After private discussions and e-mails with American Booksellers Association board members and staff about objections to changes in the association's approach to free speech and the First Amendment, among other matters, Nicole Sullivan, owner of BookBar, The Bookies and the nonprofit BookGive in Denver, Colo., member of the ABA Advisory Council 2016-2018 and president of the Mountains & Plains Independent Bookseller Association 2017-2020, has written the following open letter to the ABA explaining why she is ending her membership in the association.
I've learned so much from you over the years, have enjoyed your support, and am grateful for the friendships you've facilitated. My store wouldn't be where it is without you. I am thrilled, heartened, and encouraged to see the strides that have been made in creating a much more diverse membership and board of directors and am delighted in the growing number of minority-owned bookstores that are opening each day around the country. Representation matters and you are succeeding in uplifting and giving voice to the marginalized. For that, I applaud you.
The achievements made in the diversity of our membership, however, need not upend the association's identity and mission as a trade association that, at its best, is a strong advocate for member bookstores and a defender of free speech. In recent years, we've witnessed the ABA focusing less on bookstores and more on booksellers. As bookstore owners, we recognize that our staff are the backbone of everything we do and should be acknowledged as such. It is essential that bookstore owners create environments that are welcoming and equitable for all employees; we must do our best to provide all employees with a livable wage, paid time off, and health benefits. We must give them a voice and listen to their needs to the very best of our abilities as small business owners and as it aligns with our stores' missions. As business owners, we look to the ABA to support us in achieving these goals.
With that in mind, I would like to remind the ABA that many of our employees are right out of college, experiencing the workplace for the first time. Many still have much to learn about how to advocate for themselves in a professional manner through open, honest, and mutually respectful communication. A part-time bookseller with lofty and worthy ideas should not feel entitled, however, to change the mission of the store in which they've worked for a year or less. We need the ABA to recognize that store owners, like me, who have dedicated my time, mine and my families' resources, my life, essentially, should not be expected to bow to the demands of staff who, while lending a great deal to the day-to-day operations and curation of my stores, know little to nothing about what it takes to keep our doors open and the lights on.
It takes more than passion and idealism to get the keys to the kingdom and it has been my experience the past few years that some members of the ABA staff, board of directors, and committees have not only enabled, but encouraged some of my staff members to burn it all down on their way out the door when I've refused to acquiesce to their demands. My store is far from the only one that has experienced this, and it should go without saying that this is an incredibly toxic way to manage a business association. It seems you might be suffering an identity crisis. Are you a trade association representing your member bookstores? Or are you a labor association representing bookseller workers?
Your stance on the First Amendment only furthers the strife within our stores. By implying that the First Amendment is a "tool of the oppressor" or in conflict with the Fourteenth Amendment, where does that leave those of us who have built our very business models on the tenets of the First Amendment? If the implication is that those of us who will still sell any book to anyone are not "anti-racist" enough and, therefore, perhaps even racist, then please pause and re-read the previous two paragraphs. I'd like to make very clear, at this point, that those of us still advocating for the First Amendment are not arguing against curation. This is a red herring. We all curate our stores, shelves, displays, and marketing. What we are arguing against is the vilification of books and the refusal by some booksellers to SELL (i.e., special order) titles or authors with which they disagree. The more booksellers who feel it is not only their right but their duty to turn away customers trying to access books for whatever reasons, will quickly find the indie bookstore narrative to be not only that we are "too expensive" (we love having that conversation, right?) but that we are judgmental and self-righteous. In that way, we will actively narrow our collective customer base to solely those who align with our politics. That might feel comfortable and "safe" but how will that pay our bills? How will that help more indie bookstores open in more communities or grow their businesses beyond their immediate communities? How will that lead to our employees being able to pay their rent or buy groceries? How will that open closed minds? Again, it seems that you might be suffering an identity crisis. Are you a trade association representing your member bookstores? Or are you a social justice organization?
As a dues paying member, I'm growing increasingly confused about how my dues are being used. If they are being used to undermine business owners and, intentionally or not, pit employees against owners, then I'm out. If my dues are going towards paying ABA staffers to select which books, publishers, and authors get access to me so I can then decide what, in turn, to offer to my customers, then I'm out. If my dues are going to programming that increasingly vilifies free expression, the single most important tool in protecting books from condemnation, rather than business education and advocacy, I'm out. If my dues are going to the short-sighted appeasement of identity politics without an eye toward the long-term sustainability and objectives of our industry, then I'm out.
I've heard from dozens of bookstore owners who feel the same but can't take the steps to leave the membership because you provide their websites. I've recently invested resources in a solution that allows my store to divest from the dependence on IndieCommerce, which is currently holding so many of my colleagues hostage to the ABA. I will still proudly affiliate with Bookshop but am prepared to forgo the payout I've enjoyed through my ABA membership. It is a small price to pay for upholding the commitment I've made to respect my customers' rights to read and to serve my community in the ways in which they've come to expect.
As much as it saddens me to part ways, I will continue to hold out hope for a future ABA that can find a path forward that adheres to the mission of diversity, equity, and inclusion in tandem with the First Amendment and that continues advocating for bookstores and practical ways in which we can support the needs of our employees. The current ABA seems to be sowing more division and conflict than unity around our mutual love of books so I've decided that my dues will be better used in supporting the National Coalition Against Censorship and PEN America. Please understand, this is one of the toughest decisions I've made in my nearly decade-long career.