Update: In an email to The Observer, a spokesperson from ExxonMobil denied company ever being in contact with Mellow Pages Library. Full email below.
The Mellow Pages Library is the quintessential Brooklyn literary institution: stocked entirely with small press fiction, graphic novels, zines, and various other kind of publishing ephemera from the Island of Misfit Books. It’s also, quintessentially, broke; relying on donations and what founders Matt Nelson and Jacob Perkins were able to fundraise on sites like Indiegogo. Unfortunately, that wasn’t a lot–a November campaign only raised a quarter of their goal, approximately $5,000–and it was unclear whether this independent library would be able to pay rent and remain open.
A sad story, but all too frequent in the small, non-profit business world. Where it gets weird: During the final stretch of the campaign, the founders got an email from ExxonMobil, which offered the library 10 times the amount of money they were asking for…no strings attached. Except, you know, their souls.
In what Elizabeth Stevens‘s is calling “an amazing piece of transparency, almost unheard of in this era of Gatsbyian 80s-free-market revivalism,” the Mellow Pages decided to make this offer known to their patrons, along with their concerns about making a Faustian deal with a multinational corporation best known for their oil spills and war-mongering. They crowd-sourced their decision: What did their members think they should do?
This was the email Mellow Pages sent to their patrons:
You, all of you, are members of our library. We’ve made this place what it is together and we want to keep it that way, always. That’s why, if we can do this sensibly, we want to explain what’s been going on over the last few weeks.
As you know, we put on a fundraiser that ended in mid November. We were shooting to secure a year of ‘stability’ at least in the sense of the rent, and we did well. Very well. But we only got about a quarter of what our goal was. A few weeks after our fundraiser came to a close, ExxonMobil approached us and offered to match each of your donations by 10, which would mean they were securing something close to 3+ years for the library. If you had donated to our fundraiser, you’d be able to go ahead and multiply that number by 10. But we’d like to leave the choice up to you.
We wouldn’t make these kinds of decisions without your support, so we’re asking, essentially: what should we do? We want to stay alive and we want a quality of life for ourselves that is, well, livable. At this point we’re already asking ourselves what we’re going to do come February and after. There are all sorts of moral dilemmas with accepting this money, we know this, and some of you have already expressed some concern and confusion. So we want to ask you first, before we make any kind of decisions: What should we do? We are all the people who made this place ‘be’. And we did that together. We think we can stay the same as ever, in fact make our library better. What do you guys think?
What should we do?
They also posted several responses, that ranged from “Take the money,” to “Take the Fucking Money!” to “Take the fucking money for godssakes.” Several dissenters posed that taking the cash, even if Exxon claimed not to want anything in return, would hurt the credibility of the library, which would essentially be “sponsored” by Exxon.
As they wrote in their blog post:
“How could we, as a collection of people, choose to do something offensive if the decision was something that even just one person was against? How much do people ‘count’? There are several people against the idea of us taking the money.
A decision, at the current time, has not been made: It’s an “ethical paradox,” as the library explains, but their motive for taking the decision out “from behind closed doors” is to start a conversation about what it means for the integrity of an artistic institution to have corporate sponsorship.
So at the very least? We can thank Exxon for providing the literary community with such meaty intellectual matter to mull over.
Update 1/09/14 4:36 p.m.:
ExxonMobil spokesperson Richard Keil wrote via email:
“We have no record of any interaction whatsoever with this library, and the first we have heard of this matter is through media inquiries. ExxonMobil Corporation has a long and proud tradition of supporting a wide range of worthy charitable causes, and the funding scenario the library’s officials describe in no way comports with the open and transparent way we handle our charitable and philanthropic giving.”
The Observer has reached out to Mellow Pages for comment, but as of the time of this article, has not received a response. Roxanne Palmer at International Business Times points out that the library has had previous incidents with false publicity: A promoted Kanye West appearance ended with a bunch of party-goers but no Yeezus. The founders later claimed they were duped by a fake email.
That’s going to be harder to sell a second time around.