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Friday
May172019

Preparing for the 1919 ABA Convention

Later this month, we will gather by the river once again for BookExpo, a rite of spring that transforms the cold steel and glass shell of Javits Center into New York City's mega book bazaar.

For almost three decades--first as bookseller and later as media member--I've been attending the show previously known as BookExpo America/American Booksellers Association Convention. This seemed like a long time until I did a little archive exploring recently.

Consider the phrase "a century ago." It has a nice ring, so let's travel back to 1919, a year in which Sylvia Beach opened the original Shakespeare and Co. Bookshop in Paris and Christopher Morley published his iconic booksellers' novel, The Haunted Bookshop. In May of that year, the American Booksellers Association Convention was held at the Hotel Copley Plaza in Boston. Prior to the event, The Bookman published an article headlined "The Bookseller: The Reader's Best Friend" by ABA secretary Frederic G. Melcher.

This would be the ABA's 19th annual meeting and only the second held outside New York. About 200 members registered, including publishers, their representatives and retailers. Of special importance to the discussions that year was estimating the effect of war on book trade as well as possibilities for expansion under new conditions.

"There is a widespread feeling that the book is coming into its own, and the bookstore into wider recognition," Melcher wrote. "Will the bookseller be able to make good under the new opportunities; are the conditions under which he is operating suitable for meeting the needs? These are problems on which the trade wants answers."

Many of his concerns are still our concerns, including the issue that "books half distributed are books only half effective, and to the problem of better distribution the booksellers address themselves. They must work together for better basic training for booksellers, improved selling methods, wider public recognition of the importance of bookstores, higher professional standards. Better trade conditions will increase the number of bookstores, better training will increase the number of satisfied buyers. Improved selling methods will increase the outlet in a given community; increased recognition of the civic and educational importance of bookstores will bring adequate support to bookstore enterprises in cities now without them; and higher standards among store owners and managers will make such recognition possible."

He believed "there is still to be found no better way to get the right books to the right persons than by displaying them conveniently in every community under the competent comment of a bookseller. Authors, publishers, and public agree on this fact."

Why, Melcher wondered, were there so many cities without bookshops and fewer bookstores than there had been 50 years ago, despite a population increase. Not surprisingly, he blamed modern times: "While increase in wealth permits more margin for indulgence in books, the automobile and movie have cut into time available; and apartment houses and frequent family migration have made books seem an extra burden. New sources of reading have appeared on every side."

Consistently profitable bookshops were a rarity. "All statistics of the business point to the fact that while there is no retail field to compare with it in fascination, there are few that can compare with it in difficulty," Melcher wrote. "It requires breadth of study, alertness as a merchant, and a level head for finance, to build up a successful bookstore, or else a combination of such abilities in different heads. Usually it is the enthusiasm for the business that helps to overcome weakness in merchandising, though it may not quite offset weakness in financing."

The ABA Convention, however, provided an opportunity "for the pooling of selling ideas and methods," he noted. "What one manager has worked out another is quite welcome to know, and the one who will bring a good idea is likely to be rewarded by carrying away two."

Bookseller training was a key issue. Noting that at the 1918 convention the part of the program that garnered the most attention "was the reports from four speakers on bookselling education," Melcher observed: "It is the hope of many that the day is not far off when a school for bookselling may be established that will compare favorably with the best schools of librarianship--of which the curriculum could be partly paralleled."

While citing the entrance of more women into the business through "the establishment of small and individualistic bookshops" in various cities as "one of the hopeful and interesting developments in bookselling of the last few years," he also highlighted their "particular affinity for selling children's books."  

Melcher's pre-convention assessment of the bookselling world in 1919 concluded: "The small bookshop is showing increased possibilities under recent experiments. It can in no way take the place of the larger store where customers can find almost all books on all subjects, but it furnishes the opportunity for individuality and initiative. It will reach out in new areas of book usage, and tempt into the business of book distributing alert and active minds who will help to raise the level of American bookselling....

"Today brings in the greatest opportunity the bookseller has ever had, the opportunity to observe an eager and widened reading public at an epoch in the world's history. The preparation for adequate service is not complete; there are too few outlets, too few trained salesmen; but the booksellers see the way toward better things, and they ask and deserve the support and interest of the book-loving public of this country."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3497

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