As the fall regional trade shows begin, the ABA is attempting to pump up its roster by holding a joint membership drive with those booksellers associations.
According to Oren Teicher, ABA's chief operating officer, the ABA's new membership offer is aimed at retailers who are members of one of the 10 regional associations but not the ABA. "If you join ABA, we'll pay your regional dues for the first year," Teicher said, explaining that the purpose of the drive is to give booksellers a flavor of the national membership, as well as to show ABA's support for bookseller participation in regional associations.
It couldn't hurt: in April, the ABA reported a bookstore membership drop of 9% from a year earlier. The organization's total membership, including industry members and prospective booksellers, dropped 11.4%, to 2,643.
Assessing the Value
Booksellers across the country with whom PW spoke indicated that the regional associations and the national association have differing attractions. Among other things, regionals tend to be attractive because their offer smaller and more manageable trade shows and their holiday catalogues (with more local titles). Membership dues are also lower. The ABA's yearly membership begins at a base fee of $350 and increases depending on the amount of the bookstore's sales. Most regional associations have flat fees (MPBA and GLBA charge $65; NEBA is $70; UMBA is $85), although SEBA's membership fee is on a sliding scale that begins at $75 and tops at $225. By contrast, ABA offers a national voice, the Book Sense program, educational training and nuts-and-bolts help.
Carole Horne, v-p of merchandising at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass., pointed out that each organization performs specific functions that the other cannot do as well. The ABA's functions, she said, are most effectively done at a national level with larger resources, such as Book Sense, BookSense.com, BEA, its online publisher directory "red book" and a weekly newsletter. She also praised the ABA's programs and services (such as insurance for booksellers) providing savings to members, advocacy and lobbying on a national level, and useful information such as the ABACUS study and LMI (Local Marketing Intelligence) data.
Regional associations, Horne noted, offer a sense of community that can only happen at a more local level. "I believe that the two types of associations are truly complementary, and I wouldn't want to imagine a world without either," she told PW.
Of course, said Anita Zager, owner of Northern Lights Books & Gifts in Duluth, Minn., it's up to the members to take advantage of—and shape to their own needs—what both regional associations and the ABA have to offer.
Tamra Dore, president of the Mid-South Independent Booksellers Association (MSIBA), reasoned that some booksellers who are not members of ABA may be motivated by the lower cost of joining a regional association that puts on trade shows that are generally closer to home and therefore less expensive. She also noted that ABA membership requirements for used bookstores or booksellers without storefronts are more restrictive than those of the regional associations.
"I can't imagine not being a member of both," said Sue Griepentrog, buyer/manager of Little Read Book in Wauwatosa, Wis., and also president of UMBA, pointing out that both associations have significant strengths. Through the ABA, she said, she has learned better bookselling techniques, and become more skilled at customer service, computers and financial management. Moreover, the ABA also supports independents with legal assistance "to keep a competitive playing field in retail bookselling," as she put it. One the other hand, UMBA offers reasonably priced catalogue opportunities and a "smaller and therefore more intimate trade show that allows for more opportunities to talk with publisher's reps."
Less Than Satisfied
NEBA member Janet Blevins, who owns Knight Equestrian Books, Edgecomb, Maine, said she dropped her ABA membership two years ago. "The emphasis has gradually moved to what I can only see as profit-motivated ventures that benefit the association, often at the expense of the members," Blevins said. As for the other benefits, since her specialty store is more of a "square peg," she said that she cannot justify paying dues that have nearly tripled, especially when she can get better insurance estimates locally and can negotiate better merchant card rates and terms for her store than ABA's programs can provide. She added that the Partnership shipping program doesn't offer significantly better rates for a rural, stand-alone business like hers. And, as a specialty store, she can't take advantage of Book Sense ("What horseman would expect to see the 76 bestsellers in our window, and how do we justify the loss of carrying them?").
Ruth Oie, owner of the Book Shoppe in Grangeville, Idaho, is a PNBA member and an ideal candidate for Teicher's offer, as she finds ABA dues too expensive for her rural store. Because reps seldom travel to her remote area, she purchases primarily through wholesalers; thus, she said, her PNBA membership is vital, allowing her to browse through and collect catalogues at the regional trade shows. Oie let her ABA membership lapse after attending a couple of distant BEA conventions. "The combined cost of attending conventions in Chicago and the yearly membership was prohibitive for my small business. I would like to join again—I know ABA is a good organization and they work hard for the independent bookseller, but it is not financially attainable for me."
Baker Books in Dartmouth, Mass., is a member of both ABA and NEBA. Mimi Powell, manager and children's buyer, said the store keeps its ABA membership primarily for its insurance and shipping programs. Still, she noted, owner Ben Baker is annoyed that ABA is spending the bulk of their money on Book Sense. "He feels he's gone to great lengths to remain an independent bookstore and has said, 'Why should I brand myself in another way when I'm basically an independent bookstore?' " Powell calls NEBA "terrific. It's a group of independent booksellers who come together for a regional show, educational programs and a holiday catalogue that benefits all of us."
ABA's Positive Strokes
Kathy Simoneaux, co-owner of the 21-year-old Chester County Book & Music Company, West Chester, Pa., said that after her first decade in business, her store did not renew its ABA membership because the benefits seemed to be limited to the ABA Handbook. After several years, however, she began to miss the ABA. "Book Sense was developed," she said. "We attended ABA workshops at BEA and they were fantastic—there was so much financial, management and marketing information—and I knew this was just the tip of the iceberg. Much of this data was also on the Web site, but without membership, you can't access it. I could not find this kind of information anywhere else, and believe me, I looked!"
Simoneaux began to believe a regional association could not take the place of the ABA, and renewed her ABA membership in January. "The ABA has a full-time paid staff of professionals, whereas a regional is usually a group of volunteers with varying degrees of skill when it came to the issues I was concerned with." She said that she is happy that she re-enrolled, and still goes to her regional show, "because I love it. It's warm and fuzzy. I have the best of both worlds."
Linda Ramsdell of the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, Vt., president of NEBA and a member of the ABA advisory council, said, "I'm out in a rural corner of the world, so I count on the BEA trade show to stay connected to the entire book world. And the support I get from Book Sense pays for my membership." She added that the association's political lobbying interests are important to her, as she is involved with the efforts to repeal section 215 of the USA Patriot Act.
Grace Roth, owner of Town Bookstores in Westfield and Maplewood, N.J., uses her membership in NEBA more to stay updated with what's going on in her area. She finds that inserting NEBA's free holiday catalogue into local newspapers attracts customers and encourages her to carry different titles. With her ABA membership, she uses the Book Sense gift certificates and participates in BookSense.com, "which probably doesn't pay for itself, but allows us to have an updated Web site."
Rusty Drugan, executive director of the New England Booksellers Association (NEBA), summed it all up when he told PW that a sense of professional and community obligation is among the motivations to join any association. "Being perceived to be—by oneself and others in the industry—a serious bookstore in New England entails belonging to NEBA," said Drugan. "Many, but obviously not all, stores likewise agree that to be perceived to be a serious bookstore in the United States entails belonging to ABA."