Assuming the role of the ABA's new president at one of the most turbulent times in the history of the book industry, Michael Tucker is fiercely committed to helping the organization's members survive and flourish. “ABA will be doing whatever it takes to help the membership weather this economic downturn,” Tucker says. He speaks from experience. When he and four others, including the late Michael Grant, inherited Books Inc. from owner Lou Langfeld in 1996, the San Francisco—based retailer was failing. After taking over the business, Books Inc. was forced to filefor Chapter 11; 10 of the 12 stores closed, and three of the partners withdrew from the business. With Grant's help, Tucker was able to open six new stores and computerized the company's operations. Books Inc. emerged from bankruptcy without any outside investments, using only its available cash flow. Today the chain boasts 11 locations in the Bay Area with 250 employees, and is profitable.
“I've never met a more generous bookseller than Michael,” says Hut Landon, executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association. “He's always willing to talk to other booksellers to offer advice and be supportive in any way he can.”
Educational programs, publisher relations and e-books are Tucker's top priorities as he steps into the role that Gayle Shanks held for the past two years. His tenure as a board member on the Booksellers Advisory Committee prepared him for this position. “It was a terrific experience,” Tucker says. “People addressed significant bookselling needs not just regionally but nationally. We found some cohesive solutions to push forward to the ABA board.”
Tucker considers ABA's IndieBound program a tremendous success and points to a growing number of nonbook independent retailers that utilize its marketing tools as a sign of the program's effectiveness. Citing the impact of San Francisco's Locally Owned Merchants Association, he stresses that IndieBound can maintain its identity with the IndieNext list and everything else that's fundamentally book-related, but it's emerging as part of a much larger community. “It's not a branding,” he notes. “This has become a movement, and bookstores are the anchor for community activity.”
In this era of limited resources, the ABA is reviewing all of its operations and services. One of the primary areas being revisited by the board is that of programming. Although Tucker says that nothing vital to ABA's membership will be eliminated, educational programming is being carefully scrutinized to determine if it's still an affordable expense, particularly at the regional trade shows. At the July ABA board meeting, Tucker says, such questions as “where do we need to go? What are the most important things to focus on, and what's affordable now?” will be addressed.
The role e-books will play in the future of bookselling is of great interest to Tucker. “One of our biggest issues right now is to make sure the indies are at the table so that we're not thought of by the publishers or the public as not having e-books available,” he notes. Currently, e-books are being sold only on members' Web sites rather than directly in the stores. Tucker's main concern is that so far no delivery option, such as iPhones or the Kindle, is available to indie booksellers. “The convenience is in going online at home and ordering from a computer there. You don't have to go anywhere else to do it,” says Tucker. “If there's something that's not as seamless as what Amazon is doing, then you're going to lose people.” He stresses that ABA will have a solution to this before the fall trade shows.
Tucker is pleased with the improved relationship between the ABA and publishers, which features more give-and-take than in the past. The economic downturn has created a need for mutual dependence and a balanced interaction to find solutions to problems that face all concerned. Using electronic catalogues as an example of this change Tucker says, “They're inevitable, and this issue has created one of the most open dialogues in a long, long time between booksellers and publishers. That's exciting.”
When the economy collapsed last year, ABA's immediate concern was its member stores. “Our staff contacted every one of our members to find out what they needed,” he says. Financial counseling was offered, and a concerted effort was made to discern bookstores' immediate needs. “I can't think of many trade organizations that would do that one-on-one,” Tucker remarks. “ABA is a very developed organization, and it's amazing to me what our staff is capable of doing.”