NYC Booksellers Forum Focuses on Shop Local Movement, Internet Sales Tax Effort

The setting for the American Booksellers Association's Booksellers Forum in New York City on April 8 -- held in conjunction with the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association (NAIBA) -- was the Louis L'Amour Conference Room in Random House's midtown Manhattan headquarters. Approximately 30 booksellers from the region joined ABA CEO Avin Mark Domnitz, COO Oren Teicher, Chief Program Officer Len Vlahos, Board member Beth Puffer of Bank Street Bookstore in New York City, and NAIBA President Joe Drabyak of West Chester, Pennsylvania's Chester County Book & Music Company at the forum.

Prominent on one of the room's walls was a quote from L'Amour's The Walking Drum: "Reading without thinking is nothing, for a book is less important for what it says than for what it makes you think." The words proved an apt introduction to the day, which included both ABA's education session "Booksellers at the Tipping Point: Leveraging Localism and Independence to Promote Your Store," presented by Domnitz and Vlahos, and an open forum with booksellers and ABA's senior staff. Chester County's Drabyak greeted the attendees and explained that NAIBA Executive Director Eileen Dengler could not be with them because of a case of strep throat, noting that "Eileen promised not to come and infect everyone."

Delineating some of the key trends in book retailing, "Booksellers at the Tipping Point" argues that a significant shift in both consumer values and desires and the maturing corporate chain retail landscape are offering indie retailers a unique opportunity to differentiate themselves and to satisfy customers' evolving desires. The key point stressed by Vlahos and Domnitz was the importance of communicating a bookstore's core values of independence and authentic community ties, neither of which could be effectively co-opted by chain competition. Where, formerly, consumers believed that "national is better, national is cheaper, go to the mall and meet all your friends," Domnitz said that, today, even the national chain's corporate leadership are seeing that consumers, having recognized such effects of ubiquitous chain growth as the loss of valued local retailers and the growing homogeneity of the retail experience, "are now making choices to take them to another place." Domnitz said: "I cannot overstate this -- there is a movement here," adding that "we think one of the most important things that we can do is give you a way of [letting customers] recognize immediately that you are an independent business."

The presentation sparked a lively dialog and segued into a working-lunch discussion for the remainder of the three-hour forum. Among other topics covered in the open forum were strategies for working with other independent retailers and national advocates for independent businesses and the status of the lobbying effort on behalf of e-fairness in New York State (see related story). In addition, booksellers offered suggestions and feedback on ABA offerings, including the gift card and e-commerce programs.

"I thought the forum was very helpful," said Francine Lucidon, of The Voracious Reader in Larchmont, New York. "It's always great to meet with other booksellers and to hear what they're doing. I always come away with new ideas and new ways of thinking.... I just find that I do need my peers to grow. One of the things that keeps me going is the wonderful support from other booksellers." Both Lucidon and Marianne Bastian of Runaway Bay Books in Sayville, New York, gave "Booksellers at the Tipping Point" high marks. "I am very excited about being on the forefront of this.... Everything is making sense," said Bastian. Noting that many of her customers were increasingly aware of the importance of Sayville's main street, she said she believed that they would be receptive to a message about the importance of locally owned independent retailers. "And the perception of booksellers is that we are smart and aware," she said. "I think we can be good leaders for a movement."--Dan Cullen