Tattered Cover’s Vlahos Delivers Optimistic Message at Australian Booksellers Association Conference

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Tattered Cover Book Store co-owner Len Vlahos traveled to Australia last month to present the opening keynote speech at the Australian Booksellers Association 2016 Annual Conference. The May 29 address, which conference organizers described as “an inspiring story of faith in the future of books and bookselling,” bore the title: “Eyes Wide Open: We Just Bought America’s Most Iconic Independent Bookstore … Now What Do We Do?”

The audience at Len Vlahos' presentation wave to their American colleagues.

In his speech, Vlahos recounted moving across the country with his wife, former bookseller and ABA director of meetings and events Kristen Gilligan, and their children in the summer of 2015, to take over ownership of Tattered Cover from Joyce Meskis, who will be retiring next year. Vlahos arrived in Denver with decades of book industry experience, including 20 years in senior roles at the American Booksellers Association and most recently as executive director of the Book Industry Study Group (BISG), which analyzes trends in the U.S. book industry.

“The message of the speech was really about what [Kristen and I] see as the strength of the independent market going forward and why we are very bullish on independent bookstores,” Vlahos told Bookselling This Week.

“I also talked a bit about how publishers and independent bookstores need to innovate and work together as partners to figure out ways of doing business that are mutually beneficial, because I feel, certainly, that we are among publishers’ most important marketing, merchandising, and sales partners and we need to have a business model that recognizes that.”

Vlahos’ presentation included two examples of recent publisher innovations: Penguin Random House’s institution of a successful rapid fulfillment program, and an increasing number of smaller publishers who are experimenting with selling books on consignment. Both, he said, have been game changers for independent bookstores in terms of cash flow.

Vlahos at Pages and Pages Booksellers with owner Jon Page and a copy of Vlahos' forthcoming YA novel, Life in a Fishbowl.

Some reasons for his optimism about indies are likely to be familiar to ABA members, Vlahos said.

“The shop local movement has really resonated with customers around the U.S., in market after market after market; people are paying more attention to supporting local and independent businesses,” Vlahos said.

Another reason is the flattening of e-book sales growth. “It was very unexpected when that trend was first noticed in 2012-2013, but it has continued, and what has been really surprising to industry prognosticators is how resilient the print book has been as a form of media,” he said. “That has not been the case with other media, be it music, film, or journalism.”

A third key, he added, is the resilience of independent booksellers, who continually reinvent themselves and find new ways to serve customers while creating a powerful retail experience.

Vlahos said Australian Booksellers Association CEO Joel Becker, who has been a friend since Vlahos served as ABA’s COO, asked him to speak at the conference because he thought it would be interesting for booksellers to hear from someone who knows the book industry from several different perspectives.

In addition to his years as a frontline bookseller and his experiences at ABA and BISG, Vlahos is the author of three novels for young adults: Scar Boys and its sequel, Scar Girl (both Egmont USA), and the forthcoming Life in a Fishbowl (Bloomsbury Children’s Books, January 2017).  

Australian rock musician Jimmy Barnes performs with his daughter and son-in-law to promote his new memoir, Working Class Boy.

Following his opening keynote, Vlahos stayed on for the rest of the conference, where, among other things, he learned about a key issue facing the Australian book industry: the possible repeal of parallel importation restrictions. Repeal of the restrictions would allow the importation of English-language books from non-Australian publishers that would compete directly with those same English-language books being published domestically.

“Publishers and booksellers say parallel importation would be devastating for the book trade in Australia and would have a really negative impact on publishing,” Vlahos said.

During his stay, Vlahos had the opportunity to visit a number of independent bookstores. Accompanied by his Bloomsbury Australia publisher, Vlahos visited Pages & Pages, Lindfield Books, Dymock’s, and Kunikuyia, all located in Sydney.

The Sydney Opera House is lit up at The Vivid, a light show in the Sydney Harbor.

Another major highlight of the conference for Vlahos was a presentation by Jimmy Barnes, front man of the iconic Australian band Cold Chisel, who brought the house down with an acoustic performance and a reading from his new memoir, Working Class Boy (HarperCollins Australia).

On July 1, Vlahos and Gilligan will complete the first year of Tattered Cover’s two-year ownership transition, which encompasses four Denver-area stores and three locations at Denver International Airport. The past year has gone very well, Vlahos said, and both the staff and community have been very welcoming.

“Every day it’s a sip of water from a fire hose,” said Vlahos. “There is so much to learn and absorb for an operation this complex and with this kind of august legacy.”