Wi14 Town Hall Takes on Book Supply Issues, Rising Minimum Wage, Programming Diversity

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The American Booksellers Association invited booksellers to share their comments, questions, and concerns about the association and the book industry at large at a Town Hall meeting on Thursday, January 24, at the 2019 Winter Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

ABA Board president Robert Sindelar and members of the ABA Board at the Wi14 Town Hall.
ABA Board President Robert Sindelar and other members of the ABA Board responded to booksellers at the Wi14 Town Hall.

The Town Hall meeting was facilitated by ABA President Robert Sindelar of Third Place Books, with three locations in the Seattle area, and ABA Vice President Jamie Fiocco of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The two were joined by members of the ABA Board of Directors, including Kenny Brechner of Devaney, Doak and Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Maine; Bradley Graham of Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C.; Kris Kleindienst of Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Missouri; Kelly Estep of Carmichael’s Bookstore in Louisville, Kentucky; Angela Maria Spring of Duende District Bookstore in Washington, D.C., and Albuquerque, New Mexico; Chris Morrow of Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vermont, and Saratoga Springs, New York; Pete Mulvihill of Green Apple Books in San Francisco, California; Christine Onorati of WORD in Brooklyn, New York, and Jersey City, New Jersey; and Annie Philbrick of Bank Square Books in Mystic, Connecticut, and Savoy Bookshop & Café in Westerly, Rhode Island.

Before the ABA Diversity Task Force took the stage to deliver their report to members, as they have at previous institutes since the group’s formation following the Town Hall at the 2017 Winter Institute, Sindelar announced that the Diversity Task Force would now be known as the Committee on Diversity and become a permanent part of the American Booksellers Association’s organizational structure, with Angela Maria Spring as the first chair.

Hannah Oliver Depp, co-owner of Loyalty Bookstore in Silver Spring, Maryland, told booksellers that the committee has been working with ABA and the regional bookseller associations to improve diverse representation on panels, and are developing a mentorship program for people who identify as diverse. Depp said those interested in the program can e-mail Spring.

Committee member Lane Jacobson, owner of Paulina Springs Books in Sisters, Oregon, said the group is also working with Edelweiss to implement a set of search filters that site visitors can use to identify and order diverse and #OwnVoices titles more easily.

Two other members — Denise Chávez, owner of Casa Camino Real in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and BrocheAroe Fabian, owner of the new pop-up store River Dog Book Co. based in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin — thanked attendees for participating in the Winter Institute book drive for refugees at the U.S.-Mexico border, an idea originated by Chávez. Fabian emphasized that the drive will continue after Winter Institute is over, and directed booksellers to her store website for more information. Fabian also told booksellers that the committee has compiled a glossary of diversity-related terms as a resource on BookWeb.org; a living document, booksellers are invited to contact committee members to offer feedback.

After the committee members took their seats, Sindelar announced that the Board’s Nominating Committee had chosen Jenny Cohen, co-owner of Waucoma Bookstore in Hood River, Oregon, to stand for election to the board next spring. Watch BTW for more details about the upcoming board election.

Hannah Oliver Depp of Loyalty Bookstore presents at the Town Hall with members of ABA's Committee on Diversity, formerly called the Diversity Task Force.
Hannah Oliver Depp of Loyalty Bookstore presents at the Town Hall with members of ABA's Committee on Diversity, formerly the Diversity Task Force.

Then the floor was opened for questions. First, Josh Christie, co-owner of Print: A Bookstore in Portland, Maine, stood to express his frustration that, over the last six months, including a busy weekend at the start of December, his store’s IndieCommerce-hosted website experienced some maintenance issues.

“There is an earnestness and seriousness here to really address these issues,” Sindelar told Christie. “We get a report at all of our board meetings about the various updates that are happening in IndieCommerce and things that are planned for the future, and a lot of it is this schedule of the back-up plans to deal with those sorts of unforeseen issues. One thing I can tell you is these kinds of safety nets have gotten a lot better, and it is definitely something that is the IndieCommerce team’s top priority.”

Sarah Pishko, co-owner of Prince Books in Norfolk, Virginia, stepped up to say that this holiday season, Simon & Schuster had trouble maintaining stock of certain frontlist titles, with at least a dozen important books going out of stock during that crucial window; many booksellers in the audience expressed agreement. Gary Urda, senior vice president of sales at S&S, came to the microphone to address the complaint.

“None of us want to lose sales on any titles. We absolutely had several titles this fall that outperformed our expectations,” said Urda. “We printed as aggressively as we could upfront. But then once we had to go back for reprints, what happened, as some of you have heard, is the printers, for hardcovers specifically, had issues this fall, and once Fear took off, we had to print a million extra copies, which was great, but that sort of had a ripple effect.”

“For next year, we’re going to address the communication. We absolutely could have communicated better,” he said. “Then we’re going to try to figure out how we print differently next year, especially in hardcover, because it’s an industry problem,” as many printers have consolidated in recent years.

The next comment came from Kimberly Daniels Taws, general manager of The Country Bookshop in Southern Pines, North Carolina, who took a quick informal survey asking whether there was interest in childcare being offered at Winter Institute. Then, Doug Robinson, co-owner of Eagle Eye Book Shop in Decatur, Georgia, got up to say that, even though indie bookstore success has been on the rise in recent years, he still finds himself having to correct friends and acquaintances who refer to indies as a dying breed.

“I’d love to see more focus from ABA on the fact that we are here and growing. Ninety-something stores were added in the last year or so!” he said. Sindelar said he experiences the same frustrating occurrence, but assured Robinson that the board does monitor the issue through regular marketing reports.

Booksellers filled the audience at the 2019 Winter Institute Town Hall.
Booksellers filled the audience at the 2019 Winter Institute Town Hall.

“In the last two years, there has been a dramatic increase in not only the number of [articles about independent bookstores], but also the number that are positive rather than negative,” said Sindelar. “We all need to do that in our own communities, to share those stories, but ABA is dedicated to telling that story nationwide,” though there is always room for improvement, he said.

Emily Russo, co-owner of Print: A Bookstore in Portland, thanked the board for updating members on ABA’s work to explore health insurance options for booksellers, but asked if they would consider creating a health insurance task force as well.

“I happily volunteer as tribute,” she said. “We have such a wonderful, talented, and growing diverse staff at Print and we are going to lose them if we don’t solve this problem. It is at the top of my list of things to accomplish before 2020.”

Sindelar said the board is continuing to work on the issue and “when we get to the point in the work of gathering more voices in, I think [a task force] is a wonderful idea.”

BrocheAroe Fabian came to the microphone to discuss the difficulties she is having in procuring funding to open her own store in a physical location, the very same problem she has had for the past 13 years.

“There is a new generation of booksellers coming in and I don’t mean that by age — I mean people that are here to work in the book industry. Then there’s an old generation in the industry that want to either buy stores from people who are retiring or open our own stores in new locations, and we cannot get funding,” she said. This is especially true if, as in her case and as is common, these indie booksellers don’t have a lot of savings, don’t own their own home or car, or have student debt.

Fabian is concerned that she can’t get traditional funding from a bank, credit union, or investment group, nor can she get nontraditional funding, “because crowdfunding has become somewhat saturated and that shouldn’t be the only answer.”

“I would love ABA’s help trying to find out what those nontraditional funding methods are and more coaching on how to go through the process of either buying an existing store or the financials of you and your community opening a store so that we can actually continue to have the industry grow in a sustainable way for the generations coming in,” she said.

Morrow suggested that perhaps “some of the bigger publishers that have resources could combine together in some sort of legal entity to give us a few million dollars to have a rotating loan fund,” while Fiocco assured other aspiring owners in the audience that the board is aggressively working on the issue with others in the industry. “We do have irons in the fire. There are structural issues because ABA can’t give out money or do the financing, but we are working with other groups within the industry, publishers and otherwise, very actively to free up funding and education,” she said.

Mulvihill, who years ago bought Green Apple Books with two other employees in a 10-year sweat equity buyout, told booksellers that, for a long time, “ABA has been working with publishers to try to make opening inventory easier to acquire, longer dating, better terms — all that kind of stuff. There are limits to what the ABA can do, but we hear you; we are trying.”

“We need to uplift indies as a channel, and it’s really our unified voice that needs to be raised, and to me it’s with publishers,” added Onorati. “We know that publishers value us, but we really want to get to the point where we feel like our employees are well-paid. We really feel like this industry has clout, and I feel like those times are coming, but we have to keep making sure we have that in the front of our brains and keep saying, we do have power, we are important to this industry. I think we have to get behind things like the Indie Next List, Indies Introduce, and our bestseller lists and really show publishers that we have power and it’s worth something.”

Sindelar led Thursday's Town Hall meeting.
Sindelar led Thursday's Town Hall meeting, where board members responded to booksellers' questions and comments.

Next at the microphone was Rebecca George, owner of Volumes Bookcafe in Chicago, Illinois, who expressed worry that the minimum wage hike in her city was becoming unsustainable for small businesses like hers, as it continues to rise. Said George, “I’m very happy the staff is getting a pay bump, but that’s a huge adjustment to make every 12 months and once you think you get a handle on it, then it’s going up again. I feel like this seems to be going countrywide and that is something that is extra important to our nonexistent margins.”

Sindelar agreed; booksellers in the cities affected, such as Seattle, San Francisco, and Chicago, need ABA’s advocacy department to augment the information initially sent out when these first new laws passed three or four years ago, he said.

“I think there probably is an opportunity [for ABA] to do some new studies,” he said, and distribute information to ABA members, “for idea sharing and to figure out ways we can do this well.”

Fiocco continued the discussion, mentioning the importance of ABACUS, ABA’s financial survey for bookstores, to publisher discussions. “When we meet with the publishers, we explain to them how we’re getting crunched, between pricing and rising occupancy and payroll costs. If you have strong feelings about margin and you don’t participate in ABACUS, then you are not helping us,” she said. “Because we go in there with data from ABACUS to show publishers how stores’ margins are getting crunched by very real things like rising minimum wage, and with that data to illustrate our position you give us far more power to talk.”  

Jeanne Costello, book buyer at Maria’s Bookshop in Durango, Colorado, was another voice encouraging booksellers to participate in ABACUS. “It is a roadmap to profitability,” said Costello. “It tells me where I should be in terms of how I’m spending and it sets goals for what kind of profits I want for my store. If you’re not participating, it’s not as complicated as you might fear.”

Matt Shaw, a bookseller at Blue Hill Books in Blue Hill, Maine, rose to say that while he is glad to see more authors and reviewers linking to IndieBound, he was disappointed that his store, since it does not have an e-commerce element, appears on the IndieBound map but does not come up on the list generated by the user’s ZIP Code. Sindelar told Shaw the board would look into his concern.

Next, Jessica Walker, managing partner of Munro’s Books in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, commented that ABA should work with publishers to maximize efficiency in shipping and reduce waste in their packaging. “Books are never going to be efficient to transport, but I think there is massive room for improvement,” said Walker.

David Nurick of Cellar Door Books in Riverside, California, agreed, saying that booksellers should be pushing publishers to start taking steps to reduce plastic use in their packaging and make materials more recyclable.

Emily Russo of Print: A Bookstore in Portland, Maine, addresses a question to the board.
Emily Russo of Print: A Bookstore in Portland, Maine, addresses a question to the board.

Janet Geddis, owner of Avid Bookshop in Athens, Georgia, spoke about the extreme importance of a level playing field regarding competition, especially with Amazon. Fiocco told Geddis that to help change this, “one avenue is through advocacy — working with local governments and elected officials and lawyers on making sure antitrust and certain laws are updated to catch up with where we are in the world, and enforced. We’re working on that. It is very slow, but we’re trying to create connections with folks so that, should the tide change and when, we’re going to have a very big voice in that.”

Kelsy April, manager at Savoy Bookshop and Café in Westerly, Rhode Island, said that regarding on-sale dates, it seems as if many non-independent book retailers do not feel compelled to follow the rules, and asked what ABA is doing to make sure they do. Sindelar said booksellers should let ABA know immediately if they notice any retailers committing those sorts of transgressions, and the association’s legal counsel will jump on the issue.

Next, Veronica Liu, founder of Word Up Bookshop Community Bookshop/lLibrería Comunitaria in Washington Heights, New York, spoke about the concept of language justice, saying she would love to see ABA support education around buying books in languages spoken within the local community and around promoting language justice in-store. Emanuel Abreu, who works at Word Up, then thanked ABA for the association’s action on the diversity issue since the Diversity Task Force’s formation in 2017.

“I like that you talk the talk, and now you’re crawling the crawl. I hope you’re walking the walk soon enough,” he said.

Sara Grochowski, children’s and YA specialist at McLean & Eakin in Petoskey, Michigan, commented that she believes there should be more of a focus on genre fiction like romance and science fiction in the industry, as well as a greater focus on children’s literature.

“I feel there are a lot of opportunities here and that we need a conversation not only among ourselves, because I think some of us can be a little bit snobby about it, but also with publishers,” said Grochowski. “In the sessions where they are pitching books to us, most of it, at least in adult, is just general fiction and nonfiction, and there is no mention of genre fiction at all.”

sweet pea Flaherty of King’s Books in Tacoma, Washington, recalled for booksellers the moment when, after serving on a panel on event programming for queer/trans youth at a previous Children’s Institute, sweet pea realized there had never been any programming on queer/trans issues at Winter Institute before. This status needs to change, sweet pea said.

Finally, in a comment directed to the publishing representatives in the room, Paulina Springs Books owner Lane Jacobson said that he came up as a buyer at a bigger, established store that he saw have a lot of publisher support. But now, as the new owner of his own small store, which does about half the sales of his previous store, he has noticed the clear disparity in publisher sales reps’ attention to his store. Jacobson said he hoped publishers would make sure their reps address this difference in how stores are treated in the future.

Philbrick closed the Town Hall with a reminder to booksellers to participate in the Heads or Tails fundraising game at the Institute’s Closing Reception to raise money for the Book Industry Charitable (Binc) Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting booksellers and book industry employees in need.