ABA Town Hall Meeting: E-Fairness, AHPs, and Damaged Shipments

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ABA President Mitchell Kaplan, outgoing Vice President Suzy Staubach, and incoming Vice President Russ Lawrence at the Town Hall Meeting.

ABA's Town Hall Meeting, held on Friday, June 3, at BookExpo America in New York City, was dominated by discussions of e-fairness, health insurance for small businesses, and the issue of damaged shipments from publishers. ABA President Mitchell Kaplan of Books & Books in Coral Gables, Florida, led the informal meeting, designed to allow booksellers to ask questions and share views on any industry-related topic.

To kick off the meeting, Ann Christophersen of Women & Children First in Chicago applauded ABA's "Day of Education." "I thought ABA's programming was amazingly strong -- especially the more sophisticated seminars based on 'The 2% Solution,'" she said.

Kaplan agreed and singled out ABA CEO Avin Mark Domnitz for spearheading this year's education programming plan, and he also thanked Oren Teicher, ABA COO; Len Vlahos, BookSense.com Director; Kristen Gilligan, associate director of programming and constituent groups liaison; and David Walker, director of special projects, for doing a great job of putting ABA's "Day of Education" together.

Dean Avery of Ariel Booksellers in New Paltz, New York, then brought up the question of e-fairness. He stressed that he didn't expect ABA to solve the dilemma of large chain stores that are not collecting sales tax for online sales "single-handedly" but said he wanted to know what the association was doing to help in the effort.

ABA's Teicher fielded the question and noted that ABA is one of hundreds of organizations that make up the E-Fairness Coalition, which is urging governors of the 45 states that collect sales tax to start enforcing the collection of sales tax for online purchases when the online retailer has nexus in their state.

Teicher updated booksellers on the California Board of Equalization's (BOE) internal audit of Borders.com, and, most recently, Barnesandnoble.com. In both cases, he reported, the staff of BOE recommended that the two online retailers had nexus in the state of California due to their affiliation with their respective bricks-and-mortar counterparts. (Borders Online appealed the BOE's recommendation, and last week a California appellate court dismissed Borders' appeal.) He added that once a ruling is final in either or both cases it could result in a domino effect and give the other 44 states impetus to collect sales tax for online sales. "When this decision comes down, we will disseminate it widely," he said. (For an update on the sales tax issue, go to http://news.bookweb.org/read/3590.)

Sara Pishko of Prince Books in Norfolk, Virginia, brought up the issue of damaged shipments from publishers, and many other booksellers concurred with her that this is a significant problem that should be addressed. ABA's Walker responded that this is something ABA is well aware of and is an issue "we are focusing on."

Kaplan pointed out that booksellers should make it a point to let Walker (davidw@bookweb.org) know anytime there is a problem like this and to send as much evidence as possible. "We, as an association, need to do a good job soliciting this from you so we can approach publishers in an organized way -- we need to hear from you," he said.

Russ Lawrence of Chapter One Book Store in Hamilton, Montana, noted, "Business practices seem to be a dominant discussion here, so we need to make sure we contact David Walker to let him know these things, and we'll recognize it as a problem. We can see if there is a trend."

Domnitz then asked for a show of hands to see how many booksellers in the audience would be in favor of publishers offering to independent booksellers a statistical reserve to cover damaged books in the same manner as is available to the major chains. With a statistical reserve, Domnitz explained, rather than returning damaged books and claiming a credit for each damaged shipment, booksellers would agree to accept a percentage credit to cover damaged shipments. The percentage for each publisher would be determined annually by an outside third party based on a study of damaged shipments received by independent booksellers. Domnitz stressed that for some booksellers the percentage would be too high, and for others, it would be too low. "Would you accept it?" he asked, and, while many booksellers present indicated that they would accept statistical reserves, there was still some uncertainty in the room.

Rozanne Seelen of Drama Book Shop in New York City brought up the issue of publishers selling direct to consumers. "Our vendors are competing with us by offering a greater discount," she said. "If I called up Easy Spirit, they wouldn't sell me shoes -- they'd tell me where to buy them."

Kaplan responded, "This is an issue the Board has taken up -- it's something we are looking at."

Matt Miller of Tattered Cover in Denver, Colorado, brought up the issue of rising health insurance and Teicher updated booksellers on Association Health Plan (AHP) legislation, reporting that there is a bill in the House and in the Senate that would enable small businesses to band together across state lines through bona fide trade and professional associations to purchase affordable health packages for themselves and their employees. Tony Weller of Sam Weller's Zion Bookstore in Salt Lake City, Utah, suggested that it would be helpful "if ABA gave us a little guidance with talking points [regarding AHPs]." (For more about AHPs, go to news.bookweb.org/read/3303.)

Wendy Hudson of Nantucket Bookworks in Nantucket, Massachusetts, noted that she had switched to LIBRIS for business insurance, and "it's saving me a fortune."

Prior to the start of the Town Hall Meeting, Chris McCabe, BEA's show director, reported to attendees that show numbers were up and fielded questions from booksellers as to what they thought of this year's convention.

Hut Landon, executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, asked McCabe to keep California in mind when planning future BEAs. "Having the show on the East Coast for three years in a row is tough," he said.

"The convention is in Los Angeles in 2008," McCabe said, "but we'll keep the West Coast in mind."

In conclusion, McCabe said, "This is the end of my first year working on BEA.... The folks who manage ABA have been very helpful. We're very pleased with this year's show." The dates for next year's show in Washington, D.C., he added, will be May 19 - 21. -- David Grogan