Savior of Buffalo Street Books

Savior of Buffalo Street Books

When Ithaca’s last full-service independent bookstore faced imminent death, local citizens wondered, could anyone help? The answer was obvious: What about Bob?

“A Lot of my leisure reading is weirdly traditional,” says Proehl. “Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Joyce Cary, Graham Greene…”
Photo by Allison Usavage.

On a drizzly, cold day last February, Gary Weissbrot, owner of Buffalo Street Books, announced that he was going to have to close shop. Book sales were down nationwide. Companies like and chains like Barnes & Noble were making it increasingly difficult for independent bookstores to survive.

Bob Proehl, an employee and former customer, was very, very upset. “I was pissed,” he says. “But you have to go somewhere with that anger.”

When he started looking for employment elsewhere, his wife Heather asked him what his dream job was. “And it was like, ‘I have my dream job! Anything else is going to be a step back,’ ” says Proehl. So he decided not to take “we’re closing” for an answer. Instead, he wrote a proposal to save the store by turning it into a community- owned cooperative.

Proehl, who grew up in Cheektowaga, just outside of Buffalo, with his father, a middle school science teacher, and his mother, a flight attendant, has always been highly community driven. “There wasn’t much to do [in Cheektowaga], but when there was, I’d do it. It wasn’t that I was particularly passionate about volleyball or musical theater, but it was a way to be around other people,” he says. After high school, Proehl went to college at SUNY Geneseo as an English major and became enamored with the idea of public spaces such as coffee shops and bookstores, which weren’t as available to him in high school.

Perhaps it was the smallness of his hometown that helped Proehl think big enough to come up with an innovation no one else could have imagined. In February, after the headline “Ithaca’s Buffalo Street Books Closes” ran in The Ithaca Journal, Proehl sent out the e-mail suggesting a community buyout. “If Ithaca can’t support a local independent bookstore, who can?” he asked.

A few months, 600-plus owners, and $300,000 later, he had his answer. “It was a massive outpouring of support,” says Proehl, who’s now the director of operations at Buffalo Street Cooperative, Inc. “What we’ve done is different, and, in a lot of ways, healthier. I imagine this store as a more active space, where a person could come by any night and something would be going on, like music or poetry events. This place should be synonymous with literary arts in Ithaca, and the way to do that is by bringing everybody on board.”

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