Wi12 Town Hall: Booksellers Issue Call to Action on Diversity

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The American Booksellers Association hosted a Town Hall meeting at the 2017 Winter Institute on Sunday, January 29, and invited all booksellers to share their comments, questions, and concerns about the association and the book industry at large with the ABA Board and staff.

The Town Hall meeting was facilitated by ABA President Betsy Burton of The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Vice President Robert Sindelar of Third Place Books, with three locations in the Seattle area. The two were joined by members of the ABA Board of Directors, including 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; Chris Morrow of Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vermont, and Saratoga Springs, New York; Pete Mulvihill of Green Apple Books in San Francisco, California; Matthew Norcross of McLean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Michigan; Annie Philbrick of Bank Square Books in Mystic, Connecticut; and Jonathon Welch of Talking Leaves ... Books in Buffalo, New York.

Christin Evans of San Francisco’s The Booksmith and Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, California, addressed the board regarding her request that Winter Institute include a panel discussion about the upcoming publication of a book by Milo Yiannopoulos, which The Booksmith protested by taking actions against publisher Simon & Schuster and which ABA defended on the grounds of free speech.

“The San Francisco Bay area is erupting in protests on a nearly daily basis. It’s been a disconcerting juxtaposition to watch multitudes of people who have rarely, if ever, engaged in political protests now finding their feet and voice,” said Evans. “Some of us are going to struggle with that role of a relevant bookstore in tumultuous time. For some, providing a space for refuge will be all we can manage to do. For others, the relevancy of our store may take form in an activist stance. My request is that ABA be open to these important discussions and what stores are doing and thinking about doing now.”

Evans suggested ABA host a panel on the topic at BookExpo, in New York City this spring, and afford booksellers the space to freely discuss their relevancy in this time. “Defining our relevancy and what, if any, obligation we have to support publishers who are fueling bigotry in the name of being open and diverse is worth some careful introspection,” said Evans.

In response, board member John Evans said he felt the Bookseller Discussion Groups following Roxane Gay’s Breakfast Keynote were filled with booksellers thoughtfully expressing their stances about issues such as this. “All those things were just so inspiring to me, that people were balancing out the desperate righteousness that is temptation and the activism that is a necessity. I hope everybody takes from this whole weekend a kind of fortification and a solidarity of their fellow booksellers,” he said.

Denise Chavez of Casa Camino Real Book Store & Art Gallery in Las Cruces, New Mexico, noted her store’s proximity to the Mexican border and described the racism she and staff at the store experience on an ongoing basis, from callers who insist the store not have a Spanish greeting on its answering machine to people being afraid to come to the store’s neighborhood.

“I have several suggestions, and the first is to diversify the board,” Chavez said. “I would like to see people of color. I would like to see a Mexican American, an African American, an Islamic board member.”

Board member Fiocco asked bookseller attendees to do their part in nominating the people they want to see on the board. “If folks with different backgrounds are not nominated, we can’t vote them onto the board,” said Fiocco. “The board is only as good as the nominations we receive.” Fiocco also suggested that booksellers get involved with their regional trade associations.

The nominating process, said board member Koehler, is completely and totally transparent. She urged all booksellers to sign up for ABA’s weekly e-newsletter, Bookselling This Week, which disseminates information about the election process each fall in addition to other association news. (Read the “ABA Nomination and Election Guidelines” from the ABA Governance Policy Manual to learn more about the election process.)

Angela Maria Spring, who has worked in bookstores in New Mexico, New York City, and Washington, D.C., and is a member of the Latinx community, and Hannah Oliver Depp, a founding member of Indies Forward and the operations director for WORD in New York City and Jersey City, also spoke about the lack of diversity in bookselling.

“We pride ourselves on being an industry that offers safe spaces for all people to learn and discuss and develop, but in truth we do not all the time,” said Spring. “Around the country, bookstores have very few non-white booksellers.” While booksellers have taken the first step of selling books written by people of color, Depp noted, if they are not being sold by people of color, booksellers have not truly created a safe space.

Spring and Depp challenged fellow booksellers and ABA to take up the mission to make diversity systemic, not just symbolic, and to carry on the discussion and take concrete steps to bring diversity to bookselling.

Melanie Knight of Books Inc. in Berkeley, California, shared the importance of young readers being able to see people who look like them represented in bookselling. “If you are going to send people out to different communities and different schools, if you already have a person of color, that’s the person you should be sending out. Those are the people that need to be seen and that the kids want to see reflected — they want to see themselves,” said Knight. “Even though I was raised from birth to read, I never even thought about being a bookseller. It wasn’t something that crossed my mind.”

Noelle Santos, who is gearing up to launch The Lit. Bar in the South Bronx this year, asked booksellers to make sure they participate in the ABACUS survey, a yearly, confidential survey that gathers key information on financial operations and provides benchmarking goals and insight.

“This is a great way for us to support diversity,” she said. “I need to educate my property owners, my lenders, and my community that the independent bookselling industry is thriving. It’s really hard to do when we have this great membership of a couple thousand ABA members, and then I get 200 people on the survey. The more people that participate, the greater chances people like me — people of color — have to bring books to urban areas.”

DeAndra Beard of Beyond Barcodes Bookstore in Kokomo, Indiana, said she has independently worked to connect with bookstores such as Eso Won Books in Los Angeles and Source Booksellers in Detroit — stores that look like her, she said — and asked if ABA has made an effort to reach out to minority-owned stores to bring them into the association. “I’m a niche store, a multicultural store; 80 to 85 percent of my books reflect people of color from around the world, social justice, and human rights, and I don’t have anyone to talk to particularly about that,” said Beard.

ABA has reached out in the past, said Burton, and Sindelar added that booksellers who know of such stores can send details to the Board members so they can reach out to these prospective booksellers.

Maureen Palacios of Once Upon a Time in Montrose, California, suggested ABA have a diversity officer as part of the staff. “All of these wonderful ideas? We need to have action,” said Palacios.

Suzanne Droppert of Liberty Bay Books in Poulsbo and Bremerton, Washington, requested that booksellers generate a hashtag for Black History Month (February) to share photos and stories about how they are celebrating the event.

Jenny Cohen of Waucoma Bookstore in Hood River, Oregon, extended her thanks to the board for the work they do behind the scenes. She also mentioned her role on the ABA Booksellers Advisory Council, a group of 25 booksellers from across the country, which aims to be inclusive of younger booksellers and those with diverse backgrounds. “There are people looking out for you,” said Cohen.

Carrie Obry, executive director of Midwest Independent Booksellers Association, noted how important it was for bookselling to be recognized as an intregal component of the publishing industry. Board member Welch said meetings held with publishers and editors around the country have helped in that area, but that it’s important to keep talking to other booksellers, to customers, and to publishers. He also encouraged booksellers to start representing books from independent publishers in their stores. “When we talk about diversity, it’s not just content, it’s not just people — it’s also the kinds of books we carry,” said Welch. “Expose people to more, because the more they’re exposed to, the more they learn and the more we all grow together.”

Board member Philbrick also requested that booksellers support the Book Industry Charitable Foundation (Binc), which provides financial assistance to booksellers in need and was particularly important to Bank Square Books when it was flooded by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. “I challenge each of you in this room to become a sustaining member and help them out and help your colleagues,” she said.

Turning to other issues, Maria Stasolla of Ye Olde Warwick Book Shoppe in Greenwood Lake, New York, inquired about the possibility of a health insurance plan coordinated by ABA. “Especially now, with the political climate changing and the healthcare act about to be cut off at the knees, is there something that can be done through us? How can we take care of our own?” asked Stasolla.

ABA CEO Oren Teicher responded, “We have tried for years to be able to offer health insurance. The fact is we are not a big enough group to command competitive prices and because our membership is diversified all over the country, we don’t have enough bodies in any particular jurisdiction to insure.” ABA has been working with other organizations to see if there is an opportunity for health insurance coverage, Teicher said, and would continue to actively look for solutions on this issue.

Lynn Mooney of Women & Children First in Chicago, Illinois, expressed concern about Batch, a U.K.-based payments system for booksellers and publishers. Mooney specifically wanted to know who would be paying for the service and how it might affect publishers’ terms.

ABA has been working to create an American version of Batch to bring that efficiency to booksellers here, noted Teicher; the system in the U.K. is free and voluntary for bookstore participants, which would be the goal if a similar system comes to the industry in the U.S.  And, Teicher clarified, Batch has nothing to do with terms of sale.”

Lucy Kogler of Talking Leaves ... Books in Buffalo, New York, asked if there was a way to get independent booksellers to the top of the list of book vendors on publisher websites, as IndieBound always appears alphabetically below such competitors as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.