Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Chronicle: Coming and Going, Watching and Talking

Time for a Chronicle update, as there seem to have been a number of Doings in my little bookselling world to report on in the last couple of weeks.

Job
Did I mention I'm now the events coordinator for my bookstore? Our former coordinator decided a few weeks ago that he'd like to spend more time on the sales floor (he's in charge of the literature section, lucky guy), so I was tapped to step in. And I'm totally loving it. In addition to hosting events, I now get to work with authors and publicists to set up events in the store, figuring out what works best for us and them, trying to think creatively about what's likely to attract the best audiences. It's a lot of emailing, and also a lot of making up flyers and posters and ordering and returning books. I'm a lot busier at the store than I used to be, but it's something I've wanted to do for a long time. And spending half of the time in the back office and half of the time on the sales floor is great – computer work and customer service are a good break from each other.

Man, I love my job. The performative, conversational, communal aspects of reading really appeal to me, and I feel lucky to be able to help to shape that in our store. And I love pitching things I care about – I'm like some kind of semi-competent PR agent, who can only sell what she really loves. And I get to do arts-and-crafts stuff with the sign and poster making – what could be better?

Movie Screening: Indies Under Fire
As I mentioned, a group of us convened at Steve's apartment a couple of weekends ago to watch the buzzed-about documentary INDIES UNDER FIRE, which tells the story of the conflict of chains and indie bookstores in the San Francisco Bay area. Steve and his girlfriend Anique were there, along with Amanda and Alison from Good Yarns bookstore, Sean from independent rep group Parson Weems, and a longtime book industry type from Consortium Book Group. We'd gotten tentative RSVP's from a couple of other booksellers and publishers and were sad they couldn't make it, but the small group was actually a great size for conversation.

Unfortunately, most of us had criticisms of INDIES UNDER FIRE. While the footage of customers and staff at Bay Area indie bookstores clearly demonstrated the love and loyalty that those people felt for their local indies, it seemed to be preaching to the choir. I don't know that anyone who doesn't already see the value of indies or the dangers of the spread of chain stores would be convinced by the movie. And when a Borders exec claimed he knew many people who were "begging" for a Borders in their community, I wanted to see those people and their reasons, or at least some evidence that they didn't exist.

Actually (and this is strictly my opinion) I thought the chain employees didn't even come across as the biggest villains (there was one Borders manager in particular who was clearly very professional and sympathetic) – it was the landlords and developers who seemed like the worst players, with a short-sighted, self-serving idea of what their communities needed and no interest in responding to neighbors but only in making a quick buck. (But maybe I just feel that way because I live in the New York real estate market...)

But the best part about the movie was that it did instantly spark conversation – we were debating before the credits were over. Where is the line between serving consumer free choice and being a predatory business? Should independent bookstores position themselves as the equivalent of a nonprofit, something that should be supported and protected because it's an ethical thing to do, or should they focus on offering superior service and experience in order to effectively compete as a business? Is there some kind of conflict of interest in campaigning for preserving your community when it benefits you financially, or is that just a part of being a good citizen of your neighborhood? What exactly are the qualitative differences between chains and indies in terms of atmospheres, employees, selection, etc.? Is it possible that there are some readers who actually prefer the chains, or is it just a lack of education that makes them think so? Is there room for both the chains and the indies in the American bookselling landscape? How can we make the playing field more level, while still demanding the best from every bookstore?

Obviously, the questions go on and on, and our individual answers to them may determine our direction as local independent businesses of all kinds. I think it might be more productive to show this film to bookstore owners and other independent business owners than to bookstore customers in a public screening – it really forced us to think hard about how we position ourselves in our market, the factors we're up against, and the power we can have if we work together. I'm curious to hear others' takes on the movie – let me know what you think if you've seen it.

Meeting: Emerging Leaders planning
Last Friday I met up with Steve Colca (publicity, W. W. Norton) and Amanda Lydon (manager, Good Yarns Bookshop) to work on our game plan for Emerging Leaders, both the next Night Out and some additional projects and ideas. (I have to add here, that one member of our planning committee is having a serious moment in the sun – check out today's Shelf Awareness for a great piece on the media attention that Amanda and her mom, Margaret Osondu, have been getting from the Today Show and Oprah!)

Over fabulous tacos from La Esquina and a drink or two at Double Happiness, Steve, Amanda and I laid our plans, which involve another Emerging Leaders Night Out this fall, as well as a young bookseller/publisher roundtable of some sort early in the new year. One of our major focus points for this next ELNO will be getting more booksellers into the mix, and we've got some plans for doing so; drop me a line if you've got ideas about that or you'd like to get involved. I'll keep you posted!

Weekend: NAIBA Board Meeting
This Sunday and Monday was the fall meeting of the board of directors of the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers association in Spring Lake, New Jersey. So Sunday morning I met up with NAIBA executive secretary Eileen Dengler, her assistant Doreen, vice president Lucy Kogler (of Talking Leaves bookstore in Buffalo) and secretary/treasurer Pat Kutz (of Lift Bridge Books in Rochester). Eileen drove us the hour and a half through Staten Island and environs down to Spring Lake, a pretty little town of high-end summer houses on the Jersey Shore. We met up with Betty Bennett (of Bennett Books and the fabulous Bennett family) and former president Fern Jaffe (Paperbacks Plus in the Bronx) and had lunch in the Who's On Third Diner, a baseball-themed place filled with locals, and we were already talking business. (Actually, we'd been talking bookstore stuff all the way in the car, and we didn't stop even for meals this weekend. What can I say? – we're all bookstore nerds.)

We stayed in a beautiful Victorian B&B called the Normandy, with weirdly wonderful "women's handicrafts" (like wreaths made of hair) on the walls, lots of adorable details, scrumptious food, sweet staff, and a super-cool Tower Room at the top, where I was lucky to be assigned. (The view of the ocean was great and it was charming in the daytime, but when the wind blew at night and the stairs creaked, I couldn't help imagining Victorian ghosts coming to join me in the Tower, and I tossed and turned a bit. This is what comes of having a book-addled imagination.)

The Board convened at two o'clock on Sunday, and we talked business straight through until two o'clock on Monday, with only occasional breaks to raid the cookie table, walk down the boardwalk for dinner in a local restaurant, and sleep. Joe Drabyak of Chester County Books & Music is president this term, and he led the meeting admirably, with his trademark brilliantly groan-worthy humor and a great instinct for making sure all voices were heard. You can see a complete list of the board employees, members and their bookstores on the NAIBA website (soon - it's in the process of being posted); for me this weekend they became just Betty, Fern, Eileen, Joe, Jack, Lucy, Paul, Pat, Harvey, Doreen, Carla, Lynn, Tim, and Rob. I treasure the conversations I got to have with them in between business about our towns and our stores, our lives and our families, our histories and our hopes. One of the purposes of the meeting, we all agreed, is to rejuvenate ourselves as booksellers and as board members by spending time with people who are equally committed to books, bookselling, and the independent bookstore community, and who become friends as well as associates.

Our goal for the weekend was to set our plans for the year, and figure out how we as an association can better serve the bookstores that make up our constituency (not to mention getting more regional bookstores to become members, goals which obviously go hand in hand). This involves allocating our finances, working with publishers, planning small events like the Trunk Show in upstate NY and the Shop Talk events in various cities, and the culmination of our year, the Fall Trade Show. We came up with neat ideas in a lot of areas (you'll see them happening and hear about them on this blog in the next year), but we saved the trade show talk for last.

In a late-night, after-dinner meeting on the wide porch of the Normandy, we worked to formulate what exactly the purpose of the fall show and convention is, and what it should be, and whether it's working to that purpose. We tried to figure out how we can make the show more attractive and more productive for publishers and especially for our membership. And we came up with a somewhat revolutionary plan for a new kind of show. I can't write about the new focus yet – "discretion" is actually right there in the "NAIBA Board of Directors Guidelines" – and anyway it will be so much cooler when we reveal it all at once. But it's going to surprise you and knock your socks off, and we think it's going to be a radical, wonderful clean slate. So be prepared, and stay tuned...

I hitched a ride home on Monday with Fern Jaffe (after ruefully admitting to Eileen that as a carless New Yorker I'm like the kid in the carpool, since after every meeting the question is "Okay, who's got Jessica?"). Fern and I talked about her experiences as not only the owner of the only independent bookstore in the Bronx (Paperbacks Plus) but also the first president of NAIBA, back when it was still the New York–New Jersey Independent Booksellers Association. (Eventually the organization merged with the Middle Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association, and the combination of names is where New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association comes from – not, as I thought, because it's not the "old" AIBA.) Fern is an incredible mentor and force in the industry, and I feel lucky to have finally met her after hearing about her for years. She's just one of the amazing booksellers who make up this community in which I've found myself. And I'm grateful for all of them.

6 comments:

Lauren said...

I think your discussion about urban planning, commercial developers, and indie bookstores as a moral project was fascinating! Coming from a family of "smart growth" planners, I'm hyper sensitive to (read: biased against) big time commercial developers who make only token efforts to learn what communities want and need. There's no question that big box stores allow for a quick and easy profit for developers in a way that small indie businesses of any sort cannot.

But having said that, I'm not sure positioning indie bookstores as nonprofits is a useful idea. First of all, let's not forget that the nonprofit sector has plenty of its own infrastructural problems, and may not be the best (or even a short-term sustainable) model to follow. Secondly, the pat argument against the need for protected community-based, minimally commercial reading/literary communities is that they already exist, in the form of public libraries. And finally, I think we need to find a way to make small businesses of all types sustainable.

I don't think we can afford as a society to let niche or countercultural markets become absorbed by (inter)national conglomerates. I believe in Jane Jacobs's theories about mixed use, mixed income, pedestrian friendly neighborhoods, which are threatened by box stores' provision of one-stop-shopping. Granted, it's a middle/upper class privilege to suggest that everyone should take 3 hours out of their day to stop at small local groceries, coffee shops, bookstores, etc. and pay a premium for the experience to boot...but I like to think there's a middle ground to be found between quick-cheap-easy and culturally-rich-and-sustainable.

But maybe I'm just a snob, and Borders kiosks in Walmart is the way to go? After all, if we can't figure out a way to get an indie bookshop on every corner, are we allowed to take some solace in the fact that the Evil Empire, massive outlets of The Man at least get more of the populace reading?

Lauren said...

I think your discussion about urban planning, commercial developers, and indie bookstores as a moral project was fascinating! Coming from a family of "smart growth" planners, I'm hyper sensitive to (read: biased against) big time commercial developers who make only token efforts to learn what communities want and need. There's no question that big box stores allow for a quick and easy profit for developers in a way that small indie businesses of any sort cannot.

But having said that, I'm not sure positioning indie bookstores as nonprofits is a useful idea. First of all, let's not forget that the nonprofit sector has plenty of its own infrastructural problems, and may not be the best (or even a short-term sustainable) model to follow. Secondly, the pat argument against the need for protected community-based, minimally commercial reading/literary communities is that they already exist, in the form of public libraries. And finally, I think we need to find a way to make small businesses of all types sustainable.

I don't think we can afford as a society to let niche or countercultural markets become absorbed by (inter)national conglomerates. I believe in Jane Jacobs's theories about mixed use, mixed income, pedestrian friendly neighborhoods, which are threatened by box stores' provision of one-stop-shopping. Granted, it's a middle/upper class privilege to suggest that everyone should take 3 hours out of their day to stop at small local groceries, coffee shops, bookstores, etc. and pay a premium for the experience to boot...but I like to think there's a middle ground to be found between quick-cheap-easy and culturally-rich-and-sustainable.

But maybe I'm just a snob, and Borders kiosks in Walmart is the way to go? After all, if we can't figure out a way to get an indie bookshop on every corner, are we allowed to take some solace in the fact that the Evil Empire, massive outlets of The Man at least get more of the populace reading?

Andy Laties said...

Lauren,

Unfortunately the nature of the retail channel influences the choices made by the big publishers. And since the bulk of books actually read by Americans are produced by these big publishers, that means that the nature of the retail channel conditions what books Americans will read.

Big Publishers are already publishing in a manner totally different from that employed only 15 years ago. The less the diversity of retail outlets, the more the big publishers have to make book-publishing decisions that have a very good chance of resulting in their products (books) being picked up by the large concentrated retail companies for sale nationwide.

So -- we're not only talking about the issues it sounds like were focused on in the film. It's also about which books get published, promoted and distributed. People who say they love superstores don't generally realize that superstores act to censor these customers' reading choices.

Of course, everything can be found online now, but in practice the vast majority of people make their reading decisions based on publicity and ubiquitous availability. It's very important that Big Publishing is desperately yearning for that Big Order from B&N for every title they publish. This shapes their decision-making.

The best evidence that B&N is effectively censoring the Big Publishers' decision-making process is that the recent Barron's article touting B&N's profitability and potential pointedly noted that B&N has achieved the goal of selling 10% self-published books. That is: B&N Publishing has got 10% of the total gross sales out of B&N bookstores. Just four years ago, the number was 3%. B&N Publishing therefore has been pushing the real publishers OUT of the retail shelf-space nationwide. (B&N Publishing does primarily reprints and genre books -- not editorially "real" books with "real" authors who get royalties, etc.)

So -- No, you're not allowed to take comfort that even if Borders kiosks in Wal-Mart do become the future way Americans get books, "at least we're reading books". Because the editorial content of those books will have been pre-shaped by the publishers to ensure the books CAN be sold in Wal-Mart.

amy k said...

Is this Steve Colca you speak of in his early 20s and from TX?

Book Nerd said...

Amy -- yep, that's him! Do you know Steve?

amy k said...

We went to school together back in Texas.