The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A small bookstore was scammed. The local community stepped in to save it.

The owners of 27th Letter Books in Detroit. From left, Drew and Erin Pineda, Jazmine Cooper and Jake Spease. (Nick Hagen)

A small bookstore opened in Detroit just over a year ago, and as a locally owned business, 27th Letter Books had to keep a close eye on its finances. The owners were pleased when they started getting large online orders for textbooks from a new customer.

“The name they provided matched with a professor,” said Erin Pineda, 31, who co-owns the bookstore with her husband, Drew, and another couple, Jazmine Cooper and Jake Spease. “As a new business, we were trying to build a relationship with someone we thought was a customer.”

The individual placed several different orders, amounting to $35,000 worth of medical and engineering textbooks, each costing between $100 and $200. Then, in late May, staff received a notification from the store’s merchant service provider, flagging a credit card the person used as fraudulent.

The bookstore co-owners went through the individual’s purchases — all of which were shipped to the same address outside Michigan — and quickly realized that the person had placed every past order using a stolen credit card, as well.

“That’s when we started to consider closing,” said Cooper, 28.

They contacted to law enforcement, their insurance provider and different banks, hoping for a reprieve from the serious financial toll they knew the scam would take on their small company. The cost, they were told, would probably fall entirely on them — which would put them out of business.

“We heard we were unlikely to get any funds back,” Erin Pineda said, adding that she and the co-owners spent several weeks trying to remedy the situation, but only hit dead ends. “We were asking anyone and everyone for assistance, and if there are any other avenues to rectify this. We kept coming up short.”

The Detroit police have opened an investigation. In an email to The Washington Post, Sgt. William O’Brien said, “It is too early in the investigation to release any information.”

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The distributors of the textbooks also were unable to assist the bookstore owners.

“They tried to help us as much as they could, but, ultimately, because they had delivered the books per our request, it fell on us to be able to pay,” said Erin Pineda, adding that the textbooks were shipped outside the state, which further complicated the matter from a legal standpoint.

When merchants are victims of credit card fraud, liability usually falls on the merchant or the credit card company, depending on the circumstance. Often, the merchant is accountable for covering fraudulent online transactions.

As a relatively new and fragile business, 27th Letter Books was left with only two options: shut down or seek support.

“We realized we needed to ask for help,” Erin Pineda said.

The store co-owners started a GoFundMe campaign, and within 10 days, they surpassed their goal of $35,000. They were stunned by the generosity.

“We’re just blown away by how the community responded and lifted us up in a really difficult situation,” Erin Pineda said. “It was incredible.”

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“The response was not only overwhelming because of the amount, but also because it was so quick,” Cooper said. “I felt that the community really wanted us as part of their community. It was just affirming to me that what we’re doing is worth it.”

The bookstore emphasizes inclusivity and offers a diverse selection of literature. It also hosts events that aim to bring the community together.

“We try to be a home for narrative in all types of forms, and we try to serve the diverse community that we’re in,” Erin Pineda said.

The store runs story-time sessions for children on Saturdays, as well as book club meetings and open mic nights. Additionally, local authors and artists showcase their work.

Nicole Miazgowicz is one such artist. She had a solo show at the bookstore in April.

“They just bring so much to the community, and I’ve been really impressed by their kindness and openness,” said Miazgowicz, 38. “It’s kind of like a little family that I’ve found in the community here.”

Contributing to the fundraiser, she said, “was a no-brainer for me.”

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Miazgowicz held an auction of some of her artwork and donated the proceeds — which totaled $425 — to 27th Letter Books.

“They’re some of the most amazing people I’ve come across,” she said. “I think it speaks to why they were able to raise so much money so quickly.”

Hank Moon, a Detroit resident, is also a fan of the bookstore. When he found out that it could be closing, he contributed to the campaign and spread the word on social media, encouraging others to do the same.

“We heard about what happened to them, and it’s heartbreaking,” said Moon, 40. “To take money from a group of folks that are working really hard to create a positive space in the community is just really disappointing, so I wanted to support them.”

Moon is a frequent customer of the bookstore and attends events there.

“Yes, they are a bookstore, but they’re a lot more than that,” he said. “It is an incredible community space, and they work really hard to bring in books for a diverse audience of people.”

More than 400 people contributed to the cause, most of whom live locally, the store owners said. Along with the much-needed funds, messages of support poured in, too.

“Our community needs more businesses like yours. Thank you for all that you do,” commented someone who contributed $200.

The store owners said they are touched by their community’s support and more motivated than ever to keep their doors open.

“It’s wonderful that people are willing to pay it forward because of what they’ve seen us provide to the community,” Erin Pineda said. “It creates a beautiful reciprocity of gratitude between the people there in our neighborhood and us as a business, and a team of four people who care deeply about southwest Detroit.”

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With the help of their community, 27th Letter Books was able to recoup its losses and remain open. The owners are implementing new procedures to prevent future fraudulent activity.

Beyond further securing their business and staving off scammers, the owners said they learned another valuable lesson.

“I would tell other small businesses not to be afraid to reach out to their community,” Cooper said. “They will fight for what they want and what they need.”

“If the community needs us here,” she added, “we’ll be here.”

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