Under the combined leadership of new co-executive directors Kristin Rasmussen and Ann Seaton, the California Independent Booksellers Alliance concluded its Fall Discovery Lab with abundantly good vibes on Friday, October 28. CALIBA boasts a membership of 240 stores, “with new stores popping up on a regular basis,” said Seaton. Their hybrid October events featured 29 reps, more than 30 authors online, and 13 authors in person.

Treasurer Bridget Schinnerer (Vroman’s Bookstore, Pasadena) reported that after a year in the red 2020, CALIBA’s 2021 is in the black, thanks to a direct-mail catalog, e-blasts, the return of membership dues suspended last year, and savings from not renting a bricks-and-mortar office space. Schinnerer added that the CALIBA Board has earmarked $100,000 in a separate account to assist bookstores in the event of an emergency.

National initiatives topped the regional organization’s agenda. Board president Melinda Powers (Bookshop Santa Cruz) introduced Kate Weiss, program manager at Binc, who thanked all industry partners for their contributions over the past 18 months and also noted that no store that made a qualified request for aid was turned away during the pandemic. Weiss then invited queries from those facing hardship and from those with the resources to offer support.

ABA announcements likewise offered reassurance. At a morning IndieCommerce session, ABA CEO Allison Hill said that “IndieCommerce has become critical to the stores.” Upgrades in early 2022 will make the platform more user-friendly in response to strong customer traffic and bookstores reimagining the marketplace.

At a morning session, IndieCommerce director Phil Davies explained how the platform weathered challenges from January 2020 through October 2021. On March 12, 2020, as schools and businesses shut down due to COVID-19, IndieCommerce recorded a steep 77% increase in weekly traffic across participating websites. Simultaneously, the percentage of online customers completing a purchase leaped from a weekly average of 1.33% to more than 6%, and averaged about 5% for the rest of the year.

Online traffic spiked on June 2, 2020, during anti-racist demonstrations, and again on November 30’s Cyber Monday, which yielded a whopping 8.5% conversion rate. Despite “heavy traffic,” said IndieCommerce senior manager Geetha Nathan, “our platform was stable, and the conversion rate is now almost twice what it was in 2018 and 2019.” Davies said the rate stands at a “new normal of 3%, or 2.81%.”

To meet the higher volumes, the ABA is nearing the completion of a total upgrade of the platform. Informed by members’ feedback, the upgrade will feature an enhanced shopping cart, templates, ordering functions, and payment options including ApplePay. “It’s an upgraded platform, and it’s also a totally reimagined platform,” says ABA CEO Hill. “We have a vendor who has about 10 developers in the third stage of the scope of work.” Come January, ABA anticipates a status update for IndieCommerce booksellers, and February’s Winter Institute promises a session with developers. Nathan is confident her team “will be able to provide customers with what they need to get through this holiday season.”

At the CALIBA general meeting, ABA chief operating officer Joy Dallanegra-Sanger said final results of the ABACUS survey are delayed given enormous changes brought by PPP loans and the rise of Bookshop. Dallanegra-Sanger said ABA’s antitrust initiatives are progressing, saying, “We think there is still a really good window of opportunity to make some headway.” ABA, ILSR, and Small Business Rising are among those working to rein in Big Tech.

Looking ahead, CALIBA will explore creating a micro-regional bookseller council, to connect members with shared concerns and proximity. The organization also reminded members to steer customers to winners of its Golden Poppy Awards. Chaired by Maryelizabeth Yturralde (Creating Conversations, Redondo Beach), the awards champion California authors such as Anthony Veasna So, whose story collection Afterparties (Ecco) won both the Fiction category and the Martin Cruz Smith Award for Diversity and Inclusion.

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