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#Wi13, Camaraderie and... Staff Meetings!

"Camaraderie and staff development are integral to our success at Avid." That's what Janet Geddis, owner of Avid Bookshop in Athens, Ga., posted Monday on Instagram, sharing a behind-the scenes peek into one of her stores, while noting: "We also relish the rare opportunities we have to get the entire team together for monthly staff meetings."

Last week, Janet and I had a brief conversation during the opening reception (aka epic international bookseller staff meeting) for the 2018 ABA Winter Institute in Memphis, Tenn.

(l. to r.) Andrea Avantaggio, Andy Brennan, Jamie Fiocco & Kelsy April

In a way, those two moments nicely bookend a Wi13 education session I attended called "Best Practices for Conducting Staff Meetings." Moderated by Jamie Fiocco of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, N.C., the panel featured Kelsy April of Savoy Bookshop (Westerly, R.I.) and Bank Square Books (Mystic, Conn.); Andrea Avantaggio of Maria's Bookshop, Durango, Colo.; and Andy Brennan of Parnassus Books, Nashville, Tenn. 

"Communication is key among our staff," said April, who noted that the bookstores have four different types of staff meetings:

  • Store meeting before opening four or five times per year ("They're basically used as a way to get everyone together in one place. We can look at each other's faces and talk about some big-ticket items.")
  • Ongoing digital meetings using Slack ("Your staff can talk among themselves. They use channels in the same way that Twitter uses hashtags--#Savoy, #BankSquare, #events, #receiving.... It's a fun way to keep up.")
  • One-on-one meetings. "I got this idea from owner Annie Philbrick. She takes the time to sit down with every staff member and says, 'How do you like your job?', 'How's it going?', 'What can we improve on?', 'What do you like?' And that struck me as a very efficient way to talk to booksellers."
  • The "Mini Winnie" ("Essentially Winter Institute in short for our staff.... Now when we send our booksellers to Winter Institute, we say you are responsible for the content of Mini Winnie when you get back, because we're actually going to be doing it again this year."
The need for regular gatherings evolved at Parnassus Books as the store went through its early growing pains. "We knew we needed to have some meetings," said Brennan. "Maybe you've noticed that booksellers aren't fans of meetings. It's not their favorite way to spend their time. So, I think there's some things that you need to keep in mind to make sure that your meetings are effective." He listed three primary rules for staff meetings: deliver information that the booksellers need to do their job properly; provide an opportunity for them to give feedback; and make the meeting concise. For Parnassus, this has evolved into three formats:
  • Annual "informational and motivational" meeting on the Sunday before Thanksgiving.
  • Rep breakfasts twice a year, to which the store also invites members of the Nashville literary community (people it partners with on events, public library representatives, etc.). "This is a great opportunity for our staff to interact with that community and build up some relationships with those folks. We think it's really important they have those connections and know who those people are."
  • Twice-daily staff meetings, which "are really essential to get the information to the booksellers that they really need."

Being a smaller bookstore presents its own set of challenges. After experimenting with options at Maria's Bookshop, Avantaggio found the best solution was monthly staff meetings, from 5:15-6:45 p.m., with a relatively loose agenda.

"That's been much more productive," she said. Discovering the most effective solution took some time and adaptation. "I hated meetings when I first started the shop. I would get so nervous. I would write out whatever I had to say. I was so worried that something was going to come up that I wasn't ready for or didn't know how to answer. But what I've realized is that it is such a great place for things to come up and it helps eliminate that kind of snarky sarcasm that can build when somebody does something one way and somebody else does it another way, and nobody's sure what the right way is. It's the perfect forum for that to come out. However you structure it, I think it's important to have an agenda and to give booksellers a chance to talk. It's like smudging your staff, kind of."

I'm thinking about the Avid Books staff, gathering together regularly in the particular quiet that emanates from a bookshop after hours. I'm thinking about the noisy, productive camaraderie of Wi13 in Memphis. And, finally, I'm thinking about something Parnassus' Brennan said:

"When we're competing against discounters and online sources and all the other places that people have where they can go to buy books, we've got to provide something that those people can't. And that's smart, well-informed booksellers who know their stuff, and the only way they can do that is if we're sharing information. Effective staff meetings can provide booksellers with the tools they need to provide the customers the service they need." Let's keep talking.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3177


Wi13 & the Art of Listening

Next week, I'll leave my relatively quiet life in upstate New York and spend a few days conversing with--but mostly listening to--booksellers, authors, publishers and other bookish folk at the American Booksellers Association's Winter Institute, which is being held this year in Memphis, Tenn. Wherever we are at any given moment, we'll probably be talking books. All books all the time. It's a little taste of paradise.

Opening reception at last year's Winter Institute.

The mystical OtherWorld of book industry conferences and trade shows is like a suspended state of time and reality, featuring practical advantages over real life (room service, daily housekeeping), as well as a mass gathering of people who care deeply about books and aren't afraid to say so out loud. Encounters range from casual chats over drinks to public colloquies during education sessions; from early morning, bleary-eyed exchanges at author breakfasts to mobile dialogues as we all move from one scheduled event to the next.

While Wi13 is about discussions, and I'll have my share, my primary job will be listening carefully. I may also be told things in confidence that inform--and sometimes alter or enhance--my perspective on the book trade. I won't, however, tell you about these chats, even though they're every bit as important as the "on the record" quotes I do share. This is not so much about protecting sources as honoring the spirit of conversation by recognizing a clear borderline.

Listening is key. I think I'm a good listener. I love the fact that listen and silent share the same letters. And while silence may seem like an odd skill to cite when writing about attending a "conference," which by definition assumes there will be ongoing discussion, I'm pretty adept at silence as well. Oddly, a tendency toward the silent life can actually be a strength in my line of work, as it used to be when I was handselling as a bookseller. A paradox is probably lurking in the weeds there, but somehow it all works out.

How did I handsell? I listened and made recommendations. How will I write about Wi13? Same drill. I'll listen and respond. Maybe I've always been in the listening business.

What sent my mind spinning in this direction is no mystery. I've been reading Erling Kagge's recent book, Silence: In the Age of Noise (trans. by Becky L. Crook, Pantheon). He notes at one point that, during his travels to Japan, he learned something important about the role of silence in conversation: "For while we Norwegians experience silence in a conversation as something that cuts it off--a good journalist knows that the best moments in an interview often come just after they have put away their laptop or voice recorder and officially ended the interview--silence in Japan comprises a significant portion of the conversation.... The silence seems to be just as rich in its content as the words."

I suspect many of us quiet types had something of a learning curve to become excellent handsellers. We learned how to read an ARC not just for our own pleasure, but with other potential readers/customers in mind. We learned to ask ourselves if this was a book we could imagine placing in the hands of talented readers as if we were offering them the most precious gift in the world. We learned to listen to our customers before we handsold them a title. We asked questions, processed the answers and decided what titles might interest them before making recommendations. We realized that the art of conversation was enmeshed in the art of listening, and trumped the lesser art of literary evangelism every time.

Based upon years of unscientific observation, I know our business has a substantial number of people who could be described--and would probably describe themselves--as "quiet." So would many of their customers. A life of reading books can do that to a person, but I won’t fall down the rabbit hole of chicken v. egg or nature v. nurture. I'll just quietly submit the increasing popularity of Silent Book Clubs (see BookBar in Denver, Colo.) as at least one shred of evidence. You take it from there.

"It's easy to think silence is about turning your back on the world," Kagge told the New York Times not long ago. "For me, it's the opposite. It's opening up to the world, respecting more and loving life." I'll try to remember that next week in Memphis. And if I seem a little quiet at times during our conversations, don't worry. That's just me listening.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3167


An Intoxicating Sense of Vellichor


We are a people of words; it's our best side. No surprise, then, that I have become intoxicated by my discovery of a new word, a mere toddler in fact at just a few years old. Vellichor has nestled in my bookish mind this week and, I suspect, will never leave again. That's how words live, since--by definition you might say--they are parasites.

John Koenig, curator of The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a compendium of invented words, defines vellichor this way: "n. the strange wistfulness of used bookstores, which are somehow infused with the passage of time--filled with thousands of old books you'll never have time to read, each of which is itself locked in its own era, bound and dated and papered over like an old room the author abandoned years ago, a hidden annex littered with thoughts left just as they were on the day they were captured." (Here's another exploration of the word)

I wouldn't want to live in a world without vellichor.

In a TED Talk, Koenig noted that people often ask him if his words are real. "What I discovered is that when people are asking if a word is real, they're really asking, well, how many brains will this give me access to?" he said. "Because I think that's a lot of how we look at language. A word is essentially a key that gets us into certain people's heads.... A real word is one that gets you access to as many brains as you can. That's what makes it worth knowing.... The meaning is not in the words themselves. We're the ones that pour meaning into it.... We forget that words are made up. It's not just my words. All words are made up, but not all of them mean something."

Vellichor has subtly found its way into the lexicon, thanks in part to the Twitter hashtag #vellichor, but also through common usage. Examples are not hard to find. In a profile of a Northampton bookshop, MassLive.com observed: "Walking around the Old Bookstore on Masonic Street, vellichor fills the heart and mind." I saw it dropped casually into a piece on Lippincott Books in Hampden, Maine; and another about the Canadian bookseller Allison the Bookman in North Bay, Ontario; and in the headline "Time to take the vellichor to the second floor, and beyond," showcasing Egyptian bookshop Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

Last year, The Better India explored the "organized chaos" of the Ravivari, a bazaar on the east bank of the Sabarmati River in Ahmedabad: "The area of booksellers comes after a series of stalls selling antiques, paints, and domestic goods. After weaving through narrow passages shaded by parasols, littered with the smell of nimbu-paani, daal-haleem, and sometimes assorted animal dung, one arrives at the booksellers. Instant vellichor!"

I've even found the word attached to Vellichor Wines ("we believe, like each book, each bottle has a unique story"), Monkish Brewing Co.'s Vellichor craft beer, and an Oslo-based band.

So, vellichor has been my mood this week, even though I'm not someone who spends a lot of time in used bookshops, primarily because my allergies won't tolerate the otherwise irresistible essence derived from "the chemical breakdown of compounds within paper that leads to the production of 'old book smell.' "

There was one notable exception to this, however. From 1973 until 1997, I lived in Rutland, Vt., and often haunted Tuttle Antiquarian Books. It wasn't a particularly welcoming place. I thrived on its laissez-faire attitude toward customer service because I preferred being left alone to explore room upon musty room of book-laden shelves. And I will be forever in their debt because I first discovered the wonders of Asian literature and art there.

Charles Tuttle, who died in 1993, was serving as an American soldier in Tokyo after World War II when he fell in love with Japanese culture. He made it his life's mission to introduce this world to American readers. In addition to its extensive used book inventory, Tuttle Antiquarian Books displayed and sold an array of new titles from Tuttle Publishing.

One of many books I bought there was Zen Art for Meditation by Stewart Holmes and Chimyo Horioka (1973). As I write these words, that old book is on a shelf not far from my desk. Opening it to page 25, I see a reproduction of "Bare Willows and Distant Mountains." On the facing page, the commentary begins, "How remote from the everyday world this landscape seems!"

I felt the same way about Tuttle Antiquarian Books. In those isolated rooms, I also discovered an even more remote, yet somehow immediate and tangible, place to live through the books I found there. Many years ago, I met Mr. Tuttle on a golf course and thanked him personally for the new world he had given me. I'm still grateful, if strangely wistful. Call it vellichor if you like.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3163


Indie Booksellers Surviving Retail Bombogenesis

Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, Mass., yesterday morning (the store stayed open till 2 p.m.).

With an apocalyptically named winter weather event (Bomb Cyclone, bombogenesis) still punishing the Northeast, it seems appropriate to consider the word "survival" as it applies to the world of indie bookselling.

In recent months, a blizzard (sorry) of media reports disclosed, with barely masked shock, the apparently surprising ability of indie booksellers to "survive, even thrive" (as the headlines love to proclaim) more than two decades of incessant retail assault by the likes of Amazon and chain bookstores. As 2017 came to an end, the trend intensified, so I collected a few links for further consideration and to give me hope as we begin the new year. For example:

"The theoretical and managerial lessons we can learn from independent bookstores have implications for a wide array of traditional brick-and-mortar businesses facing technological change. But this has been an especially fascinating industry to study because indie booksellers provide us with a story of hope," said Ryan Raffaelli in a Quartz piece headlined "How independent bookstores thrived in spite of Amazon." Raffaelli studies how mature organizations and industries faced with technological change reinvent themselves.  

In a New York Times article on the closing of Book World's 45 stores ("Bookstore Chains, Long in Decline, Are Undergoing a Final Shakeout"), Daniel Goldin, owner of Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, Wis., observed, "The age of the physical chain of bookstores is behind us--unless you don't need to be profitable. You can never save enough money through centralization to be able to compete with Amazon. Instead, you have to go in the other direction--be so rooted in your community you can turn on a dime."



Volumes Bookcafe co-owner Rebecca George wrote in the Chicago Review of Books: "Bookstores are thriving, despite this idea that saving $2 or $3 by absolutely all means necessary has become the cultural norm. Want a bookstore in your neighborhood? Well, those few extra bucks are the price to keep them there.... [N]ew bookstores are opening every month nationwide. Several bookstores are opening new locations in their surrounding communities. Their survival, however, rests in the young recognizing that bookstores are also in the 21st century. They're right there with you--constantly moving and changing to adapt and provide better community spaces for you--wherever you are."

Scottish bookseller Kevin Ramage, owner of the Highland Bookshop in Fort William, told the Guardian: "People ask me what's the daftest thing you've done? Open a bookshop in Fort William. It's the remotest town on the mainland--over an hour from Inverness.... We've never thought that we made a mistake. Indies have been struggling, but I think the situation is turning, both in terms of the attitude to the printed word--Kindles have their time and place but generally people are realizing that they're not as satisfying as a printed book--and also a large layer of people are becoming more conscious of the role of the high street in their lives and their town. Social attitudes are changing."

Noting that "in the age of smartphones and screens, it may seem unlikely that independent bookstores would stand a chance," the East Valley Tribune countered that theory by speaking with Cindy Dach, co-owner and general manager of Changing Hands bookstore in Tempe and Phoenix, Ariz. She said taking a chance is what allows and indies to stand a chance: "You have to be innovative. And every day, we always have to ask the question if we're being innovative enough.... It always feels like we're skating on thin ice. It always does, and that feeling won't probably ever go away. But where success has been is being relevant to our communities, being in touch to our communities, listening."

In a Forbes magazine crystal ball piece on the "Top Shopping Trends Of 2018," Pamela Danziger, president of Unity Marketing, predicted: "Shoppers will return to Main Street in 2018. This trend is fueled by the desire of the highest-potential and highest-spending customers' passion for a new shopping experience that they can't find online, at the mall, in the national chains or in big box stores. Owners of small retail shops often feel overwhelmed by the rapidly changing retail environment, with competition on all sides and most especially from Amazon. But small business retailers have a competitive advantage that none of these bigger, better capitalized and techno-powered retailers have: their personal touch. It is realized not just through the personal service that specialty retailers offer, but by being vital members of the local community. This trend will reshape the retail landscape over the next decade."

What is the magic formula that has allowed and indie bookstores to "survive, even thrive" in these confusing times? Cindy Dach had a great answer for that one: "You open the doors and get everybody in their stations, and you start working and you shelve the books, which seems like what you would do every day, which is 100% of your energy. Then you have to find another 100% to say, 'How do I stay relevant?' and 'How do I stay innovative?' and 'How do I get people to want to be here?' And we try to answer those questions every single day."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3158


'What's the Best Book Gift for a Non-Reader?'

The magic of Christmas is that it gives the book trade a glimpse into another, almost [Philip] Pullman-esque, world: a place where non-book buyers buy books.

--Philip Jones, The Bookseller

There are some things I don't miss about working as a frontline bookseller during holiday season crunch time. For example, I don't miss this conversation:

I need to find a book for my uncle.
What kinds of books does he like?
Oh, he doesn't read.

Or variations on its theme, like this one (recorded on my blog Saturday, December 17, 2005): "This afternoon I heard a customer say: 'I want to get a book for my uncle. Have you read this (holds up copy of Bad Dog)? He doesn't have a dog, but....' "

And yet, against all odds, right now all over the world booksellers are handselling myriad titles as gifts for non-readers. Learning how to answer that bookish near-koan ("What's the best book gift for a non-reader?") is a rite of passage for new staff members. The question will come up, and this time of year it will come up a lot.

The media knows: "Gift Guide: 17 books for the non-reader" (Chicago Tribune) or "Books to give this Christmas to harassed mum, non-reading nephew, fulminating uncle--and 13 other headscratchers" (Telegraph). For another perspective, read David Barnett's Guardian column headlined "This Christmas, don't give books to non-readers."

"Books expand our minds and give us a greater understanding of the world around us; yet, a lot of readers persist in looking down on those who don't read. And there might be many, many reasons for why they don't," he wrote, adding: "Reading is important. Literacy skills are vital. Children's reading drops off massively after the age of eight, which can cause problems in adult life. But being literate and having a love of books are two different things. Books might furnish your walls... but this Christmas, don't buy books to 'fix' people who don't want them."

While Barnett's advice might work for amateur holiday gift-givers, it does not apply to booksellers, who are pressed to answer the question in real time, on bookstore sales floors, again and again by eager holiday season customers.

Booksellers have long met this challenge with grace and creativity. The December 17, 1876 edition of the New York Times proclaimed: "Then there are the bookstores! What wonderful things they have prepared for the holidays! Surely, there was never anything like it since printing and engraving were invented.... There are books for the learned and the unlearned, books for the aged and for the young, and for all the periods in between. Everybody may be satisfied with a book. And it would really appear as if those who provide books were perennially engaged in studying the human race in order to meet the requirements of those who may have been heretofore overlooked. At the very worst, there is no human creature so dull that he may not be moved by a beautiful binding of a book, or fail to respond to the universal language of pictures. This season we have some of the best works in the English language in dress that may be properly called high art."

What's the best book gift for a non-reader? The question sparks a couple of memories. In the early 1970s, I was student teaching at a high school. The assigned book for the class was Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac, but one boy flat-out refused to read it. On a whim, I handed him my copy of Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire and asked him to just check out the first few pages. Abbey's cranky voice worked. A decade later, I ran into this guy at an adult league softball game, and the first thing he said was how much he'd loved "that f***ing book you gave me." Said he still had his ragged copy somewhere. Maybe he hadn't read anything since, but he'd read that one.

And a few years ago, a friend having dinner at our house said he hated poetry because it made no sense to him. I grabbed a couple of books by Gary Snyder and David Budbill off my shelves, asked him to just give them a chance. "Now this," he said after sampling, "I like."

Sometimes the best gift book for a nonreader is simply... the right book. Often it's more complicated, but I've known many booksellers over the years who could unlock that mystery with just a question or two of their own. As Christmas Eve draws near, booksellers everywhere will spend the weekend saying variations on these magic words: "Tell me a little more about your uncle." Then they'll make a recommendation. It's a small Christmas miracle.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3154