There is no professional educational opportunity for the young person who is interested in becoming a “professional” bookseller. After 25 years, I count myself one – but in fact, the term “professional” when applies to “bookseller” is meaningless.

15 years ago I spent several years serving on the American Booksellers Association’s education committee. This was quite a strange experience. The ABA and the National Association of College Stores were the only sources of educational programming for booksellers. Imagine: trade groups being ENTIRELY responsible for training the people who’d be entering INTO COMPETITION with these very trade group members!

ABA is an organization of small business people. Would such people really be the ideal people to be in charge of providing ALL education to future small business people??

And yet, to suggest that the current Business Schools and Entrepreneurship Classes available through myriad sources are the correct educational preparatory opportunities for future booksellers ignores the difference between bookstores and all other businesses.

Bookstores – in their best sense – are like schools or libraries or museums. And yet – PROPERLY constructed – they live on their own. They require no subsidies. They make money.

The variety of skills required to run a bookstore is unique. Librarian plus Entrepreneur.

We need some leading business school to pioneer a Certificate In Bookselling. A new concentration. It could be a one-year program.

ABA had hundreds of students every year for our schools. Now ABA runs NO SCHOOLS AT ALL. This is an outcome of the psychological effect of the invasion of Wall Street shareholding into chain bookselling – so much capital poured into bookselling so fast that many people with approximately appropriate qualifications to open bookstores got scared off.

This period is now over. Amazon.com has quenched the 1000-superstore-thirst of B&N and Borders. There are authentic opportunities for bright people to open independent bookstores right now. But – the most important catalyst would be the creation of a Certificate in Bookselling at a leading college.

This would UNDOUBTEDLY lead to copycat programs. Certificates in Bookselling would soon be available at colleges across the country.

Actually, I dimly recall that there was some talk in the early 90s about Lesley University as a possible locus for a Master in Bookselling – a 2-year program. However there was a lot of turnover in the Education Director position at ABA, at the time. We had 4 E.D.’s in the space of 4 years. And then the superstore explosion hit us in the face and we shifted from our Education focus to an Anti-Trust focus.

Bernie Rath made a presentation to the Education Committee in 1990 – he proposed 39 (!) different ways we could expand our bookseller training programs. (He was Executive Director of ABA at the time – but WE were the Board and Committees – he was our employee.)

So many possible ways. He said that the Australian Booksellers Association ran a 10-week correspondence course, for instance.

There is no textbook on the subject of bookselling! Last year, the ABA actually created a Bookselling for Dummies title with IDG – and this book is NOT AVAILABLE FOR SALE TO THE PUBLIC?? (It costs $75 used, on Amazon!)

Why in HELL would ABA prevent the public from buying such a book?? Because existing independent booksellers don’t want new competition!! My book – I’m quite concerned that the indies as well as the chains will not sell it.

I developed two educational videos teaching aspects of bookselling in the early 90s. “Computerizing Your Retail Bookstore” and “Art of Children’s Bookselling”. But the video our committee had identified as the number one priority was “How To Open Your Own Bookstore.” The entire committee voted unanimously to produce this, I was prepared to put a lot of work into it, money was allocated – and then, just before we put the project out for bidding to video producers, one bookseller raises his hand in a meeting and says THESE WORDS, (I don’t tell this story in my book): “What are we doing, making this video? It will encourage people to compete with us!”

I thought his comment would pass unnoticed, since it was so dumb. ABA had been running Prospective Booksellers Schools for many years. Most of the people at that table had gotten into bookselling partly through these open-handed programs. OF COURSE the video would encourage the opening of more independent bookstores. That’s why it had been approved! That’s how we were beating the chains – by drawing hordes of new indies to the table and swamping the market!!

And yet – instead – the other members of the committee all sat up. It looked to me like they’d been roused from some sort of slumber. Person after person said, “He’s right! These people will compete with US!”

The committee voted not to produce the video.

I would label this moment as the moment when the chains beat the indies. We had 4000 stores among us, and demand among the general public to Open Their Own Bookstores – for fun, social benefit and profit – had not slackened.

If the Education Committee had intensified its activity, we could have made the new superstore chains’ market grab untenable. We could have gotten 6000 stores, 8000 stores open. The chains wouldn’t have had a chance.

Selfishness. And – speaking to leaders in the world of Business Education: this was YOUR opportunity missed as well.

If it weren’t for the Schools of Education, the whole nation would be educated by for-profit operations like Edison Project. This exact scenario has played out in the field of Bookselling. We can change it.

 

2 Responses to Lobbying for University Level Bookseller Education

  1. Anonymous says:

    Re: graduate level bookseller education

    Hi Andy. Its Bernie, but I’m not a registered user so here I am an anonymous. We (ABA) did a graduate level MBA course at one of the top ten leading business schools in the country – Darden – at the University of Virginia. I clearly remember writing a check for $10,000 to get them interested by funding a case study of the demise of an independent bookseller of long standing (Bernie and Adele Schweid’s store in Nashville). I believe Ron Watson was their manager and a member of some ABA committee’s (education or publications?) at the time and provided access to all the files. We then paid tuition for five or six leading members of the BofD to attend the course (Chuck Robinson, Ed Morrow and Joyce Meskis were among them as I recall) as I kind of experiment to audit the course. When the initial enthusiasm waned and push came to shove with booksellers having to pay their own tuition fees (MBA courses are expensive by definition – my daughter’s MBA at Kellogg is costing her over $100,000)- so I can’t blame them for not ponying up – but they should have known this before having us go in and set this all up. The whole deal subsequently collapsed and as far as I know Darden still has the case study if at some point you find an interested party to pick up the pieces. Best wishes! Bernie

    • admin says:

      Re: graduate level bookseller education

      That’s a great place to start — using those MBA materials ABA developed 10 years ago!

      I agree that providing opportunities for current booksellers to improve their skills is important, but you’re right that people who’ve already opened stores perceive themselves as being unable to afford specialized education of the highest caliber.

      What I wonder is about providing these educational options to young people who are still assembling their credentials for future careers. MBAs are usually for people in their 20s or 30s. But this ABA program was geared toward professional, established booksellers who’d already committed their companies to a direction and strategy. I think that if young entrepreneurs received access to this sort of excellent educational opportunity, they’d more clearly understand how to make the INITIAL decisions that would help ensure their success in the book business. Get off on the profitable foot.

      For instance, it took my ten full years to understand that the EASIEST way to make a profit selling books is simply to run a Gift Store — with more than 50% “sidelines” in stock — using the IMAGE of a bookstore of whatever specialty or ilk to attract customers, and then selling them those higher profit items to ensure the whole thing can function. Travel bookstores, children’s bookstores and Christian bookstores all make great money selling sidelines.

      And — if you develop a higher profit margin from selling “non-book” items, you can afford to pay a higher percentage of gross sales for rent in a fancier location (for instance my own former location at Navy Pier in Chicago: 10 million people per year came through).

      People need to learn HOW TO MAKE MONEY in stores that sell books. Right now, bookseller education may be perceived as not worth paying for BECAUSE indie bookstores are perceived as places where it’s impossible to make a good living. But I earned about $175,000 on average for 6 years running a bookstore/gift-shop in 1500 square feet! If young people could understand that this kind of compensation might be available to them in the context of selling books — we’d pack ‘em in.

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