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By Lee Trentadue
February 16, 2012
5:08 PM

Filed under Opinion and Guest columns

Why I resigned from the CBA

Canada’s national association for booksellers is failing its members, writes former vice-president Lee Trentadue. Here’s how to fix it

In November 2011, I resigned as vice-president and board member of the Canadian Booksellers Association. Since then many in the book community have asked, “Why now?” and “What’s next for the CBA?” In this article, I hope to answer those questions.

Why now?
When I joined the board three years ago, the CBA was very different from what it is today. At the time, the association had recently affiliated with the Retail Council of Canada but nevertheless maintained its autonomy. It managed its own finances and educational programs. Regular board meetings were held, and the board received detailed committee reports that allowed it to identify and address issues of importance to booksellers. To do this more effectively, the association employed three individuals, including executive director Susan Dayus, who were not affiliated with the RCC.

At the time of my resignation, the board met infrequently and association committees were relatively inactive. Board members received few financial or other reports, and these were often sketchy at best. After Dayus retired in 2010 and the other two staffers were let go, there were no longer any CBA employees who were not in some way associated with the RCC.

These changes did not occur overnight. In retrospect, the situation was rather like the old adage that if you throw a frog into boiling water it will immediately jump out, but if you put it in a kettle of cold water and then gradually heat it up, it will remain there until it is cooked.

I was aware of these changes and voiced my concerns. However, key decisions were increasingly made outside of established channels, and I was, either by accident or design, excluded from that process. When I finally accepted that I was in line to become president of an association that was going in a direction I did not agree with and which I could not control, I resigned.

I am not making these comments in an attempt to vilify the RCC or blame the organization for all of the CBA’s woes. My point is simply that the autonomy of the CBA has clearly been eroded by the blending of the two associations.

None of this would be a big deal if the RCC and the CBA shared the same goals, but I believe their fundamental missions are not equivalent. The RCC is devoted to protecting and enhancing the retail sector in Canada; however, it’s impossible to enhance some components of the retail sector without harming others.

Small, independent stores (whether they sell clothes, office supplies, or books) often find themselves in conflict with big-box stores. A quick look at the RCC board of directors reveals that it is populated by senior executives from Sears, Walmart, Costco, Loblaws, Staples, and Canadian Tire, to name a few, but not a single bookseller or, for that matter, a small, independent businessperson.

Can one honestly believe these executives would support the Shop Local movement, which has been endorsed by past CBA boards? In fact, they head the very companies the campaign is aimed at combatting.

In addition, promoting the retail sector is by no means the CBA’s entire mission. The association has also, traditionally, been committed to promoting literacy and publishing, and to advancing the book as a key component of our culture. These are all goals that fall outside of the RCC’s mandate. My concern is that, as the RCC has become more central in the CBA’s operations, the goals and mission of the CBA have been altered.

What’s next?
Although I have resigned from the board, I have not terminated my CBA membership, nor do I intend to. I continue to believe that a healthy and vibrant national booksellers’ association is essential to the entire writing, publishing, and bookselling endeavour. I also believe that, with some changes, the CBA can again assume this role.

First, the board of directors must regain control of the CBA by taking these steps:

  • The board should enter into open and transparent negotiations with the RCC to develop a clear definition of the nature of their relationship, including mutual responsibilities, financial arrangements, and so on
  • The board and association committees should hold regular meetings, and board members should be provided with reports from all committees. Decisions of the board, in turn, should be circulated to all committees for implementation
  • Detailed minutes of all board and committee meetings should be made available to all CBA members to increase transparency and accountability

Second, the CBA must regain the trust and commitment of the membership by taking the following steps:

  • CBA staff should be employed solely by the association and responsible only to its board of directors. This will avoid any real or perceived conflicts of interest with the RCC
  • The constitution and bylaws of the CBA should be posted online and circulated to members. As soon as possible the board should strike an independent committee to assure all provisions are being fulfilled
  • The board should enter into a discussion with the membership regarding the CBA’s goals, purpose, and values. The association must lend serious support to issues critical to booksellers, such as relations with publishers, distributors, and governmental bodies; bookselling-­oriented educational opportunities; and national PR campaigns, such as Shop Local or Independents Matter
  • Long-term members who have dropped their memberships should be engaged in a dialogue as to why they left and under what conditions they might return. The results of those discussions should be compiled by an independent committee and distributed to members
  • The geographic diversity of the membership must be recognized and mechanisms put in place to give members in remote regions an opportunity to contribute

I believe the CBA can survive, but only if the board seriously addresses the tasks of re-establishing its independence and reinvigorating the membership’s commitment to making the association strong and viable. This is a crucial time for booksellers, and we need the support of the CBA to survive.

Lee Trentadue is the owner of Galiano Island Books in B.C.

Published in the March 2012 edition of Q&Q

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