The American Booksellers Association Town Hall, originally set to be held during its since-canceled Winter Institute, was held virtually yesterday afternoon. The hour-long program drew almost 200 participants, with booksellers celebrating the board’s increased diversity, but also concerned about tweaks made this past fall to the ABA Ends Policies, when it committed to freedom of expression that excludes hate speech.

The meeting was presided over by Christine Onorati, the owner of WORD Bookstore in Brooklyn and in Jersey City, N.J., who became board president last month following the resignation of Bradley Graham, the co-owner of Politics and Prose in Washington.

Kelly Estep, co-owner of Carmichael’s Bookstore in Louisville, Ky. continues as v-p and Angela María Spring, the owner of the Duende District pop-up outlets in the Washington, D.C. metro area and Albuquerque, N.M., has now stepped up to become co-v-p. Onorati noted that Spring “represents both non-traditional store models as well as the Latinx community.” The board, Onorati added, has prioritized its commitment to equity and representation, “and we feel that having our leadership reflect that is an important start.” Spring noted that she is the first person of color to become an ABA board officer.

“Our current board of directors may be the most diverse in ABA’s history in terms of race, sexuality, gender, neurodiversity, region, and store model,” Onorati noted, “These different perspectives represent the diversity of our membership, the diversity of our bookstore customers, and the future of our industry and the world. They also inform changes in Ends Policies which are the only direct influence the board has on ABA’s work. Those changes may be departures from the past, but they are still very much in line with ABA’s historical value of freedom of expression as well as its more recently stated values: anti-racism, representation, access, and equity.”

“This board fully believes that a welcoming, respectful, and diverse ABA is not at odds with the interests of our bookselling industry: in fact, it strengthens it,” Onorati stressed.

ABA's Commitment to Freedom of Expression

In response to several bookseller questions about the ABA’s new stance at a time when book banning is intensifying around the U.S., board member Danny Caine, the co-owner of The Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kan. responded: “As a board we determined we needed to make the change in order to better marry ABA’s value of freedom of expression with its commitment to equity, access, and anti-racism. We felt the need to listen to under-represented voices and protect everyone, including the most vulnerable members of our community, while protecting vital freedoms. We firmly believe we can and must work towards anti-racism and against censorship at the same time. The Ends Policies are meant to reflect that.”

ABA executive director Allison Hill added her voice to the discussion, noting that the ABA was one of the co-signers of the National Coalition Against Censorship’s recent statement against book banning. Hill also attempted to diffuse the controversy over the language of the Ends Policies by pointing out that “one of the beautiful things about the Ends Policies is that it’s re-visited every summer."

When Books & Books [Coral Gables, Fla.] owner Mitchell Kaplan requested more transparency regarding the process leading up to board actions, board member Melanie Knight, a bookseller at Books Inc. in San Francisco, Calif. pointed out that ABA members have an impact on the board's direction “by filling out surveys, participating in ABACUS, serving on councils," adding, "you can’t vote on the Ends Policies, but you do vote to nominate candidates, the board of directors.”

Onorati reiterated that the board wants member input. “We’re listening to our members. We’re listening sometimes, to the people who are talking the most. Again, another plea – to engage, to reach out. We’re here to listen, we really do try to listen to what our members are saying. That was a big part in how we came to our decision.”

Hill also updated members on Amazon. “One of the top priorities, if not the very top priority, is antitrust work,” she said, “It has been since the day I got here.” Noting that the ABA has to be “very cautious” about sharing information about what it is doing to counter Amazon’s reach into the marketplace, Hill said the lobbying and coalition-building are having an impact. “We’ve been asked about sharing some information from our White paper [about Amazon’s predatory business practices] which we’re updating. We had a meeting where we offered to share information and we had 80 people from the attorney generals’ offices across the country show up for that.”

"The regulation and the break-up of Amazon is forthcoming," she insisted, "But it’s a long road. We’ve been on it for a while, but we’re definitely seeing signs of hope. We’re seeing signs of bipartisan hope and we’re prioritizing it. It’s happening.”

The ABA will hold its next Town Hall on May 26.