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Friday
Nov032017

Food for Thought at #MPIBA17

When school is in session at a book industry trade show, you have to choose from a menu of concurrent panels. That's a good thing. At the 2017 Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association Fall Discovery Show, I did what I usually do--study the menu and make, well, educated selections of education sessions. I made excellent choices, but probably couldn't have gone wrong with any of the offerings.

Ron Krall, Nicole Magistro & Vicki Burger

I was, as I often am, intrigued by food for thought, those quotable moments when big ideas are wrapped up neatly in a few sentences. A panel on "Back Office Operations" featured Nicole Magistro of the Bookworm of Edwards, Edwards, Colo.; Ron Krall of Off the Beaten Path, Steamboat Springs, Colo.; and Vicki Burger of Wind City Books, Casper, Wyo. They focused on financial operations, human resources and filing.

Or, as Krall noted in his opening remarks: "Okay folks, welcome to the most boring, most frustrating, most irritating topic of the whole Discovery Show. You're very brave. The reason I'm up here talking about this at all is that somewhere around five or six years ago I began to be aware of how much time and energy was being spent in doing what we're going to be talking about back office operations and beginning to wonder, Do we need to spend that much time and energy? And so over a bunch of years we worked to try to minimize these tasks."

He advised his colleagues to "spend a moment trying to think of how many hours a week you or your staff devote to those tasks.... Back office time is all the time you're not spending with customers. It's all time you're not doing activities that generate sales."

Magistro pointed out that they were "not discounting the other things that happen in the back office--buying, marketing, events management, anything like that that sometimes happens off the floor in some stores.... Those things are designed to be creating new sales, to be driving sales.... With the rising minimum wage issues, and with just in general living wage issues for our staff, the other way that you can think about this is not just as a savings to the owner or the bottom line of the store, but also to potential cash flow so that you can give more substantial raises."

Two questions were put forward to consider: For any task that is being done behind the scenes, does it need to be done at all? And if it does, how can you do it more efficiently?

"Being a small store, I don't have the luxury of having different people assigned different tasks like buyer, marketer, event manager," Burger said. "And some of the back office efficiencies I've learned I learned accidentally." She cited as an example a staff member who took it upon herself to bring order to Burger's admittedly borderline chaotic office practices. "Just being willing to take advantage of your employees in a sense really can make a huge difference, particularly if you're small like I am."

Magistro agreed, adding: "This doesn't mean eliminating people's jobs or eliminating hours, but instead it means optimizing and accepting that perhaps how it's being done right now is not necessarily the best way. And even if you do that, and you created that system, it's okay if somebody does it better."

Joy Dallanegra-Sanger, Valerie Koehler & the Literary Trivia Championship trophy

The American Booksellers Association presented an informative "Maximizing Backlist" session at the regionals this fall. For the MPIBA show it was helmed by senior program officer Joy Dallanegra-Sanger and Valerie Koehler of Blue Willow Bookshop, Houston, Tex., who proudly displayed the Literary Trivia trophy won by the Texas team the previous night.

"You, too, can go home with this trophy if you take advantage of what you're going to learn today," Dallanegra-Sanger joked to open a session that explored important backlist title strategies, options and opportunities.

At one point, Koehler observed that "backlist is not just books that are a year old. For those of you who have strong children's departments, that's really where the backlist just shines because there's so much backlist in the children's department. And how many times can we sell Goodnight Moon? That's the beauty of the children's department is you have so many classics that never go away and that you always have on the shelf. And you can take advantage of those backlist offers to beef up your section."

"Angry customer" Matt Miller of Denver's Tattered Cover Book Store "confronts" Anne Holman of the King's English Bookshop, Salt Lake City, Utah, during a lively session of Bookseller Improv: What You Want to Say vs. What You Should Say

After they showcased numerous examples of creative backlist store displays and promotions, Koehler advised: "When you go back to your stores, ask some of your newer booksellers what's something you loved 10 or 15 years ago... and maybe ask your booksellers, what were we selling 15 years ago that we really liked? Because now you have some new customers, you have some new booksellers, and you can all get excited about some of the backlist titles that you did sell."

One last note: If you have any doubts about the importance of that Literary Trivia trophy and the camaraderie/rivalry surrounding it, outgoing MPIBA board president Anne Holman of the King's English Bookshop, Salt Lake City, Utah, brought the subject up once again when she told me after the show: "Serving as the president of MPIBA for the past three years has been a pleasure and a privilege. Our membership is increasing, the winter catalogue sales are better than ever, and the booksellers seem to get younger and younger. My only sorrow is that Utah hasn't won the Literary Trivia contest in the last six years."

For the record, I was on the losing Texas team in 2016 and the Utah team in 2017. Maybe... it's me. Food for thought.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3121

Friday
Oct272017

Authors Telling Indie Stories at #MPIBA17

Among my favorite moments at regional trade shows are the times when authors say nice things about indies, especially when it's more than a "thank you for your service" nod. The best ones are sincere and the product of direct engagement, experience and appreciation. Maybe after all these years I've become an author/indie gratitude connoisseur.

"We're from Salt Lake City, Utah. Shout-out to the King's English Bookshop!" Shannon Hale exclaimed at the Children's Author Breakfast during this year's Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association Fall Discovery Show in Denver. She and her husband, Dean, were talking about their The Princess in Black book series (Candlewick). Shannon had a message for indies: "I want to make sure that you know the impact of your work.... Your curation of books, your handselling, your insight into what's going to be the right match for a kid. And not every book is right for every kid, but you know, and I know you know, that there is a book for every kid. At least one. And we're really grateful for what you guys do out in the trenches."

Tayari Jones, Willy Vlautin and Sara Blaedel after the Authors of Future Releases Breakfast

At the Authors of Future Releases Breakfast, Willy Vlautin (Don't Skip Out on Me, Harper Perennial) said: "I really appreciate bookstores. I'm kind of a bookstore addict. Every town I go to I end up buying tons of books.... And any town I go to you know you have a safe place to hang out and someone that's a weird book lover. And anyone that's a little cracked is all right in my book. So, I'm sure I'd like all you guys."

Sometimes these expressions of author appreciation take the form of personal indie bookstore stories, which happened a few times in Denver.

During the Author Banquet, Uzodinma Iweala (Speak No Evil, Harper), began his presentation with a childhood memory. On Sundays in Washington, D.C., "we'd stop by this wonderful little bookstore, just up Connecticut Avenue from where I went to church, called the Cheshire Cat." That shop, which moved into Politics & Prose in 1999, "was a bookstore completely for kids, with all of the most amazing books that you could find.... And after church my mom (or dad) would take us to the bookstore and she'd let us pick out books, and it was like a total treat to be able to do this on Sunday.... Books, bookstores and libraries were a central, almost sacred part of my childhood."

When he went to Harvard, Iweala had to pass by the Harvard Book Store daily, and "I'm pretty sure I spent most of college when I should have been studying in the bookstore," he recalled. 'I'd end up walking around the bookstore and running my fingers over books from different authors, some of whom I knew, most of whom I didn't know.... It's that feeling, that sense of being surrounded by all that story, the weight and the presence of all that collective knowledge, imagination and insight curated by people like you, who love books and who really live books. What I'm trying to say is thank you, because it's people like you who care not just about selling books, but who care about how they're sold and the importance of the physical space of the bookstore as a location for growth and as a space for connection, which was so profound and so important for me."

Uzodinma Iweala, Amy Bloom, Matt de la Peña, Loren Long and Francisco Cantú after the Author Banquet

"You are my people. I would have no career at all without independent booksellers," Amy Bloom (White Houses, Random House) announced before sharing the tale of how she discovered what "handselling" was years ago at the first event for her debut story collection, Come to Me. The reading was held in "a tiny bookstore in New York that was honestly the size of two of these tables put together. I arrived an hour and a half early, and it was so small that I couldn't just stand there and stare at the manager, so I started shelving books for her."

A woman came in looking for a specific, if unremembered, Italian cookbook she'd heard about. The bookseller showed her a stack of possibilities, but the woman kept saying no until they ran out of options. Bloom said that just as the customer was walking out the door, "the manager says to her, 'If you like Italian cooking, and I think you do. And you appreciate sensuality, and I think you do. And you just really want something special in your life, and who doesn't? I have a collection of short stories for you.' And I thought... that is handselling."

Tayari Jones (An American Marriage, Algonquin), told her indie stories at the Authors of Future Releases Breakfast. The last time she was in Colorado, promoting her novel Silver Sparrow, she had to drive a Chevy Suburban over the Red Mountain Pass to an event at Maria's Bookshop in Durango: "It was dangerous! I was like I'm gonna die for my art! But I was thinking the thing about authors and independent booksellers: When we're on tour, you see us at our not best. By the time I arrived, I was not my best. But everywhere I've gone--and I went to 43 independent bookstores with Silver Sparrow--every place was a port in a different storm. I don't think I could have done it without so much care along the way."

Calling Silver Sparrow "kind of my comeback book," Jones recalled that it was at an indie bookstore in Miami where her career was revived. "I was at Books & Books. I was sad. My books were out of print.... And a woman said, 'Oh, I can help you,' and she introduced me to Elizabeth Sharlatt, the publisher at Algonquin. I was so humiliated that everyone was talking about how my books were out of print. I just wanted to get away. But Elizabeth held me by the hand and she said, 'Tell me, how do you know Judy?' I said I don't know anyone named Judy. And she says, 'No, Judy Blume who just introduced us.' I looked to tell her thank you and she had disappeared like a fairy godmother. And now she owns an independent bookstore. You see where I'm going with this? Magic happens in independent bookstores."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3116

Friday
Oct202017

A Signature Moment at MPIBA Fall Discovery Show

The Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association Fall Discovery Show, held last week in Denver, Colo., featured an invigorating blend of youth and experience, energy and inspiration, hard work and great fun (just ask Valerie Koehler of Houston's Blue Willow Bookshop about the Texas team's nail-biting triumph in the Literary Trivia Game).

The show was a hit by any measure. Total attendance was 601, up dramatically from 535 in 2016. MPIBA executive director Laura Ayrey Burnett said, "The board and our staff, myself included, are all still reeling from the success and camaraderie felt at this year's show. We are almost always pleased after each show but this year's attendance just made a huge difference in expanding our MPIBA 'family.' All of our meal events were completely sold out and the exhibit hall was almost always bustling with more orders being placed than years prior. Simply put, it was wonderful on all fronts."

I'll write about some of the author events and education sessions next week, but I wanted to focus on a signature moment at this year's MPIBA show that beautifully encapsulated the "family" aspect of our profession.

Cathy Langer, Matt Miller & Joyce Meskis

On Thursday, a special ceremony was held just before the exhibit hall opened to honor Cathy Langer. After 40 years with Denver's Tattered Cover Book Store, she will retire from her position as director of buying at the end of December (just one more crazy holiday season!).

As a crowd of booksellers, sales reps, authors and publishers gathered around the small stage near the hall entrance, Joyce Meskis, Tattered Cover's owner from 1974 until this year, stepped to the podium and offered a heartfelt tribute, recounting her initial job interview with Langer in 1977: "Cathy came through with flying colors. It was just really wonderful. And I couldn't wait to offer her the job. In the course of our conversation with each other, I said something like, 'Well, can you commit to a year at least?' The rest is history.

"She is first a terrific bookseller.... She's smart, really sharp, intelligent, intuitive, with an unfailing memory; exceptionally hardworking, responsible, professional, all the valuable attributes that go along with being a well-rounded bookseller. But she's also a great humanitarian, a great woman, who cares deeply about a lot of things in our world and in our community, and in the life of her family.... She's done practically everything that an individual can do at a bookstore, and she has done it so beautifully, so well, so graciously, so, so, so, so beautifully. Thank you for everything."

Then Tattered Cover COO Matt Miller joined Meskis on the stage, noting: "If Cathy was up here, I'm sure there'd be about 130 years of bookselling between Cathy, Joyce and me." Miller said Langer is "considered one of the most highly respected buyers in the industry. In that capacity, she has served as a bellwether for publishers and sales reps for many, many years. She has done all these things with incredible energy, passion, efficiency and dedication. So, Cathy, from all of your Tattered Cover co-workers, bookselling colleagues around the country, the publishing community, authors and thousands and thousands of customers whose lives you have enhanced and enriched, thank you, congratulations, and best wishes."

Now it was Langer's turn. She addressed the crowd--her book family--with characteristic humor and modesty: "This is awkward and weird because I'm used to being at a podium or out talking to the public about fun people and saying wonderful things about them and getting ready for them to come up and say their great things.... It's also weird for me to be up here with all of you saying great things because I just every day got up and was able to do something I loved to do. I mean, every morning I'd say, 'I get to go to work, be happy about it and be excited about the reps I'd be seeing, customers I'd be working with, my co-workers. Every day I learned something new."

Noting her career has been filled with both challenges and "so much fun," Langer said that "it's really the community that has meant so much to me all these years.... The Mountains & Plains community is just amazing. I have so many great memories.... Over the years, there's been ups and downs, but it's always interesting, as we like to say. A roller coaster, a lot of fun, a lot of worry, but we've always had each other and that's really what's kept us going I think. It's the community. It's the authors, it's the books, of course. But the continuity of what we all do together is really what makes it so special."

She expressed gratitude to Meskis "for making me commit to a year. Really, I will often say that that commitment horrified me. I'd never worked anywhere more than 3-6 months, and that was only a couple of places. So, thanks, Joyce. It's been great."

Langer concluded by calling this "a really good time for me to be going on a new route, a new chapter. We've got great energy at the store.... Everyone's amazing, and so it's a really good time for me to say okay, have fun with it. I'm going to have a different kind of fun now."

A signature MPIBA moment. Happy retirement, Cathy, from your extended book family. More on the show next week.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3111

Friday
Oct132017

#BookshopDay, 'Core Values' & 'Seizing the Nettle'

For me, bookshops are important not so much for any business or economic reason, although a case could certainly be made for both. They're important because they perpetuate and enhance the idea of books as a form of communication, as a meaningful, human interaction. I write so people will read. I read, because someone had something they wanted to say to me. Books are personal. The best bookshops understand that and celebrate it, in a way that online retailers never can. --Author Tilly Bagshawe

Bookshop Day was celebrated last Saturday in the U.K. and Ireland, and I just wanted to give a shout-out to our bookselling friends across the pond. #BookshopDay is the annual centerpiece of Books Are My Bag's nationwide campaign to highlight booksellers.. This year marked the fourth since @booksaremybag first launched and BAMB distributed its one millionth tote bag, which prompted the #oneinamillion contest.

"Reaching our one millionth supporter is a hugely exciting milestone, and we're delighted to be able to show our thanks to bookshop lovers across the U.K. and Ireland with this fabulous prize," said Meryl Halls, head of membership services at the Booksellers Association. "It is wonderful to see the book industry coming together to support bookshops with the amazing prizes they have donated. We wish everyone the best of luck, and look forward to hearing all about our supporters' favorite bookshops."

A lot of good things happened on #BookshopDay.

Showing off the bags at Harris & Harris

Booksellers celebrated. A tweet from Harris & Harris Books in Clare was suitably typical and atypical: "What a splendid #bookshopday with lots of happy bookish shoppers. The homemade Rhubarb Gin and Plum Gin are going down a storm, more than the basket goodies. I know, I was surprised too."

Publishers celebrated. QuercusBooks‏ went on a #BookshopDay tour, having "hidden 13 authors from The Book of Forgotten Authors by Christopher Fowler in bookshops around the country. Pop in, snap a photo and sharewith #ForgottenAuthors and win this very lovely prize." An example: "Next up is @Ink84Books in Highbury! These guys have got so much love for @booksaremybag! Definitely visit if you’re in the area." 

I was particularly drawn to something Penguin Random House UK did in preparation for #BookshopDay: "To get you in the mood, we met up with four brilliant bookshops": Libreria, Gay's the Word and Dulwich Books in London and Mr. B's Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath."

At each stop, booksellers were asked a few questions. This was my favorite: What are your core values? It's a question we all ask ourselves in the book trade. It's a good question. So were their answers.

Libreria: "Always trying to re-imagine and be as creative as possible for our customers, for the people who come to Libreria and are looking for something a bit different. We want to present an experience that is completely different from not only your normal retail experience, but also your normal bookshop experience. The thematic shelving means that there's always an element of surprise, and I suppose that's partly key to why our customers come back as well."

Gay's the Word Bookshop: "Community, comprehensiveness and compassion. There's something essentially affirming for an LGBT person, especially if they're from a society or a country that doesn't have an enlightened approach to LGBT people, to come in and to be physically surrounded by a collection of writing that affirms their identity. That's an incredibly profound, political, philosophical, powerful experience. I've seen people break down in tears in that moment, and I've totally appreciated why. It goes back to Gay's the Word being an emotional space. It's a small little shop, in a small street in Bloomsbury, but it stocks a rich comprehensive range of literature, much of which has, in many ways, attempted to be suppressed over the years. So the fact that it exists and celebrates our right to articulate and our identity and ourselves is even more powerful."

Dulwich Books: "We believe in stocking a huge range of books, and absolutely not underestimating the customer. If you display and talk about books properly, you can put out choices that may not be so obvious. We're also quite political; we're all quite politically engaged here so we have certain beliefs about the democratic engagement that an independent bookshop can give you."

Mr. B's Emporium

Mr. B's Emporium: "We try to convert one book agnostic every day and enthuse ten book addicts every day. We're a home for people that are geeky about books, and an open door to those who don't know what to do in a bookshop, or where to start, who have fallen out of love with reading or who have never been in love with reading. They're the people that are even more important in a way, and it's one of the best parts of the job to be confronted like that."

For Faber, author Kate Hamer wrote that the reason many independent bookshops are currently thriving is "because so many of the indies have seized the nettle; they have become a comforting resource on the high street offering friendship, coffee and real expertise based in a passion for books. Some of them have a whole variety of bookclubs and provide comfortable and intriguing meeting places where sellers, readers and writers can meet to share the books they love."

In recent months, the core values of many indie booksellers in the U.S. have been called into action in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, as well as the fires currently ravaging Northern California. And they have responded. Seizing the nettle indeed.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3106

Friday
Oct062017

Indies as the 'Chautauquas of Our Moment'

I didn't tell anyone at the time, but my invisible friend during this year's New England Independent Booksellers Association Fall Conference in Providence, R.I., was the ghost of Elizabeth Peabody, who opened a little bookshop in Boston, at 13 West Street, in 1842. It was her first NEIBA show. She had a great time.

Elizabeth (She doesn't like being called Liz.) has been haunting me a little bit since I read the new Henry David Thoreau biography by Laura Dassow Walls this summer.

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody

Her bookshop only gets a couple of mentions: It sold high-end pencils (an early venture into sidelines) made by Thoreau's family business for 75 cents ("For a time, one could have purchased there both writings by Henry Thoreau and a 'John Thoreau and Son' pencil with which to mark them."); and Bronson Alcott rented rooms next to her bookshop "to hold his Conversations, which Thoreau attended whenever he could."

I want to know more, so I'm working on it. In The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism, Megan Marshall writes that opening the bookshop put Elizabeth at the center of the Transcendentalist movement, "and she welcomed it." The shop "served as a meeting place and mail drop, a clubhouse open to a widening circle of reformers.... By opening her bookstore, Elizabeth would one day recall, 'I came into contact with the world as never before.' "

Linda Ramsdell with Bill McKibben

So Elizabeth was hovering nearby during the opening keynote, which featured Linda Ramsdell, former owner of the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, Vt., interviewing Bill McKibben about his upcoming novel, Radio Free Vermont (Blue Rider Press, November 7).

Elizabeth seemed to like what she heard, as far as I could tell. She can be hard to read.

Ramsdell said she'd read McKibben's novel "as really a love story to Vermont.... but at a deeper level, I think it's also a love story to neighborliness and civility and participatory democracy. One of my favorite lines in the book is, 'Listen to your neighbors at Town Meeting and follow your heart.' "

McKibben agreed, calling the annual tradition of Town Meeting Day "the best holiday on the Vermont calendar. To do the business of your local place with your neighbors in the way that Vermonters have done it from the beginning is as close to a kind of feeling of democracy as we get in this world. It's amazing how well it works. And one of the things it enforces is a certain level of neighborliness and civility."

Beyond that one day a year, however, McKibben said it is more important than ever to have everyday community centers where a sense of neighborliness can thrive: "Indie bookstores, as you know... in many places are one of the two or three hubs in the community where people are in and out. In New England, the food co-op is another one and maybe the library if you're lucky enough to have a good library."

Indie booksellers also fulfill an "unlikely role that we wouldn't have thought of even a few years ago; of having to stand up for the idea that facts and reality matter, are to be taken seriously. And so, we are continuing to figure out the role that bookstores have taken on in our lifetime, of having to be the Chautauquas of our moment where people come for information and for programs and for all of that. In the best case, they accomplish all of those things and more.

"It's not really fair to load it all on the backs of independent booksellers that they have to fulfill that kind of role, but it is maybe the most important role that you have at the moment because no one else is doing that. I mean, who else is bringing people through town to talk? So, thank you for it."

The good news, McKibben noted, is "there's an incredible appetite for it, a growing appetite for it. And one of the things that's going to happen, I'm convinced, out of the Trump administration and the moment we're in, is that more and more people are going to understand what a bad idea it was to let these institutions and these ideas wither, and the necessity of having connections to the factual real world.... We're all pressed into service in ways that maybe we shouldn't have to be."

For those of us who live in the book world, "I don't know what to tell you," McKibben said, adding: "Always try to do what you do in a way that's open to the possibility of neighborliness.... Scale has always been one of the things I've written about the most. Deep Economy was the closest examination of this thing, but I've always been convinced that the degree to which we can move a lot of our political and economic life closer to home, then our government makes a lot more sense than it makes at the moment.... The one underlying lesson of this book is that's where we need to go. If we do that, and when we do that, we have no choice but to engage people. That works a lot better close to home... partly because everybody knows everybody.... We have to engage people."

My new friend Elizabeth Peabody "believed that a book shop ought to not merely sell books but should function more widely as a meeting place for authors and readers to congregate, discuss and purchase books." Some good ideas never go out of fashion.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3102