January 10, 2014

Mellow Pages library in Brooklyn turns down $50,000 donation from ExxonMobil…or do they?


The Mellow Pages twitter page

Mellow Pages’ Twitter page

Mellow Pages, a library and reading room in Brooklyn, is at the center of a story involving ExxonMobil and the ethics of charitable donations. It’s an interesting story, but was it all a prank?

Surprising to nobody, running an independent library is a tough way to pay the rent.  So in October, the founders took to IndieGoGo with a goal of raising $20,000, the cost of maintaining the library for one year. They fell short, but collected $5,218. That sum would soon be dwarfed by an offer for a $50,000, no strings attached, one-time donation. From ExxonMobil.

The dilemma this posed—is it worth accepting money from a corporation whose policies you vehemently disagree with if it will keep a worthy program alive for years—proved too much for Mellow Pages to solve alone, and so they took it online.

The moral dilemma that played out within our discussions seemed almost too large to handle, and far too private. The details: ExxonMobil offering support to the tune of 10x our recent IndieGoGo campaign’s funds (which was both generous and intuitive in its representation of what our own community could contribute) seemed like a no-brainer offer that most people or small organizations would accept gladly, silently. We weren’t so sure, though.

After much consideration, we decided to let our patrons know what was going on. The responses that flooded our inbox were passionate, intelligent but once again, completely private, even among the members responding. Inspired by their range and clarity, we decided to take the conversation outside a private space and open up the floor for more.

The Awl describes the responses, “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.”

On Wednesday, Mellow Pages announced that they would not be taking the money. End of story.

Except it’s not.

According to the IBT, there was no offer and any dilemma was strictly theoretical. Roxanne Palmer quotes a pretty unequivocal email she received from Richard Keil, Senior Media Relations Adviser from ExxonMobil Corporation:

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.

Palmer says that she unsuccessfully reached out to Mellow Pages for a comment. At The Awl, Elizabeth Stevens notes that Mellow Pages isn’t actually even a nonprofit, which should have been a dead giveaway.

Palmer remembers that this isn’t the first controversy for Mellow Pages.

Last summer, word spread that Kanye West would be shooting footage at the library for a new music video (plausible, given that the rapper had already stopped by the Bushwick bar Brooklyn Fireproof). Mellow Pages invited people to come, bring beer, and tweet away on their smartphones. About 50 people showed up, according to the website Brokelyn, but none of them was Kanye West.

Nelson told Brokelyn that the library was likely duped by someone pretending to be from the rapper’s public relations team with a fake email. So the supposed Exxon donation may be another instance where Mellow Page founders have been fooled by a third-party faker – or perhaps they’ve just misconstrued an offer from some generous gas station owner.

Or it could be the sign of some recurrent hipster fabulism.

Either way, an honest explanation is overdue.

Or, maybe, as The Awl put it, it’s ” just one more example of how dudes like to make things up for attention.”

Update: Yup. It was a prank. Mellow Pages is defending it as “performance art,” which is and always has been a terrible excuse. Unfortunately, Mellow Pages, which is great when it isn’t being completely obnoxious, will close soon if it’s unable to raise funds. –APS


Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.