Booksellers Talk Minimum Wage, Book Buyer’s Handbook, Diversity at First Winter Institute Town Hall

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On Tuesday, February 10, the American Booksellers Association hosted a Town Hall meeting for the first time at a Winter Institute and invited all ABA member booksellers to share their ideas, questions, and concerns with the ABA Board and staff, as well as with their fellow booksellers.

The ABA Board addresses booksellers' comments during the Town Hall meeting. Photo credit: Kevin Mann Photography.

The Town Hall meeting was facilitated by ABA President Steve Bercu of BookPeople in Austin, Texas, and Vice President Betsy Burton of The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City, Utah. The two were joined by the entire ABA Board of Directors, including Sarah Bagby of Watermark Books and Café in Wichita, Kansas; John Evans of DIESEL, A Bookstore, with three locations in California; Jamie Fiocco of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Valerie Koehler of Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, Texas; Matthew Norcross of McLean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Michigan; Annie Philbrick of Bank Square Books in Mystic, Connecticut; Robert Sindelar of Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, Washington; and Jonathon Welch of Talking Leaves Books in Buffalo, New York.

On behalf of Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café in Asheville, North Carolina, store manager Linda-Marie Barrett thanked the American Booksellers Association for bringing Winter Institute 10 to Asheville by presenting ABA CEO Oren Teicher with a broadside featuring a poem written by owner Emoke B’Racz. “It’s been such an honor to host so many booksellers, to have them visit our store, and get to see new faces,” said Barrett.

Booksellers attending the Town Hall discussed topics that included minimum wage increases, the importance of ABA’s Book Buyer’s Handbook remaining updated and accurate, and the need for bringing more diversity into the business.

Front of mind for booksellers in many locations is the growing push for raises in minimum wage. Bradley Graham of Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., inquired about the reaction to minimum wage increases going into effect in certain locales nationwide and asked whether there is anything booksellers facing this challenge can do to make the impact easier.

There is no national answer, said Bercu, and the issue “places all of us instantaneously in an odd position of philosophically being in favor of paying people as much as humanly possible but as business owners having the difficult problem of how to make the payroll work and still operate our bookstores.”

Several board members suggested addressing the issue on a local level by educating and working with local representatives and officials to find ways to ease the financial burden. Sindelar said that he found relief for Third Place by negotiating lower costs in other arenas. Jill Hendrix of Fiction Addiction in Greenville, South Carolina, noted that a national training program for frontline booksellers would ensure that stores get stronger booksellers when they begin paying higher wages.

“I might be the lone voice here, but I’m all for increasing minimum wage for our coworkers,” said Malaprop’s owner Emoke B’Racz, adding that she was able to do that by renegotiating the store’s rent and directing funds toward payroll and healthcare. “Go home and be creative financially.”

Tracy Taylor of Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company found that meeting with local officials helped change the conversation once it was understood that bookstores cannot raise book prices to offset wage increases, but she also warned booksellers to be prepared to be “the bad guy” at these meetings, as some advocating for minimum wage increases in her area did not have empathy for the businesses that may shutter due to the change. “That was surprising because we’re not used to being on that side of the room,” she said.

Several booksellers agreed that they would like to see the ABA Book Buyer’s Handbook updated to be more current with publisher information and details, as it is especially important for contacting technical, academic, or small presses. “I think that’s something that every member here uses almost every day,” said Tom Campbell, owner of The Regulator Bookshop in Durham, North Carolina.

Last fall, ABA conducted a survey to gather booksellers’ input on the Handbook. “We did hear from many of you, as you have suggested, that it is important, so we are going to be investing some resources,” said Teicher. The Handbook will also be transitioned to a new online platform, he added, and outreach to publishers will be improved to ensure information is up to date. In the meantime, booksellers are encouraged to let ABA know if they have updated information for the Handbook.

On another topic, Alison Reid of DIESEL, A Bookstore said, “I’m concerned about the lack of diversity in our business.”

Rob Dougherty of Clinton Book Shop in Clinton, New Jersey, agreed that he “would like to see a wider representation of diversity both on the ABA staff as well as the Board of Directors.” He also noted that publishers should be taking an active role as “they’re the ones that give us the books to sell and give us the tools as booksellers to bring more diversity into our shops and to bring more diversity into our gatherings like this,” he said. “It’s not just the booksellers and it’s not just the ABA; I believe that it’s up to the publishing industry as well, and we can advocate for that.”

Jenny Cohen of Waucoma Bookstore in Hood River, Oregon, noted that when she started her career, bookselling lacked diversity in a number of ways beyond race, including the lack of young booksellers owning stores. Cohen said she believes that bookselling and publishing are becoming more diverse, but she encouraged booksellers to continue the discussion about diversity of all types in books and in the business. “Diversity should be a culture, not a profile,” she said.

Sindelar said the issue has received ongoing consideration by the ABA Board, which would continue to work to fashion some actionable solutions. But, he also noted, “When it comes to problems like this, we need more minds and ideas and thoughts than just the Board. It’s a membership problem and we want the membership to help us with it,” he said.

Evans encouraged booksellers to nominate ABA members “who would represent a different voice” to the Board. “If you nominate those people to the process, we’ll have a greater pool of people to have the Nominating Committee look at, and then you end up with the diverse board that you want,” he said.

As the chair of the Nominating Committee for the 2015 Board of Directors elections, Sindelar pointed out that any ABA member can be nominated to the board. Booksellers are welcome to nominate themselves, as well as to write in candidates alongside the Nominating Committee’s recommendation on the ballot. The slate for the 2015 Board of Directors elections will be announced soon.

Fiocco stressed the importance of working with the regional associations to encourage diversity among booksellers, and then helping these diverse booksellers get “to a point where they can serve on regional boards and become [ABA Board] candidates.... I encourage everyone to work within their region to identify candidates that will make us more diverse.”