Is This Money Evil? The Mellow Pages Library Debates An Indecent Proposal From ExxonMobil

Post-publication update, January 9th: According to Roxanne Palmer at the IBT, the founders of the library are certainly lying about this situation. (“The funding scenario the library describes in no way comports with the open and transparent way in which we make charitable and philanthropic donations,” an ExxonMobil spokesperson told her.) In our fact-checking email to Mellow Pages Library earlier this week, we wrote: “So, I guess the first appropriate question is: ExxonMobil reached out to you and offered 10x of your donations for your November benefit?” They responded: “The situation is, generally, how you summarized it. Obviously it’s a little more complicated than that. We have been talking with ExxonMobil since the beginning of December, and it took us a few weeks to reach out to our members, before which we were considering our options alone.” That the Mellow Pages library isn’t actually a nonprofit is sort of a dead giveaway; corporations don’t generally make donations to non-entities. In any event, looks like just one more example of how dudes like to make things up for attention.

Every man has his price, as the saying goes, and the Brooklyn free library Mellow Pages is testing that theory. Founded a year ago this February by Matt Nelson and Jacob Perkins, Mellow Pages is a quixotic, lovable lending library featuring rare literary treasure—verse, philosophy, small-press fiction, zines, and classics. Located at 56 Bogart St. 1S off the Morgan stop on the L in Bushwick, library patrons are told to dial #003 at the door for access to the library’s more than 3,500 books.

Since its inception, the library has been supported only by its founders and more than 200 members who pay a “cheep cheep membership” fee. This fall, the library held a $20,000 IndieGoGo crowd-funding campaign aiming to raise rent and carrying costs for one year. Despite great local cred and an ingenious boxing fundraiser called “Matt will fight anyone,” they came up short at $5,218—only enough to fund the library for a few months. Then last month, according to the founders, “a strange email appeared in our inbox.”

The sender, ExxonMobil Corporation, offered to support Mellow Pages for ten times the amount of funding raised by IndieGoGo in November, according to the founders. That inconceivable bequest of $50,000 would fund the library’s rent for three years. And the best part: there were no strings attached. The offer was that corporation would pay rent directly to the building’s landlord and nothing more. It seemed like a godsend for the fledgling library.

On the other hand, it seemed like a deal from the devil. ExxonMobil is a multinational oil and gas company headquartered in Irving, Texas. The oil industry has long been associated with environmental disregard, rampant lobbying of the American government, wars for control of the Middle East, and epic disasters—the company’s very name achieved notoriety with the Exxon Valdez tanker crash and spill. In any case, they might not be a simple choice of bedfellows.

So what was Mellow Pages to do? (If, of course, this isn’t some sort of prank, which the founders assure us is not the case—although they have changed their Twitter handle to “ExxonMobil Pages,” and made ExxonMobil’s logo their Facebook and Twitter headers.) According to the founders, they spoke with ExxonMobil’s people for a few weeks in December and then, stymied, they reached out to the community at large. Just thinking of their members didn’t make it any easier. The library’s literary community included many who felt strongly against the practices of ExxonMobil. But they also felt strongly that they wanted the library to stick around, and without funding, that was never a given. According to the library’s founders, “The constant spectre of imminent closure, which always seems a couple months off, does not allow us to wait and see whether someone is going to give us money six months down the road.”

Yesterday, the library published a Fanzine article explaining the choices facing them, and how they’ve handled it thus far. It’s an amazing piece of transparency, almost unheard of in this era of Gatsbyian 80s-free-market revivalism. Essentially, they decided to ask their members what to do.

In a series of emails, Mellow Pages members weighed in on both sides. Many said, “Take the money and run!” About as many advised them to just run, because there are always strings attached with taking corporate money, no matter what they say. Many urged the founders to see a lawyer immediately, whether they take the money or not. One response even laid out a conspiracy theory:

Do not doubt for one second that Exxon doesn’t have a file on every victim of the oil spill and that the information is used to control the victims, not to help them. Jacob, Exxon has probably been following you and they do not want to help you.

At the very least, the “gift” of funding is an act of green-washing, changing the corporation’s for-profit image to one of philanthropy. It is not a clear case, though, or one with an easy “right” decision.

In previous eras, all manner of royalty were benefactors to painters and composers; their politics were not always easy for moral folk to stomach. Even Jim Henson, creator of “The Muppets,” made commercials for Getty Oil, IBM and Chase Manhattan Bank, before he got involved in the game-changing educational series “Sesame Street.” For close to 15 years, making puppet commercials for corporations funded his puppet workshop, which ultimately led to The Dark Crystal, The Great Muppet Caper, “Fraggle Rock,” and other striking works of art.

The New York City Ballet has its home in the David H. Koch Theater. For years, David Koch was a quiet and major benefactor of PBS and WNET as well—until a documentary that criticized the Kochs’ far-right political funding was to air, and that relationship went south.

And how many artists are funded by shadow benefactors? In Great Expectations, Pip thought his benefactor was the refined Miss Havisham; instead it was a convicted criminal. That is, usually, the way of the world. Is it naïve to think a wonderful project like Mellow Pages can remain totally independent and above board?

Jim Henson’s involvement with companies like Getty Oil and RJ Reynolds teaches us two things. One, Henson didn’t just take one corporation’s money. Though it started with Wilkin’s Coffee (and Henson himself did not drink coffee), Henson soon branched out and became a for-profit company, Muppets Incorporated, which made both hundreds of commercials in addition to his Muppets shows. But taking this money did not indenture Henson, and he often turned down offers to protect his vision. Two, if you watch these commercials, they almost seem to parody the company they’re meant to promote. There is both a lightness and a transparency about them. This is what allowed Henson to take corporate money but remain relatively unscathed by its implications.

The Mellow Pages Library has been transparent about their funding dilemma. Perhaps that is the most important thing. It’s possible that whatever decision they make, it will benefit their project. But the decision is still up to them. They’ve once again asked their community of readers to weigh in. As of this time, the founders are still undecided and listening, but said they are “leaning in one direction.” They didn’t specify which direction that was.

Elizabeth Hyde Stevens is the author of the ebook Make Art Make Money, exploring Jim Henson’s relationship with money—also available in print March 11. She teaches “Muppets, Mickey, and Money” at Boston University and her work has appeared at The Millions, Explosion-Proof, The Outlet and Photos are from the library’s Instagram feed of visitors.