Sheila O’Reilly: a booksellers perspective
"Denver beckoned at the end of January for five UK independent booksellers and nearly 600 US indie booksellers as we gathered for the 10th annual American Booksellers Association Conference.
"Why did we five think it worth the trip? There is general agreement in the UK book trade that our compatriots in the US have to deal with 'issues' about eighteen months before the UK. That being so, the UK Booksellers Association felt it worth sending a delegation, albeit a small one, to attend, pick up on the issues and gather ideas.
"The UK independents who survived the eight-hour flight in economy to arrive with only a little jetlag were: Nic Bottomley from Mr B’s Emporium in Bath; Roz de la Hey, owner of Mainstreet Trading Company in St Boswell’s, Roxburghshire; Polly Jaffé of Jaffé and Neale in Chipping Norton; Jane Streeter from The Bookcase in Lowdham, Nottingham; and myself, Sheila O’Reilly from Dulwich Books in South London. Meryl Halls from the BA also joined us.
"It would be true to say we were a little overwhelmed ‒ and that was just Denver, a city that is a mile above sea level and a challenge therefore for any facial cream to fight the elements. Our guess was that no TV commercial was ever filmed there to promote 'beautiful looking skin that will take years off you'!
"What are the issues facing US indie booksellers? Despite being thousands of miles away and in a different country, the issues are the same as in the UK: Amazon, minimum wage and rent. So what are they doing to tackle those issues? When addressing the issue of Amazon they are very blunt about its impact on their trade, their society and culture. We saw shocking presentations about Amazon and its contribution to killing our high streets. Full details of the survey are here: http://bookweb.org/news/true-cost-amazon-revealed-new-study. However, one killer stat is that 'Amazon sales produced a net national loss of 135,973 retail jobs, and the study showed that a total of more than $1 billion in revenue is lost to state and local governments.' They have no problems with naming and shaming Amazon, unlike on this side of the pond. But it’s still a tricky subject because research shows that 67% of book buyers who use independent bookshops believe that Amazon provides a good service.
"The minimum wage is coming into being, just as in the UK, and there are serious concerns about how businesses that cannot control their prices can cope with rising staff costs. And as for rents, again just as in the UK, if an area becomes gentrified, then the rents invariably tend to rise very quickly, pushing out the very shops that helped bring about that gentrification.
"In the end it was the energy, enthusiasm and love of great books of those booksellers that carried us through three intense days of seminars, talks, roundtable discussions and lectures. Sales of print books are up in both the US and UK for the first time in many years, and many of the US booksellers present were looking either to expand their existing shop or take on another location. What I wanted to do was bottle that feeling, bring it back with me, and when the going gets hard in Dulwich, open it up, smell the energy and regroup."