Independent bookselling in America has long been among the most precarious sectors of the publishing trade, buffeted by the impact of publisher consolidation, rising commercial real estate costs, and the unregulated growth of Amazon. But for the first time in years, booksellers seem poised to take collective steps to tackle the challenges they face in a systematic way and secure the future of the nation’s 2,500 indies.
On October 18, nearly 600 indie booksellers and publishing industry professionals gathered online from 49 states and 12 countries for a two-day brainstorming session called Reimagining Bookstores. The effort is being led by Praveen Madan, CEO of Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, Calif., along with a team of publishing, journalism, and business experts. Among them are authors and former board members of the Berkeley, Calif.-based Barret-Koehler Publishers.
Madan opened the gathering with a question for attendees: “How can we reimagine bookstores to deepen literacy, strengthen our communities, and pay decent, living wages to our employees?”
Madan said that their efforts should be geared toward “trying to unleash the generosity that exists already,” in their communities. To do it, attendees developed key questions and challenges to address in small breakout sessions, with note takers gathering information from each meeting to inform future steps.
“Is it possible to create some kind of Real Estate Trust to insure longevity and cost of tenancy,” asked bookseller Brad Jones, as the opening premise for a breakout session. In another session, bookseller Stephanie Heinz asked, “How can we create an on-going sense of mentorship, especially for newer booksellers to help them create sustainable careers?”
By the end of the day’s three hours of sessions, booksellers were beginning to transition from less structured conversations to more concrete proposals, some of which would mark a radical shift in the business of bookselling if taken up. For instance, River Dog Book Co. owner Broche-Aroe Fabian pushed for the creation of a fund that would help booksellers access capital that banks are currently unwilling to provide.
For that to happen, E.R. Anderson, executive director of Decatur, Ga.-based Charis Books & More, suggested that booksellers begin informally organizing outside of traditional bookselling advocacy associations. Those non-profits, which include regional bookseller associations and the American Booksellers Association, are legally required to prohibit members from using their organizations as a forum for discussing many of the financial issues creating pressure for booksellers today.
Booksellers also targeted the need to raise wages as a major priority. Kepler’s store manager Amanda Hall said the store is poised to pilot a new 2% surcharge on all sales, beginning in a few weeks. Hall said the program is based on similar initiatives underway at Bay Area restaurants, intended to support cost of living wage increases for booksellers. “This is a critical, critical need for us,” Madan said. “The rising cost of living threatens to outpace our ability to raise wages. As you all know there’s a direct link between paying decent, living wages and our ability to have a diverse work force.”
Attendees expressed a sense of optimism that the event’s second day would begin to draw together the threads of conversation that were opened during the first day’s sessions. Their excitement was tempered by a sober sense of the challenges at hand.
“I think today I am even more aware that our future is precarious and we need to step up to make it financially viable to be bookstore owners for the future, and one of the threats that was addressed in a couple of the sessions were the escalating prices of just being in business,” said veteran book industry trainer Donna Paz Kaufman, partner at Paz & Associates. “The challenge is there to make the numbers work and the numbers are getting tighter.”
Editor's Note: Publishers Weekly is one of more than two dozen co-hosts of Reimagining Bookstores. The author of this piece made an informational comment during one session.