Despite new challenges from Amazon—which completed its purchase of Whole Foods last week and recently opened three more bricks-and-mortar bookstores, making a total of 11—and other turbulence in the retail channel, including minimum wage and rent hikes, the executive directors of all nine regional bookselling associations remain optimistic about the future.
It’s not that they are unaware of the potential impact that these changes could have. As one executive director, who asked not to be named, notes: “Amazon bricks-and-mortar may not have affected sales, but it’s affected perception. It may not be the [Amazon] store that we’re looking at today that’s the problem; it’s the store that they morph into. They have deep pockets. No one can pretend they won’t have an impact.”
Even so, many executive directors are buoyed by indie openings in their communities. Their membership numbers reflect continued growth, and established stores are adding second and third locations. In most cases, regionals’ store numbers dovetail with those cited by American Booksellers Association CEO Oren Teicher at the annual meeting at BookExpo earlier this summer. While ABA membership dipped slightly for the first time since 2010, from a high of 1,775 to 1,757, the number of bookstore locations rose from 2,311 to 2,321.
Strength in Numbers
“Our issues aren’t that books aren’t selling, people aren’t reading, or our bookstores aren’t having good years,” says Steve Fischer, executive director of the New England Independent Booksellers Association (NEIBA). “Our issues are economic—having high rent that makes opening or expanding [difficult]. It’s such a hot real estate market.” That hasn’t prevented new stores from opening, including high-profile ones like Print: A Bookstore in Portland, Maine.
At the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association (NAIBA), the overall numbers are up. This year the organization added 10 members, and longtime members are expanding. Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., is about to add two new locations; Doylestown Bookshop in Doylestown, Pa., will add a second store in Peddler’s Village later this month.
The news from the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance is particularly strong. “Last year we added 23 stores,” assistant executive director Linda-Marie Barrett says, in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, with Avid Bookshop in Athens, Ga., and Books & Books in Coral Gables, Fla., each adding new locations.
“We still feel like we’re riding a pretty decent wave of positivity,” says Brian Juenemann, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association (PNBA). The region continues to attract prospective booksellers and has seen the openings of new stores to replace closed ones, like Brick & Mortar Books at Redmond Town Center in Redmond, Wash., which was previously home to a popular Borders. Further down the coast, Andrea Vuleta, executive director of the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association (SCIBA), says that her area will have added three new bookstores between July and October: two nonprofits, Café Con Libros Press in Pomona and 1888 Center in Orange, and Now Serving, a cookbook store and restaurant in Los Angeles.
Carrie Obry, executive director of the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association (MIBA), is encouraged by the number of calls she receives from small-town mayors who want to revitalize their downtowns with bookstores. She’s also excited by stores like 10-year-old Tribeca GalleryCafé & Books in Watertown, Wisc., which will open a second location at Freshwater Plaza in Milwaukee. “I think the narrative [about indies disappearing] is changing,” says Deb Leonard, executive director of the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association (GLIBA). “For the last few years we have gotten between 10 and 15 new members.”
While the number of stores has been growing, sales for the first six months of 2017 have held steady, with preliminary estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau last month indicating a 0.2% rise from the same time period in 2016. “We are up a little,” says Calvin Crosby, executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association (NCIBA). “We match that national average.” In part, Crosby attributes flat sales to the growing political divide in the country. In Southern California, Vuleta notes, the state’s high minimum wage can be “daunting” and commercial rents are high. Plus, as many executive directors point out, there haven’t been any blockbuster titles this year.
“It’s very split in my territory,” reports Laura Ayrey Burnett, executive director of Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association (MPIBA), which covers the largest geographical territory of any regional. “Some stores are struggling and some are doing phenomenally.” Older stores like Tattered Cover in Denver and newly opened ones like Interabang Books in Dallas are among those seeing strong sales growth. “Nobody’s talking doom and gloom,” adds NAIBA executive director Eileen Dengler. “But most of the people I talk to say that sales haven’t been knocking their socks off.”
As the indie revival continues to play out, many regionals are gaining increased support from publishers. “I feel like it’s changing a little bit,” says MIBA’s Obry. In addition to publishers consulting with indies on jackets, she’s seen an uptick of enthusiasm about the shows. The exhibit space at the Heartland Fall Forum, which is held jointly by MIBA and GLIBA, was nearly sold out by mid-August.
“We’re getting a lot of [publisher] support,” says Wanda Jewell, executive director of SIBA, whose recent shows have consistently featured well over 100 authors. PNBA, which, at publishers’ request, began offering the option for one- or two-day exhibits, is seeing the balance shift back to two days.
“We feel [the regionals are] a great way to connect our authors and their books to bookseller,” says Mary Beth Thomas, v-p and deputy director of sales at HarperCollins. “It’s also a perfect opportunity for us to meet new bookstore owners and learn about their stores, as well as to connect with those we already know. So many great ideas come out of those face to face meetings.”
Wendy Sheanin, v-p and director of marketing in the adult trade group at Simon & Schuster, also emphasized the regional meetings’ importance: “The regional shows remain as valuable as ever to Simon & Schuster.” Like Thomas, she brings a number of authors to the shows and values face-to-face conversations with booksellers. “Nothing could ever replace that,” she says.
Diversity and Other Concerns
Since the launch of We Need Diverse Books in 2014, the regionals have worked hard to promote a diverse roster of authors. But change in bookselling overall has been slow, and it wasn’t until the Town Hall Forum at Winter Institute in Minneapolis earlier this year that the need for an inclusive ABA board and bookstore staff got marked attention. ABA responded by creating a diversity task force and holding a keynote at Children’s Institute on implicit bias with Ilsa Govan, cofounder of Cultures Connecting. It is sponsoring two daylong workshops with Govan and her business partner, Caprice Hollins, in New Orleans in conjunction with SIBA and in Denver for MPIBA. (For more on bookstore diversity, see “Ilsa Govan on Making Bookstores Inclusive” on p. 52).
In addition, many regionals have scheduled inclusive programming of their own. Heartland is kicking off its show with a Shelf-Talker Party: Diversity and Inclusivity, where attendees are encouraged to share in person and on Twitter their handwritten shelf-talkers for diverse titles. The party will also serve as a fund-raiser for We Need Diverse Books, which will present the roundtable “We Need (to Sell!) Diverse Books: Strategies and Resources.”
“What we’ve been focusing on at a board level, is making sure we don’t just have Band-Aids,” PNBA’s Juenemann says. “It’s not just a matter of putting out books that speak to our neighbors. We really want that awareness ingrained so that the store looks like the community.” If booksellers want to discuss educational initiatives to do that, they will have an opportunity at a newly introduced event at the end of the day of education, Fifth Period: Relate, Create, Innovate.
Diversity is also woven into this year’s SIBA, which has more authors of color speaking in prime slots than in previous years, Jewell says. The regional is encouraging booksellers to create a welcoming space for customers looking to address social change through inventory activism. The inspiration for the session on that topic was the decision by Cleveland’s Loganberry Books to highlight the literary status quo during Women’s History Month by turning books by male authors with spines in, pages facing out.
Both diversity and developing bookselling careers are two key initiatives of Indies Forward, a volunteer organization that was formed to help young booksellers who want to make bookselling a career, and to create networking opportunities. It had a soft launch at the PNBA and NAIBA regionals last year, followed by a hard launch at Winter Institute. For founding member Hannah Oliver Depp, operations director of Word Bookstores in Jersey City, N.J., and Brooklyn, including diversity in Indies Forward’s mission was a “no-brainer, if we were going to help indie booksellers succeed for the next 50 years.” She notes: “Indies Forward does not exist to push diversity, it exists to push the industry forward. Diversity is a tent pole.” She sees diversity as a necessity for bookstores that want to succeed; otherwise, she says, they are leaving money on the table.
As far as pay is concerned, Depp says, historically “bookstore jobs were a privilege.” She adds: “We all know rent is too damn high. A bookseller of color is less likely to have family help pay rent.” Instead they are often giving financial help to their families. Another Indies Forward founding member, Kim Hooyboer, general manager of Third Place Books in Seward Park in Seattle, experienced firsthand how devastating a life transition can be, given that rent for shared rooms is now more than $1,000 in her area and other urban communities. To help booksellers, NAIBA is hosting a half-day session called “Budgeting for a Bookselling Career,” which will include a presentation by a financial planner and a discussion by Paz & Associates for those who want to eventually become bookstore owners.
To foster networking at the regionals, Indies Forward is planning to hold meet-ups at as many as possible. A schedule is available on its newly launched website.