In the quiet darkness of a late fall night, circa 1923, my grandfather Charlie and his family packed their belongings and quietly left Birmingham, England. Times were not good in Birmingham for union organizers and efforts to bring a reasonable standard of living to the bakers there came at a very high price.
Charlie and family moved to Glasgow, Scotland. The small used bookshop that he started there was stacked to ceiling with dusty shelves which held a mixture of magazines, books, old toasters, and soft-core British pornography. The bookshop was eventually taken over by my aunt and I visited there a few years before she died.
Perhaps my own relationship with books and selling them was genetic. Coincidentally, I also spent several years as the chief negotiator for a teachers’ union. Times had changed and, happily, I didn’t feel the need to flee Fort Dodge, Iowa – at least not because of my union organizing activities.
The IOBA booksellers are gently tied to one another, even though much of what we do is rather solitary. Our days may be spent hunting for books, keying in data, and dealing with sales orders. The ‘Independent’ aspect of our work is significant. Paradoxically, we are united in our sense of personal freedom and charting our own course. When we buy a book (or a thousand) we rely on our personal intuition and knowledge to determine if we’ll be able to convert that book into a profit. Much of our day-to-day survival rests on our own shoulders.
But not entirely.
Being part of an association of like-minded people provides a sense that we’re not in it alone. While there may be 15,000 independent online sellers, it’s comforting to know some of them e-personally. It’s also significant that those who choose to join together share a commitment to quality, service, and a code of ethics. As a group we independent people make a statement of our commitment to a standard of excellence.
It’s a good business decision to let others know that you stand for something. Our customers are people who are interested in knowledge and education. It pays us to be knowledgeable and educated about what we are doing. There is no better way to accomplish this than by joining together.
There’s a fair amount to know about the art and science of our business, especially since little more than a decade ago our business model didn’t even exist! Through association with others in the field we each have the benefit of shared experience, such as learning about the cutting-edge information that can have a positive impact on our business. Frankly, why keep reinventing the computer chip, or the wheel, when others can provide you with some of the basics?
My involvement with IOBA has enhanced my work. It’s been an association that has given me a great deal–and offers the potential for much more. IOBA is a unique organization that is dedicated to serving our shared interests. It helps each of us be a little bigger and have the potential to be a little more independent than we were without it.
My membership in IOBA has been of substantial value to me. We face increasing challenges in our business on a day-to-day basis. The explosion of the digitized world continues to provide tremendous opportunities as well as significant challenges. One of the challenges affected many of us when a few months ago a major on-line service had a significant glitch and interruption of service. Potential changes in postal regulations could impact the shipping of our books we sell. Together, we can learn how to deal with any adverse effects on our business, and have some potential to impact issues as they emerge.
As we know, right now anyone with a book can be a bookseller. For better or worse, it’s what allowed most of us the opportunity to become a part of this field. Is there more to what we do than the very simple act of offering our goods in the market? I believe that without our willingness to ‘associate’ with one another in our common best interests, we will merely be reactive to the market place. Our potential strength and effectiveness lies in creating opportunities to make a difference in the market place and, ultimately, to influence that same marketplace. There’s a lot for us to think about!
IOBA offers an expanding array of education and services to the on-line community. It provides substantial value for all of us. I’m dedicated to trying to help our association increase that value, because membership in IOBA is among the best investments an independent on-line seller can make.
Originally published in the Summer 2005 issue of The Standard.