Meeting Minutes 120715

Seminary Co-op Annual Meeting

Minutes for December 7, 2015 

Meeting commenced at 5:30 pm. 

Jeff Deutsch invited his management team to make brief presentations about their accomplishments and goals.

Adam Sonderberg, Manager of the Seminary Co-op 

Accomplishments:

·      Reestablished direct ties to vendors in an effort to increase margin on the academic press titles we specialize in. Reorders are done in a timely manner. Select, mostly academic, remainders will play an increasingly significant role in our attempt to increase margin.

·      Improvements in course books, which account for more than 30% of sales. Used pilot in fall quarter helped increase rush sales by 3.4% over 2014.

 

Goal/call to action: Timely adoption entry is key; it saves time and money (the latter can be passed on to the students in the form of used books which must be ordered in advance of new stock). Adam asked members who teach courses to submit requests for course books on time and to remind colleagues to do so.

 

Kevin Elliott, Manager, 57th Street Books

Introduction: Kevin worked in variety of libraries and bookstores over the last 15 years. Most recently, he helped open and grow the nonprofit literacy bookstore arm of Open Books.

Accomplishments:

  • Financials
    • Black Friday - 30% increase in sales
    • First Week of December - 11% increase in sales
  • Official Bookstore of BTBA
  • Children’s Department Expansion

 

Goals:

  • Children’s Department
    • Expansion & Growth of Stock and offerings for the surrounding community

 

Call to Action:

·      Looking for schools and local community organizations to partner with

·      Also looking for partners outside of the norm

 

Alex Houston, Marketing Manager

 

Accomplishments:

·      Instituted detailed event tracking, so we now have comparative numbers for two of the busiest months for events.

·      In October and November, we generated 3.5 times the sales while doubling the number of events.

·      During October alone, we hosted or supported 58 events, which generated a combined total of $21,740. Since Alex began the Co-op has hosted or supported 319 events, generating $126,589 in sales, selling over 4,500 books, and serving nearly 17,000 attendees.

·      In an effort to better engage with customers, develop relationships with publishers, and highlight staff interests and expertise, the Co-op has been running a series of semi-monthly promotions, which have included publisher-specific ones (NYRB and our own Prickly Paradigm), some based around events (Ishiguro and Paretsky) and thematic ones (ARTober, poetry). These promotions have generated over $30,000 since last December.

 

Goals:

·      Alex’s team will be working to curate a more cohesive lineup of events, enhance marketing and outreach strategies, continue to enhance community and campus partnerships, and develop children's programming.

 

After the presentations, Jeff highlighted the importance of member engagement. He noted that the existence of a bookstore like the Co-op is a rare benefit and members should not take it for granted. His presentation is excerpted below:

These stores are unique. If you live in or near Hyde Park, you have the Co-op, 57th St. Books, Blackstone Library, Powell’s and the Reg. The exceptional University of Chicago Press is right down the street. I assure you, this is not the norm. There are very few communities in the world, much less the country, that can boast such a robust culture built around books, reading and the life of the mind. Please, don’t take it for granted.

The Co-op has fallen on hard times. The last decade has been unkind to this sort of deliberate, slow institution. We have lost nearly three-fourths of our business during the rise of a culture that privileges convenience and price above all else. If these stores were to fail, they could never be rebuilt. While we are holding on, our current situation is certainly precarious, and I would like to ask for your continuing support tonight, as owners and members of the store.

There are some that might ask why we are struggling. After all there are plenty of bookstores that are making it work, and of course retailers in general apply well-worn principles of commerce to ensure there is a profit on the bottom line. Let me tell you a little about what we do behind the scenes and why it is not so simple to apply these principles.

Our goal is to provide a place where scholars and readers of the highest caliber can still find books that surprise, challenge, delight and impress them. Where the most seasoned of readers can once again feel a sense of wonder in discovering a book. Where our communities can come together over a shared interest in ideas, art and literature.

What does it mean to be a bookseller? What do we actually do to maintain the character of these stores? Why do we take so much pride in hand-picking every book that sits on our shelves, and deliberately selecting every book that we feature?

Most of you know the Front Table. It is a wonderful landscape worth surveying. There are 116 titles that range across disciplines. These are books most stores won’t even stock, much less feature at the front of their store. The Front Table is representative of our approach. We are a unique bookstore. No one does what we do. The Front Table reflects our commitment to serious and scholarly books. It is a statement about what you will find when you wander beyond it. We have over 100k volumes. If you want to learn the true genius of the curation of our buyers, burrow deep in the stacks. We have a full bookcase of Homer, 12 translations of Dante and, of course, our famous Loeb collection.

We look at 20,000-30,000 new books a year. As I mentioned, we stock well over 100,000 books. Every one of them is considered prior to purchasing. On any given day we sell anywhere from 200 – 1,000 books. Of those, two-thirds to three-fourths are single copies of books. They might sell one copy a month, or one a quarter, or one a year, or one every other year. Of course that meant that if we are doing our job correctly, we will be out of a book we shouldn’t, and that we will stock books we “shouldn’t” every day.

We are one of a kind and there are a lot of good reasons it’s a one of a kind bookstore, but to be completely honest, part of the reason that others haven’t adopted our business model is because as a business model, it is actually quite poor. If we were just a business – not a cultural institution – then we wouldn’t be worth saving. We would have gone out of business 5 or 10 years ago and only a few nostalgic readers would have noticed. 

If we were to seek counsel from a consultant they would advise on efficiencies and best practices. For instance, it would be more efficient to only carry books that sell at least 4 times a year. It would be more efficient to order fewer titles that will sell better. A book must earn its spot on the shelf – its “real estate” – by “turning over” or selling 4 times a year. This is good business, and a model that will lead to a strong bottom line. Incidentally, I know of a bookstore that opened recently whose owner called a distributor and asked them to send about 10,000 of their bestselling volumes across categories:  a model of efficiency. And a model that is the antithesis of everything we believe.

Let me quote from Jonathan Lear, esteemed philosopher, Director of the Neubauer Collegium and longtime Seminary Co-op member: “Of one thing I am certain: as soon as a committee insists that the Seminary Coop adhere to ‘best practices’ we are at most one generation away from the institution’s demise. ‘Best practices’ is the third to the last thing the Seminary Coop says before giving up the ghost to Amazon.com.  If the Seminary Coop is to survive into a new generation, if it is to flourish, it will, among other things, have to have many books on its shelves that no ‘best practice’ would ever allow.”

Inefficiency has its place. In raising children, in most artistic endeavors, and in bookselling, a modicum of inefficiency is called for.

This doesn’t mean that we want to be inefficient in the wrong way, or for the wrong reasons. We want to run this foolish business with some intelligence and a bit of savvy. If we raise our topline sales – our overall sales volume – we will be able to do so with a modest increase in operating costs, as we will be able to scale some of our processes. We need growth to help us maintain the qualities that are extra-economic.

The booksellers at these stores have incredible enthusiasm for the bookstore as cultural institution, and a strong commitment to being smart in their approach to bookselling. We need to share our enthusiasm for this place with our readers. I will be an evangelist and an ambassador on our behalf in the community.  We will remain independent and fiercely serious, even if we find great joy in the seriousness. And we will remain vital.

We will be ambassadors for this sort of institution and this sort of experience, and I am asking for your help, as ambassadors.

And what does this mean, to advocate on our behalf? Some of you have purchased additional shares of stock or gifted your credit back to the store. Thank you for that – it certainly makes a difference. But there is something even simpler. Buy a book and convince others to do the same. Think about this: Our sales last year were just over $2.5 million. If every current member (going with the conservative number of 50,000 members) bought one additional book from us this year and they convinced a friend, family member or colleague to do the same, that would generate $2.5 million in sales. That is, we would double our sales. But we have to ask for it. And we have to advocate for it.

Jeff then shared details about the financial performance of the Co-op in the chart below. He called 2015 a “rebuilding year” and said he hopes to turn a corner in 2016.

 

2011-2012

2012-2013

comp

2013-2014

comp

2014-2015

Sales

$3,157,418

$2,964,063

94%

$2,711,256

91%

$2,708,789

Margin

35.17%

9.82%

28%

36.70%

374%

38.24%

Operating Loss

-$87,796

-$966,315

 

-$311,273

 

-$247,079

AP

$807,835

$880,277

109%

$666,943

76%

$631,877

 

 

In discussion that followed with the members, Jeff said that paying the publishers important because in the past the Co-op has sometimes been on hold with publishers and unable to get books. Asked if the Co-op is still on hold with publishers, Jeff indicated that most of those situations have been addressed. Because of past behavior the publishers are not giving the Co-op as much latitude, but the store has been able to get course books in now.

 

Jeff was asked about the impact of the Plein Air Café, and noted that the café and walkway have led to increased traffic in the Co-op.

 

Another member asked how much longer can operating losses go on? Jeff said the Co-op has hit the worst point of operating losses and passed it. Generosity from the member community and particularly the University of Chicago has helped the Co-op continue.

 

Jeff closed by asking members to stay engaged and activate their networks on behalf of the Co-op.

 

Mark Hansen, chair of Board’s Nominating Committee spoke about the process for electing new board members. The process starts with an email to members in early October inviting nominations. After considering the nominations the Committee is renominating current Board members Carolyn, Stuart, Theaster Gates, Ken Warren, and Arthur Sussman.

 

Mark noted that there may be concern about having no spots for new board members this year. He said there were many strong nominations this year, and ones carried over from last year. A few years ago the bylaws were changed to introduce board terms. Board members can serve up to three, 3-year terms. After 5-6 years of experience with this, the Committee proposes to consider this issue again. Over coming months, the Committee and the Board will be thinking about ways in which we might achieve both goals: bringing in new perspectives and harnessing the energy of people who would like to serve, but also developing expertise and relationships. Some of the possible solutions include increasing the size of the board, reducing service to two terms, adjusting the length of the terms, staggering the terms, or inviting service in other ways. The Committee will report back at a future meeting.

 

A vote was taken and the proposed slate of Board members passed unanimously with no comment.

 

The meeting adjourned at 6:23 pm.