Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Changes Here, There and Everywhere

Avin Domnitz to Leave American Booksellers Association

I was quite surprised by the announcement last week that Avin Domnitz would be leaving his post as Chief Executive Officer of the American Booksellers Association later this year. To me, Domnitz, with his booming voice and large energetic bearing, has come to embody the trade group that has fought so valiantly for independent booksellers during this past decade.

Domnitz seemed to be everywhere, from the corridors of the large convention halls in New York, Chicago, Washington D.C. or Los Angeles at Book Expo America and the hotel lobbies that house the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association meetings in Colorado, to our new fiction section browsing for a book to read while on vacation. He was constantly championing the cause of independent bookstores at these gatherings and he was always willing to speak one on one to booksellers with suggestions on how to survive in this almost impossible business climate.

Over the years, I've had to endure a lot of complaints about the ABA. Booksellers would grumble that the ABA wasn't doing enough to help member stores, the initiatives were ineffective, ABA should only focus on one particular agenda item (the focus always changed with the person I was talking to), and that it was absurd for poor, beaten down booksellers to have to support the large staff infrastructure and high salaries of ABA. Heck, if someone could make money in bookselling more power to them.

I never took much stock in those complaints. The job that Domnitz was trying to accomplish was remarkably complex. The ABA is made up mostly of tiny little almost invisible mom and pop stores while the big glamorous booksellers (like Powell's and Tattered Cover) get all of the press and attention. It's almost two completely different constituencies. Domnitz, through programs like Booksense (now IndieBound), the suing of publishers for unfair trade practices and most recently the litigation in New York to get Amazon to pay sales tax has tried to find the common ground.

I don't think it will be easy to find someone to replace Domnitz. He was simply impossible to ignore. Sure, some booksellers thought he was full of bombast and empty rhetoric, but people took notice when he entered the room. He got publishers to pay attention to independent stores during a time when there were many more reasons for them to cast us aside.

Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops Closing
This headline nearly broke my heart until I saw the glimmer of hope in the articles. Harry W. Schwartz, the venerable bookseller that has been serving Milwaukee for 82 years, announced yesterday that it was going to close its four stores at the end of March. My sadness was personal because my dear friend Daniel Goldin has been the buyer for Schwartz for over 20 years.

Daniel is the smartest, most passionate bookseller I know. He's an amazing reader, a kind soul and he possesses a remarkable business mind. I owe much of my success as a buyer to the advice he has given me over the years. I almost picked up the phone and called him to commiserate before I finished reading the article. Luckily, I didn't. It turns out that Daniel will be purchasing Schwartz's best store, the Downer Avenue location and renaming it Boswell Book Company. If anyone can make an independent book store thrive in an old Great Lake's city it is Daniel.

Still, the news was a major blow to people in the independent bookseller community. After all, Schwartz is one of the great stores in the country (hosting magnificent events under the guidance of another old friend of mine Nancy Quinn) and it has survived rough times in the past including the Great Depression. But this time there was no hope. Sales were down 17 % last year and didn't show any promise of rebounding this year. Carol Grossmeyer, Schwartz's President, said, "we really believe that the multiple-store model that we had become, and that worked so well for us in the 1980s and 1990s, is not feasible anymore."

If she's right then we could be headed for very interesting times in the bookselling community. Barnes & Noble and Borders have taken the multiple-store model to huge extremes. However, Powell's and Tattered Cover also have multiple locations. What are the implications for them? Will they go the way of Schwartz and Washington bookseller Olsson's? I hope not. The results of more closings like this, leading to fewer dedicated booksellers will be truly devastating for authors and readers in addition to booksellers.

The irony that Domnitz got his bookselling experience and made his reputation at Schwartz during their heyday is quite hard to avoid this week. His retirement and the closing of Schwartz seems like a true end of a bookselling era.

Boy, It's a Little Stressful Around Here

We've seen our share of tension here at the store over the past few weeks. It's been a time of reckoning as we try to align our staff and our inventory to the new economic reality. It's also been a time of looking ahead and trying to project what our future holds. Projecting much optimism is nearly impossible.

Fortunately, due to normal staff turnover, we have been able to avoid layoffs. However, we have shifted people's responsibilities, accepted resignations without any hope of hiring replacements and foisted more work upon fewer people. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this transition is that we are struggling to make our young staff members understand the seriousness of the situation. It's been a challenge.

As I listened to Barack Obama's inaugural address this morning and he discussed putting aside petty recriminations and choosing work over leisure, I couldn't help thinking of the hurdles that our staff faces in these coming months. I can only hope that we can rise and meet our challenges.

Meeting these enormous challenges despite the obvious difficulties is truly our best option. I think I echo most of our staff's feelings when I say that I've had enough change for one year and it's only Jan. 20.


Eric B said...

I also listened with great interest and no little emotion to our new president's inaugural speech. I wanted to hear what he had to say to a wounded citizenry. His emphasis on the difficulties ahead and the need for perseverance and hard work are ones that resonate deeply to those of us in the book trade. It seemed sometimes as though he were speaking directly to us: the need to be involved in our communities and to give help to those who need it are themes that booksellers know well. Almost every bookstore I know has been involved (as has MPIBA, the ABA and others) in literacy projects aimed at the least privileged of our society. We will continue to do that work, and more, as time goes on. But work it is, and it will not become less; it's likely to become greater. I think, maybe, we're up to it.

Geeks in Rome said...

it's awful what local and small businesses are dealing with. plus add to the gloom that it's not going to get better anytime soon...

even my mom who is a great depression survivor can't believe how bad it is.

These things operate in cycles -- just no way of knowing how long it'll take for the pendulum to start the upswing.

Daniel Goldin said...

First of all, I'm blushing. Second of all, and I'm not trying to turn this into a logrolling event, I have certainly learned as much from you, Arsen, and you have from me. Now I don't even need to talk to you because I read so much on your blog. I did actually call Boulder Bookshop on Sunday before the announcement, hoping you might be there.

Ok, now why would your readers want to read the above paragraph. Yawn! My apologies. But here's a few things to say in true Kash's Book Corner style.

1. We have and had a really great financial manager, but like many booksellers, we sometimes took our eyes off the numbers, something that our once co-leader Avin Domnitz would cringe at hearing. I don't know if this would have saved us, we'd certainly have been a very different company, but it's an admission that I take some responsibility for and I hope not to repeat at my new enterprise.

2. Our relationship with our customers is perhaps the most important thing we have. We chose to announce our closing with as much notice as possible so that everyone would be able to say goodbye--we were devastated by a recent beloved group of restaurants in Milwaukee (Heinemann's if you lived here, of the lush torte and crunchy tuna salad!) that shuttered without notice. If they asked my advice, I would have told them they could have done A LOT of business the last month.

There are a lot of mini-movements to save Schwartz and that's not going to happen. However, much of that love is being channelled into Lanora's and my new enterprises. I'm not taking it for granted, yet I know it will dissipate. For now, as I ready my new bookstore, I'm constantly thinking, "What can I do to cement my relationship with my reader/customer? How can I include them in the bookselling process."

3. I can't write anything without a book mention or two. I've been thinking a lot about Danny Meyer's "Setting the Table" as I figure out our mission. And I'm freaking out about how amazing the novel "Little Bee" (it's called "The Other Hand" in Europe") is. It's out Feb 3, and you must buy your copy at Boulder Bookshop. Well, or maybe another indie. But mostly Boulder. -Daniel