a plan to repay the back taxes.

"I've been making small payments to everybody, just trying to hang in there," Roman said. She will not say how much she owes or give specific figures about costs such as rent. But she says Brigit has pared down expenses. Two part-time workers are in the shop only a few days a month.

Roman consulted with an aunt who is an attorney about her loan plan. Her aunt suggested she first get money herself by selling her baby grand piano. Roman got $2,000 for it, which she is holding to go with eight other $1,000 loans on which she is offering 13 percent interest. Her aunt will draw up the promissory notes, she said.

In these days of corporate excess and $6,000 shower curtains, $10,000 seems a pittance for a company. It is the minimum that will restart Brigit, but it also is the maximum Roman wants to borrow.

With it, Roman says, her first step would be to pay the two distributors the $3,500 she owes so she can order books again. Because of discounts that bookstores get, $5,000 will buy about $10,000 worth of books. Since the distributors have warehouses in the South, Roman said, she can order new books and get them the next day.

"I want to get what is current, what is new. I want to tell customers I can order anything they want," Roman said. If she can't get the needed infusion and income from holiday sales, Roman says, Brigit will have a hard time staying open.