Memoirs of a Lazy ABAA President

by Tom Congalton

Friday, Apr 28, 2006

When I began my term as ABAA President in April 2000, despite much helpful advice from several of my predecessors, I was a little unsure of what to expect, and from a personal viewpoint concerned how the time devoted to the position was going to effect my own business. I knew from six previous years on the Board that too much devotion to ABAA business could have a real effect on one's own income. With most ABAA member firms being sole proprietorships, or small corporations, with at best, small staffs, could a small business stand the extended loss of its principle employee for the time required? Previous Presidents seemed to end their terms with a mixture of relief, bemusement, and maybe, after a suitable passage of time, nostalgia.

If nothing else, I was willing to provide whatever time was required. I had prepared the staff at my own business, and particularly my assistant, Dan Gregory, to be me for significant, but as then yet undetermined amounts of time. I thought conservatively that I would devote about 60% of my business time to fulfilling the requirements of the position. I would be full-time ABAA President for three full days out of each five-day work week. I could work late and weekends if my own business needed additional attention, something I, and I suspect most, booksellers do routinely anyway.

As it turned out I wildly overestimated the importance of the constant vigilance required of the ABAA President. Aside from a few meetings, and a very few other occasions, rarely did I devote a full day to ABAA business. What was more the routine was that I would spend perhaps an hour a day, mostly re-acting to events, or responding to correspondence from committee chairs and general members. Occasionally when important issues, an impending board meeting, or a similar event loomed, I might spend the better part of a single day in preparation.

So the question that must be occurring to all of you right now - was I the laziest ABAA President ever? And if so, was that a good thing?

I am always startled by the inability of individuals to see themselves and their actions clearly, and I suppose I am no exception, but I think the answer to both of the above questions is yes.

I think the reason that I could afford to be a lazy president was that much of what was accomplished in my administration was done by others, more specifically, the various committees, and particularly the committee chairs.

Beginning with penultimate ex-President Bob Fleck, and particularly my immediate past predecessor, Priscilla Juvelis, two overwhelming principles had been promulgated by ABAA presidents: balance the budget, and do the work in committee, not at the board meetings.

The first was accomplished easily enough. Our bookkeeping is not complicated, and our (now ex-) treasurer, Donald Heald was not shy about pointing out the consequences of our actions. When faced with a budget shortfall we could either cut expenses or raise revenues. We, and by we, I mean mostly Don, made a serious effort to monitor our spending, and cut expenses where possible. To increase revenue we raised dues in a two-part increase, something that hadn't been done in over a decade. While "tax-cutting" may be the national mania these days, I am unrepentant about our dues increase. It was needed, and much to my surprise, and either to the credit of our membership, or perhaps due to the inattentiveness of same, it has been little remarked upon. Thus I leave ABAA finances in much the same way that I found them, with a balanced budget, sufficient funds for promotion of both the organization and our website, and with sufficient financial contingencies for any reasonably rainy day.

The second was a little harder, but accomplished nonetheless. When I first came on the board, over eight years ago, seven- and eight-hour board meetings were routine, and woolgathering the norm. If we were discussing the newsletter, we'd have to start with a discussion of moveable type, move on to the invention of the staple, and so forth, or at least so it seemed to a board who like as not had just flown across country, endured a stressful book fair set-up, and had to be back at the fair by 7:00 a.m. the next morning.

Bob Fleck laid the groundwork for the alleviation of this circumstance by insisting that committees do their woolgathering in committee, not during the board meetings, which helped result in shorter meetings.

Bob's amiability, one of many qualities which has helped make him the first American nominated by the ILAB Committee for President of that august body in nearly forty years, occasionally prevented him from squelching the longwinded, but the groundwork was established.

Priscilla Juvelis was of a different temperament entirely, and was more than willing to handbag down the committee chair or board member who had the temerity to appear at a meeting unprepared, or any other board member who strayed off the reservation and into the rosy realm of creative musing, and thus the meetings became much more focused and efficient.

I was content to build upon the good works of my predecessors, and although it might seem somewhat less inspiring than slogans like "The Father of Our Country" or "He Kept Us Out of War", if political style campaigns were a feature of ABAA elections, my slogan would have to have been "He Kept the Meetings Short." A curious fact is that each meeting I chaired, according to our esteemed legal counsel Larry Fox, set a new ABAA record for brevity, concluding with the April board meeting, where, under the anxious eyes of several board members who had been invited to attend the Ricky Jay show hosted by William Reese to benefit the Benevolent Fund, we clocked in at just thirty-six minutes.

Although I'd like to claim the full credit for this efficiency, the truth is that what allowed me to be a lazy ABAA President were the long hours of work by our committees and their chairs, especially Shelley Caney of the Membership Committee, John Crichton of the Ethics Committee, Ken Sanders of the Security Committee, and Ken Lopez and Carol Grossman of the Internet Committee. They made the duties of the board mostly very simple - to vote on concrete proposals that had been endlessly debated and honed in committee.

So what was accomplished in the past two years? On the Internet front, and again through the good offices of Bob Fleck, we found a new webmaster and independent search engine provider, Jelle Samhueszen of Rockingstone (who is also the ILAB webmaster), with the capabilities, and perhaps more importantly, the staff, to efficiently service the site. We have provided funds to have the database searched by both Bookfinder and Addall, which has greatly increased both sales and traffic. Additionally a cosmetic overhaul of the site is due to begin shortly. Through the good offices of our member Dan Gaeta of the John Bale Book Company, and his associate and friend, non-member Arthur Boutier, the Internet Committee has secured the domain name, which had eluded us since we had set up the site. While our website address is sufficient for everyday purposes, securing in order to protect our trademark and reputation is a positive development, and a preventative against future headaches.

We have provided the necessary additional revenue for aggressive print advertising for the website, the Benevolent Fund, and the Organization itself, an effort that had fallen by the wayside the last several years because of a lack of funds.

We have, through the efforts of Greg Gibson and the Publications Committee, restored the publication of the printed Directory on a regular basis, a circumstance that for a little while had become erratic due to financial concerns (another small point perhaps, but Greg's innovation of distributing spiral bound copies of the Directory to the membership has met with great approbation). Greg has now devoted himself to the long overdue process of updating the membership notebooks, altogether a splendid effort by someone who also maintains full-time careers as both a bookseller and author.

We have increased membership, albeit modestly, and in keeping with the ethical and professional standards we wish to maintain for the organization.

One of the reasons I could be a lazy president, was that I was not allowed by the Chairpersons of the Membership and Ethics Committees to be a lazy committee member (and which I still hold this against them). The diligence, care, and wisdom brought to bear by the respective chairs, Shelley Caney and John Crichton, was beyond the call of duty for a volunteer organization. Members who think that board decisions occasionally seem arbitrary or difficult to comprehend, are reminded of the countless hours that committee members devote to making the organization stronger and of more utility for all of us.

What about ILAB?

Ever since I've been on the Board, and before, it seems that there had a constant low level of aggravation by the ABAA and its members with the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers. The general notion here was that the League was a European men's social club that paid scant attention to the concerns of the ABAA, which provides a quarter of its members, and about a third of its budget. On a number of occasions, the ILAB Committee had rejected our candidates for the committee, arbitrarily at best, and disrespectfully at worst.

The ILAB view, as near as we could discern it, was that the ABAA was a whiny group of scofflaws, mavericks, and gadflies habitually late in paying our dues, and mostly interested in disrupting the smooth workings of the Committee.

Frankly both sides were to some degree right, but it does little good to dwell upon our past grievances. Thanks to patient communication between the Committee and successive ABAA representatives Rob Rulon-Miller and Bob Fleck relations have been normalized and improved. Rob's hard work on the ILAB newsletter, and on its Ethical Code, have despite some occasional ill feelings, helped to make that organization more responsive to ABAA concerns. Bob's work on the ILAB Internet Committee, along with the work of his colleagues, has served to make the League a much more modern and relevant entity to ABAA members. The ABAA has attempted to be more prompt in the payments of our dues and book fair levies (although not always as prompt as ILAB Treasurer Poul Poulson would like, as disparities over when book fair revenue are received from the various chapters have occasionally frustrated efforts to keep remittances entirely up to date).

The League itself has adapted itself and addressed at least some of the ABAA concerns. It elected its first woman President, Kay Craddock of Australia, whose patient goodwill and endless understanding has gone a long way towards improving communications between the various member nations. An ABAA proposal at the Edinburgh Presidents' Meeting, to have workshops in which to allow the national presidents to discuss the issues that face the League, resulted in the national presidents, at the subsequent Boston Presidents Meeting, to become better acquainted, and to reach general consensus on a broad range of issues, and to make incremental progress on others still unresolved (see my article in the xxxx issue of the ABAA Newsletter for those who just can't get enough of the details). After two days of frank discussions about specific issues, it was a little more difficult to maintain the nationalistic posturing that had apparently plagued previous meetings, and the various presidents left the meeting feeling great progress, and at least modest understanding had been achieved, and that the groundwork for future progress had been laid.

The result of all this is that, from a very few years ago when ABAA frustrations had reached the point where board level discussions of pulling out of the League altogether were not uncommon, we have become more fully and actively a part of the League, and I hope more sympathetic to the underlying collegiality that the League at its best engenders. Two other results of these improved relations have accrued to the ABAA's benefit: Bob Fleck's hard work has been rewarded by his previously mentioned nomination by the ILAB Committee to its presidency, and ILAB has accepted the Middle Atlantic Chapter's invitation to host the 2006 ILAB Congress and Book Fair, in Philadelphia and New York respectively. I hope that despite the occasional frustrations that are bound to occur, both organizations will work hard to maintain this very much-improved relationship.

The Future of the ABAA - A Modest Proposal

Steeled with the courage that I won't be the one that will have to deal with the repercussions of its implementation, I'd like to make a modest proposal, based on my observations of the past eight years. Being aware that in the book trade, as one distinguished bookseller has observed, a gathering of seven booksellers will produce at least ten different opinions on every subject, I do not expect it to be particularly popular. I mention it for future debate and consideration.

With that in mind, I feel that while the distinct ABAA local Chapters have served some purpose as social entities, and especially as pools of candidates for the local book fair committees, they have outlived their usefulness as political and financial entities.

Even as social entities, they have become somewhat obsolete. In an era when geographical barriers seemed greater, and a long distance phone call was an exciting event, a gathering of one's ABAA colleagues at a chapter meeting or function was a special occasion. That time has changed. Now, with easy travel and frequent book fairs, it is often a special occasion when one DOESN'T see one's ABAA colleagues. Further, in a time when internet communication has become so easy that our members feel free, through our Internet discussion group, to share the vicissitudes of their digestion, post jokes, riddles, and restaurant reviews, or rhapsodize over minor points of spelling and grammar, do we really need frequent chapter meetings?

Likewise, the requirement that each chapter should have separate representation on the board has resulted in a board that at its worst can be cumbersome and inefficient. A meeting of sixteen board members and officers, our executive director, legal counsel, and visiting Chapter Chairs can at its worst make for a very ungainly meeting. For a long period of time, one smaller chapter was represented alternately by the two different members of a single firm, apparently the only two chapter members who could be prevailed upon to serve.

The vast majority of our members come from the four chapters that currently produce book fairs: Midatlantic, New England, and Northern and Southern California. I suggest that the four largest chapter maintain permanent representation on the board, and the current At-Large board members be chosen from the smaller chapters, thus resulting in a more streamlined and efficient board.

Also, I believe that the maintenance of large balances in the chapter treasuries is probably the most destructive threat to the organization at large that I have encountered. At any one time, the total of the bank balances of the four largest chapters can rival or exceed that of the ABAA itself. I have been privy to more than one discussion by members of various chapters trying to determine the best method of retaining funds for the already bloated chapter treasuries, funds that might otherwise go to the national board for use in projects that would benefit the whole organization. A large percentage of these chapter revenues have resulted from book fair profits, and a redistribution of book fair profits might go a long way towards delaying future dues increases, or increases in book fair booth taxes.

I will leave to incoming President Ken Lopez and future boards to determine whether substantive changes should be made to the relationship between the chapters and the board, and to whether changes should be made in the structure of the board.

Finally, after eight years on the board, it is my opinion that steady, incremental, and careful progress in ABAA affairs benefits us perhaps more than fitful bursts of frantic activity. That model has been used to develop the website, discuss strategy towards improving relations with ILAB, increasing revenue, and making the chapter treasuries more accountable for tax reporting purposes.

I do not doubt that activist presidents have done much to benefit this and other organizations. However, this organization does not necessarily suffer from the focused and benevolent, but not necessarily constant, attention of a lazy president.