These days Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative on West Gilman Street hums with activity, mostly from the nonstop construction of the high-rise next door.
"The building shakes a lot," says Debbie Rasmussen, an executive board member of the cooperatively owned, collectively run bookstore. "It cuts off our Internet."
It's the latest reminder that things have changed since the progressive institution opened its doors off State Street in 1989.
Construction has affected sales, but the real damage has come from Amazon's effect on book sales and textbook rentals, Rainbow's executive board members say.
While this narrative -- that Amazon is crowding out small bookstores -- is contested, there's no denying the numbers: Chomsky and Bakunin aren't flying off the shelves like they used to.
Over the last few months, members of the collective and its executive board have taken stock of Rainbow's situation. Discussions have revolved around the store's location and role in the community.
Rainbow has lost money every year since 2010, according to statistics shared with members in February. Taking a cue from independent bookstores around the country, the collective has concluded that it needs to move away from bookselling to survive.
"The [bookstores] that are really thriving are moving toward a different model that...has various components that bring people into the store," says executive board chair Frankie Mastrangelo.
Some preliminary ideas, such as adding a cafe, an event space, or free or sliding-scale media classes, would "tie back into Rainbow's history of functioning as an alternative community resource for Madison," she adds.
Rasmussen compares Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative to the Willy Street Co-op, as both are membership cooperatives funded in part by dues.
But media diets are far more unreliable than food diets, Rasmussen says.
"When you're a member of Willy Street, you're always going there because food is a necessity, but it's different for books. People are happy to support us, but they're not necessarily in the store all the time."
Instead of being a consumer-focused cooperative, Rainbow is considering reforming as a worker's co-op or even a nonprofit. Given that it already functions as the distribution site for the homeless newspaper Street Pulse, hosts two books-for-prisoners projects and houses a lending library of zines from the Madison InfoShop, the nonprofit route might just be a matter of formalizing the collective's community-focused work, Rasmussen says. That would allow it to seek out grants and donations more easily.
With the help of David Sparer, the collective's attorney, Rainbow pushed back its lease-renewal deadline to the middle of May, while Sparer and Opitz Realty negotiate a rent reduction.
The delay has given board and collective members more time to pursue various leads. While no decisions have been made, Rasmussen believes that many of the potential roads lead away from 426 W. Gilman St., possibly to the near east side or another area accessible to volunteers.
"I can't tell you the number of people I'm seeing weekly who say 'Rainbow can't close; it's so important,'" Rasmussen says. "We want to make sure people's desire to see Rainbow continue is separated from their emotional attachment to what Rainbow has historically been."