Jamie Fiocco, owner and general manager of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, N.C., assumed the role of president of the board of the American Booksellers Association in June and was immediately confronted with one of the biggest challenges the organization has faced in several years: finding a successor to long-serving ABA CEO Oren Teicher, who is retiring at the end of 2019. “I knew when I ran for the position that having a successful transition to a new CEO would be priority one,” she said.
As for whom the ABA is considering for the role of CEO, Fiocco would only say that the association expects to have an announcement ready after the independent bookstore fall regional shows. In the meantime, there are numerous other issues to deal with—not the least of which is a growing constituency of smaller stores, including microstores and pop-ups, that are demanding more attention and looking for specialized education, mentorship, and even financial assistance.
Fiocco acknowledged the need to address their concerns. “The ABA has worked hard at—and succeeded in—growing our membership,” she said. “This means we have new and younger owners and booksellers with different ideas of what a bookstore is and looks like. We are, in a way, a victim of our own success, and I think the comments we’ve had regarding support for these members is a sign we need to step up our services for them. This is not to say we won’t continue developing services for medium and large stores, but we need to expand our focus.”
Fiocco said that a mentorship program is being developed, as is a “boot camp” concept for smaller stores that will most likely be tied to Winter Institute. As regards financial assistance, she noted that it is beyond the scope of the ABA, though the Book Industry Charitable Foundation is considering options to help smaller stores.
“We realize that money, travel, and time are hard to come by for smaller stores,” Fiocco said, “so we’re being creative about how to get support and education to stores that need it, using video meetings, webinars, online education, and the like, in addition to in-person events.”
Another constituency asking for more attention from the ABA is children’s booksellers, as became clear at last month’s Children’s Institute in Pittsburgh, where, PW reported at the time, the Town Hall conversation “turned tense.” Attendees challenged the ABA on a range of subjects, including fostering diversity and inclusion and working to make bookselling more sustainable by negotiating better discounts from publishers.
“This was our first Town Hall at a Children’s Institute, with plans to continue this new tradition,” said Fiocco, who acknowledged that the booksellers had all raised valid points. “Having a vocal membership is a great situation to be in, but it means we have to be ahead of the curve as much as possible as far as education and communication.”
Fiocco noted that booksellers and small-business owners can respond in two ways to the need to improve their finances: “We can be emotional and passionate, or we can be business owners and think in a way that we can really move the needle.” She said that as many as two-thirds of the ABA’s members routinely feel financial pressure—particularly the midsize 10,000-sq.-ft. stores that are “getting killed in the retail apocalypse”—and that the most effective tool the ABA can employ in any negotiation is to have accurate data from member stores. She stressed the importance of stores submitting their data to the Abacus survey, the ABA’s main financial survey, “so we can go to business partners to say ‘this is our reality’ in a very businesslike manner—then we can try to find solutions for both sides.” She also emphasized that publishers are not the enemy but are “partners” that are under many of the same financial pressures as booksellers.
As for making the ABA diverse and inclusive, Fiocco pointed out that participation and activism starts at home. “If folks get involved in their regional associations, they get a great understanding of bookselling in general,” she said. “And if more people get involved, we will have many more to choose from at a national level when it comes to selecting the board.” This grassroots, ground-up approach, she added, can help keep the ABA relevant to all booksellers, be they microstores, midsize stores, or regional chains.
For her part, Fiocco will be hitting the road this fall and attending several regionals to further familiarize herself with the challenges facing booksellers at the local level. “With the CEO change coming, we have to be careful where we put our resources, but I’ll be at SIBA, NCIBA, and Heartland,” she said. “I’m there to listen.”