“These are really interesting, challenging times. And there are distinct opportunities,” said Becky Anderson, co-owner of Anderson’s Book Shop in Naperville, Ill., at the opening session of the American Booksellers Association Day of Education, which marked her first official appearance as newly elected president of ABA. The changes that she was referring to were visible throughout the day, from the attendees—who include Brad Graham, the about-to-be new owner of Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C., and Jacqueline Kellachan, who purchased the Golden Notebook in Woodstock, N.Y., last fall—to the panels themselves.
In the “Reimagining Your Store” panel, moderator and ABA COO Len Vlahos said, “E-books are going to change what we physically do in our bookstores.” A number of booksellers, like panelist Chuck Robinson, owner of Village Books in Bellingham, Wash., have already made changes. In his case they include adding the equivalent of an Apple genius bar through an arrangement with an independent dealer, so that he can sell iPads and open the discussion on e-books in his store.
But it’s not just e-books. The Borders bankruptcy and the closing of more than 200 stores has led ABA to collaborate with Ingram on a project, which is about to be officially announced, to increase the presence of bricks-and-mortar stores in these areas through a complete package aimed at ABA members and potential new ones. Even the journals handed out to booksellers spoke of change. They were printed on the Espresso Book Machine newly installed at McNally Jackson in New York City. The ABA has just partnered with Espresso makers On Demand Books to get the machines to more booksellers around the country.
At the plenary session, Christopher Zane, president of Zane’s Cycles and author of Reinventing the Wheel, challenged booksellers to take service to a new level. To make his point, he handed a plastic cup filled with change to booksellers in the first few rows to show how they self-select, often taking only one. For Zane, who grew store sales from $56,000 in 1981 to $21 million today, it’s all about looking at each person who walks in the door as a lifetime customer, one whose value far exceeds the cost of a new bike. And to get that he offers lifetime free service, parts, and warranty. “Our value of a lifetime customer is $12,500,” he said. By contrast, the lifetime value to a pizzeria is $25,000; to Tropicana orange juice, $32,500. He encouraged booksellers, “Do the math and figure out what a book consumer spends so your employee will know how much value a customer has beyond a $7.99 paperback.”
Of course, there is a flip side to the changes that the book and book industry are undergoing, as writer Margaret Atwood pointed out in the closing session. In a talk that was at once rambling, dead on, and wickedly funny, Atwood, who claims to be “the only person you’ve ever met who has read all the Conan the Conqueror books,” took on the idea that there is anything new, except possibly the machine for remote e-book signings, with which she is connected (on display at booth 4338). After explaining why she had set aside three perfectly good talks, all illustrated on punch cards circa the 1950s, about, for example, “the book still afloat,” she said, “I decided to talk about what’s in the future. You can say anything you like about it, because it hasn’t happened yet, unless you give a date.” Will the book disappear? No. Will the transmission stream change? Yes. Should traditional booksellers flourish? Yes. “They provide the gateway for new work. They provide serendipity for readers. They provide the filter,” said Atwood.
Her one proviso had nothing to do with the mode of transmission, e-books or, in her illustration, two tin cans: “All of this depends on the persistence of reading.” Booksellers responded with an emphatic yes to reading, and to Atwood, with a standing ovation