The American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute began 16 years ago as a way for booksellers to get down to basics. With members in the midst of the most challenging retail environment in decades, the second day of this year’s virtual conference was true to the event's founding spirit and offered a streamlined series of sessions aimed to address indies’ core business needs.
ABA’s senior financial staff, PK Sindwani and Jennifer Almodovar, led the first of three scheduled workshops on managing finances, focusing on how booksellers can create, maintain, and modify annual budgets. A lively chat discussion alongside their presentation showed just how varied booksellers’ accounting models are, and the support they need in a business with complex accounting issues.
Almodovar encouraged booksellers to improve their accounting methods in steps. “Start with the next season,” she said. “You can always build on it as you go, and once you have a full year completed, the next one will be all the easier.”
As the session progressed and it became clear that booksellers may need varied advice based on differing business models as attendees offered tips and support for one another. ABA board president and Flyleaf Books owner Jamie Fiocco led the way, asking attendees to post subjects they would like to take up in breakout sessions following future workshops. The responses revealed the most pressing business issues on the minds of booksellers right now. Among them are non-profit structures, financial forecasting, the finances involved in running a café , managing co-op, small store budgeting, and owner compensation.
ABA has already announced follow-up sessions focused on bookkeeping and managerial accounting. The organization is also reviving its industrywide ABACUS survey of bookstore finances this April. After the pandemic led to the cancellation of last year’s survey, this year’s will account for 2019 and 2020, with participants receiving a report on the outcomes along with a personalized report card on their own store.
Sindwani encouraged booksellers to be patient and recommended forecasting a budget first and then revising it by filling in new data each month. He also offered an apt maxim for bookselling in the age of Covid-19. “It’s best to plan for the worst and hope for the best”
Booksellers were equally rapt at an afternoon session on e-commerce, the business channel that did more to save indies over the last year than anything else. Four booksellers joined ABA senior manager Geetha Nathan to talk with more than 150 booksellers about managing online sales.
Jamie Thomas of Women & Children First in Chicago, Ill., told attendees that the store had logged 15,000 online sales in its entire history as of March 9, 2020. “I checked this morning, and we had hit 47,108,” she said. Thomas and fellow presenters described their workflow for nearly every aspect of e-commerce management, while also pointing to new tools the ABA ecommerce department is developing to support them. Among them is a new function that allows booksellers to generate pick lists that provide daily order summaries they can bring to the shelves, in order to process orders more swiftly.
Cheryl and Warren Lee, of 44th and 3rd Bookseller in Norcross, Ga., launched their website just before the pandemic began. As a Black-owned store, they saw an enormous (1,815% to be exacty) increase in online orders in June following the killing of George Floyd. Cheryl Lee said that e-commerce was not an impediment to the close customer service indie bookstore customers expect. “We’ve had them even comment that some of the bigger stores and especially Amazon have not been able to address their orders as timely as we have,” she said.
In addition to workshops on back-end business issues, booksellers also heard from authors and publisher reps about forthcoming books, including an opening keynote featuring Lauren Groff, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Colson Whitehead; as well as an LGBTQ+ romance panel with eleven booksellers, editors, and authors.