Starting in 2013, many bloggers and journalists have cited the membership count of the American Bookseller Association in support of the narrative that indie booksellers were going through a revival.
For example, one of the points Glenn Fleishman raised in his article in the Seattle Review of Books last week touched on this data point:
Now indie stores are seeing a resurgence — small, but noticeable, sustained, and continuous. The ABA says its membership has grown from 1,401 and 1,651 locations in 2009 every year through the current one, with 1,775 members and 2,311 stores even as Borders shut down and Barnes & Noble closed 120 outlets during the same period. (Not all indie stores are ABA members, though most are. This can result in apples-to-oranges comparisons among articles that rely on ABA numbers, industry figures, or government analyses.)
I was one of the first to report on the revival in 2013; at that time I saw the ABA membership stats as evidence which disproved the then-accepted belief that Amazon was killing indie bookstores left and right.
Today I would like to clue you in on a detail which a friend on Twitter pointed out a while ago: there’s a problem with the ABA data.
But the fact remains that a significant number of ABA members simply are not bookstores.
While the ABA has positioned itself as representing indie booksellers, it will actually accept retailers of all type. In fact, its membership application form invites prospective members to identify as “non-bookstore”, and the form welcomes all type of businesses, including online sellers, museums, colleges, and even “non-retail operations”. (I am seriously tempted to join under that last option.)
As a result, the actual ABA membership rolls are more diverse than the group’s name would suggest. In Virginia, for example, the ABA lists 51 members. At least twenty of those members are not indie bookstores.
Four college bookstores in Virginia are ABA members, including two stores run by Follett. The membership roll also includes two online booksellers (one is just down the road from me) and an online retailer as well as the Marine Corps Association, three national parks, a toy store in Staunton, a museum, a community center, a holistic store, and five Hudson News airport concessions (actually around a dozen locations in five airports).
I’m sure all of these entities sell books, yes, but that still doesn’t make them indie bookstores any more than Walmart.
Remember, the phrase “indie bookstore” connveys the image of a small local bookstore which is run by the owner, and possibly looking something like this:
So tell me, with almost 40% of ABA members in VA not being indie bookstores, can we really say that there’s a revival?
Not from the ABA membership roll, no, but not all bookstores belong to the American Bookseller Association.
Just in my immediate geographic region, I can find four indie bookstores which don’t belong to the ABA. (What’s wrong with the ABA that I have more non-member indie bookstores within driving distance than ABA members? Is the membership really worth so little?)
If we could find a real source of statistics on bookstores, one which counted all indie bookstores and tracked the number of locations (one ABA member in Virginia has three bookstores) then perhaps we could answer that question.
But as it stands, there’s no way to know for sure.