Past ABA Presidents Look Back on an Eventful Decade [3]

Six past presidents of the American Booksellers Association’s Board of Directors took the stage at Winter Institute 10 [5] to look back at bookselling’s last 10 years, which produced game-changing new technologies, revolutionary new business models, and a whole range of new questions.

Current ABA Board president Steve Bercu with past presidents Richard Howorth, Mitchell Kaplan, Chuck Robinson, Becky Anderson, Michael Tucker, and Gayle Shanks

Over the last decade, booksellers have seen the rise of e-commerce and the birth of e-readers and iPhones, the demise of large chain bookstores such as Borders and Waldenbooks, and Amazon’s expanding influence on the market. However, current ABA Board president Steve Bercu, the co-owner of BookPeople [6] in Austin, Texas, and moderator of the February 10 panel, noted that the years’ challenges have been offset by some undeniably positive changes, including the growth of the localism movement, which has increased support for independent retailers.

All six of the “ABA Past Presidents Report” panelists — Becky Anderson of  Anderson’s Bookshops [7] in Naperville, Illinois; Richard Howorth of Square Books [8] in Oxford, Mississippi; Mitchell Kaplan of Books & Books [9] in Miami, Florida; Chuck Robinson of Village Books [10] in Bellingham, Washington; Gayle Shanks of  Changing Hands Bookstore [11] in Tempe, Arizona; and Michael Tucker of Books Inc. [12] in San Francisco, California — agreed that they would happily become booksellers again, even knowing the challenges that lay ahead.

While booksellers can be a pessimistic breed, as author John Green noted in his Wi10 keynote speech [13], they have always thrived in the face of a challenge, said Anderson, ABA’s president from 2011 to 2013. “Through all the challenges we have faced, we have remained true to the object that we love. And this object that we sell is something that will never go away,” she said.

Tucker, ABA’s president from 2009 to 2011, pointed to the influx of energetic young people to the business as a sign that passion for bookselling is alive and well.

Of the new generation of booksellers, Tucker said, “I think they are way smarter than I was coming into it and are very, very dedicated to what they do. They have some very good ideas. It is a joy to see so many new faces at the institute this year…. It says there is a future for this.”

Kaplan, ABA’s president from 2004 to 2006, said that challenges come and go in the bookselling world. Though booksellers have faced a number of problems in the past 10 years, he noted, “The people before us saw their own constellation of problems.”

One challenge that has persisted throughout the past decade is truly capitalizing on the industry’s potential, said Shanks, whose term as ABA president ran from 2008 to 2009. “I have been thinking a lot in the past four or five years about how smart we all are about books and how much we know about our author friends and how much we know about our industry,” she said. “And yet I feel that with all our intelligence and all of the ways we think about books, we have yet to figure out how to monetize it in a really big way.”

Kaplan, who founded his first store when he was 24, agreed and was blunt in his advice to the new generation of booksellers: Money matters, he said.

“A lot of us who choose this [profession] feel that it’s a higher calling. We have a passionate desire to bring books to people,” he said, but some, he noted, have never really thought about money. “It is money and it is being successful from a business perspective that fuels all of this,” Kaplan said, adding that if he were to start over, he would “get a really great business advisor from the beginning, who could sit with me and really teach me what was going on.”

Another challenge facing booksellers today is their changing relationship with publishers, said Howorth, ABA’s president from 1998 to 2000.  Although publishers expect bookstores to uphold the value of a book’s suggested price, they will often go out themselves and sell directly to consumers at a lesser cost, he said. “As long as we have this industry in which we uphold the suggested retail price that is printed indelibly on the book, it’s going to be more difficult.”

Shanks, who recently opened a Changing Hands location in Phoenix with business co-owners Bob Sommer and Cindy Dach, said the problems booksellers face with publishers can be alleviated by agreeing once and for all on the definition of a “partnership.”

Anderson agreed and said, “A partnership is a partnership, and it has to be a two-way street. Sometimes I think the give is a little bit too much on our side and that we are not meeting in the middle. I think there needs to be a whole lot more give.”

The challenges of publishers selling direct to consumers and laws increasing the minimum wage have created a need for more revenue, which is causing today’s booksellers to open their eyes to new opportunities, said Chuck Robinson, ABA’s president from1992 to 1994. Many of the new opportunities are due to the growing localism movement, which he said has spurred some mature stores to recently open second locations.

“People are seeking something that is local, something that is real, a different kind of experience,” said Robinson, referring to customers who know they can buy a book someplace else for less but choose to shop at their local independents. “They’re coming in for a whole different reason, and I think there is an opportunity to serve those people.”

Tucker said now is actually a good time to be thinking about opening a second bookstore, as long as booksellers are careful not to shortchange their current locations.

“You’ll find that a lot of people who are doing [real estate] development realize that a bookstore is really a very important anchor,” he said. “We have had people coming to us. They know that we’re going to be under market and we’re not going to be able to pay what everybody else pays, but [a bookstore] is that kind of a draw. It’s not destination, but it will work very well within a mix of other retail.”

Among the other challenges discussed by the past presidents was the decision to sell e-books. “We’ve never believed it was going to be a significant source of revenue,” said Robinson. “Our reason for getting into e-books and promoting them pretty heavily when they first started was that we did not want to be saying ‘no’ to our customers, and I didn’t want to try to tell my customers that they were wrong to buy a book in a different format.”

Throughout the session, the conversation kept coming back to how much these six very experienced booksellers love the industry and the people in it.

Tucker said he has grown to love the trade even more as an ABA member and after serving on the Board of Directors.

“It is such a collegial trade. The friends that you have, you have forever and it’s really been the best part of the business,” he said. “It presents so many challenges. We work together in our individual businesses, and we also bring that back to each other. I don’t know another business that when you do well you go and help your competitor, telling them here is what you really need to know, and pass that along. So I love this trade, I wouldn’t do anything other than this.”