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MPIBA Fall Discovery Show's Extended Family

After all these years and all these regional fall book conferences, I think I've become an accomplished collector of quotations from guest authors expressing their appreciation for independent booksellers. Last week, during the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association Fall Discovery Show in Denver, I had the chance to add some vintage quotes to my collection and to reflect on the extended family that is indie bookselling, a "region" without boundaries.

It is a growing family. The 2016 MPIBA show had 221 booksellers in attendance, a solid number helped by the addition of 15 new bookstores. "Both the board of directors as well as myself were elated by the turnout and success of this year's Fall Discovery Show," said executive director Laura Ayrey. "With the onslaught of so many new booksellers this year you could feel the excitement in the air in the exhibit hall and at the author events. They were soaking up every bit of knowledge they could from our seasoned booksellers. I feel confident in saying it was our best show yet."

Anne Holman of the King's English Bookshop, Salt Lake City, Utah, summed it up nicely at the General Meeting when she said, "Bookselling is a nice family to be in."

Erin Stead

The notion of an extended bookselling family occurred to me when I heard Erin Stead (The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles) recount her bookselling days at Books of Wonder in Manhattan during the Children's Author & Illustrator Breakfast. "I think that booksellers are my family, and that sounds really disingenuous, I guess, but the truth is that I still consider myself a bookseller first and not an illustrator," she said. "If you're wondering, I still go into stores and front and face compulsively."

At Books of Wonder, Stead "worked with some wonderful people who are all still my friends today. And without these people I wouldn't be published.... Working in the store was the greatest education I had for my job.... My first two days they just put a thousand picture books in front of me and said we want you to read all of them and figure out what you like, figure out what you don't like, and figure out why. And it was the best thing I could have gotten. And then at the end I had to shelve them all.... It was a wonderful education."

During the Author Banquet, T.C. Boyle (The Terranauts) expressed his gratitude to indie booksellers "for supporting my book from the very beginning when I was known only to my mother, wife and daughter. Speaking of that daughter, by the way, she works at Skylight Books in L.A." He recalled an event a couple of years ago for his collected stories at which "she introduced me, but, more than that, I read one story, and she read one, too." Boyle also noted that his connection to the indie bookseller family continues to deepen: "I know many of you; I've been to your stores, and I hope that I will continue to do that."

Author Elan Mastai with MPIBA show volunteer Deb Slater & show photographer Tori Henson

Elan Mastai (All Our Wrong Todays), a speaker at the Author of Future Releases Breakfast, said: "One of the reasons it's lovely to be here meeting booksellers from around the area is my local independent bookstore, Book City in Toronto. I'm there like every other day.... Probably half the books I buy are because they're just handsold to me by one of the folks who works at the bookstore, like Kylie or Graham or Stacey.... Independent bookstores are a huge part of my life. For me, that's the place that I'm happiest.

"Every time I go to a new city, I always end up in a bookstore. My wife is an avid reader as well, though not quite as obsessive as I am. She's like, 'They have the same books back home.' It's not the same! Because you go to an independent bookstore and it's a vibe. They have certain books that they're going to highlight. I love the handwritten notes. I love talking to people about the books that I wouldn't expect. Maybe it's a local author. Maybe it's an international author.... So I just want to say that you guys are doing the good work out there and I really appreciate it. It makes my quality of life a lot better."

David Shannon

David Shannon (Duck on a Tractor), noted that his book Duck on a Bike "came out a long time ago," but a sequel was possible because "thanks to you guys it was still selling; it was still in the hands of kids; it was current enough for OneBook 4 Colorado to choose it. And that's all independent bookstores and school libraries that are doing that. So we decided we could do the sequel. I would just like to thank you right now personally for allowing me to do this book." He apologized for having to leave immediately after the event to visit his daughter in college. She had been the inspiration for his 2004 book Alice the Fairy. "She's all grown up," he said. "So thank you for being my friends for the whole life of my kid."

All just a part of being in an extended family, bookseller style. More on MPIBA's Fall Discovery Show 2016 in next week's column.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2859


NEIBA Fall Conference: 'These Relationships Matter'

These relationships matter. These relationships are relationships that matter to me, they matter to my family, they matter to my sons, and I want them to matter. I love the fact that I live in a town that has an independent bookstore.... I believe in our relationship. And I believe in what you do. --Dawn Tripp, author of Georgia, speaking at NEIBA's fall conference about the great relationships she and her family have had with independent bookstores

Along with the keynotes, the author breakfasts, the cocktail reception, the awards banquet and conversations in the exhibit hall, the New England Independent Booksellers Association Fall Conference also provided a valuable forum for learning with its education sessions. They were all, in various ways, about relationship-building among booksellers, customers, publishers, sales reps and authors.

"Maybe the best attended session was What Reps See [Check out BPRNE's online photo album from store visits]. People were sitting in the hall! And the room holds 90!" said NEIBA executive director Steve Fischer. "Kudos to two excellent NECBA sessions. And my personal wish for more attention paid to nonfiction was realized in a well-attended panel that included a plea to publishers to push for more Indie Next nonfiction candidates. Even our first shot at an Open Forum with round tables set up so anyone could talk about anything turned out to be lively and informative."

Annie Philbrick, Matt Shaw, Liza Bernard & Dana Brigham

Since it is one of my favorite topics, I couldn't resist the Customer Service session, which featured a panel of "fellow evangelists for superior customer service" that included Annie Philbrick of Bank Square Books, Mystic, Conn., & Savoy Bookshop & Cafe, Westerley, R.I.; Matt Shaw of Oblong Books & Music, Rhinebeck, N.Y.; Liza Bernard of the Norwich Bookstore, Norwich, Vt.; and Dana Brigham of Brookline Booksmith, Brookline, Mass.

Topics ranged from staff training/retraining to store atmosphere to phone etiquette and more, including how to handle difficult customers (Brigham: "One thing I always tell staff is: 'Think of the person in front of you as your beloved grandmother.' ") or the perennial frontline bookseller nametag/T-shirt/apron debate (Philbrick: "Name tags are a little bit tricky.... I don't really care as long as you have something that shows you work here.").

At Brookline Booksmith, each new employee is paired with a trainer for a couple of days to focus on "all things bookstore, with a hefty emphasis on customer service," said Brigham. "All of us look to customer service skills as we're reviewing résumés and as we're interviewing to get a sense of who's likely to be a good customer service person.... In the end, if we don't have the customer service, we don't have the customer. If we don't have the customer, we're in trouble."

Bernard noted that while Norwich Bookstore does have a handbook, "I found that until somebody's been in the store for two or three weeks, it doesn't really make any sense. So they're supposed to read it, and then go back and read it again." She also employs the mentoring technique for new hires: "I don't just have them watch. There's a narrative behind the reason we do things the way we do," she said, citing examples such as why they hold books at the front desk rather than the register, and why they don't give a title when notifying customers by phone that their book is in.

"We hire a lot based on our gut, and feeling whether this person is going to be part of who we are and be able to interact with customers on the floor," said Philbrick, noting that new booksellers begin with shelving. "We found there's so many little things to learn. We tend to teach them when that incident comes up. All the time, we are emphasizing to them that the most important thing is customer service.... You're in a very public space, and you need to be able to greet people and take care of them." 

One question generated a lot of discussion: Is the customer always right?

"I think the customer is right in that from their perspective they have a valid whatever-it-is, and our job as customer service providers is to try and get into their head or their heart or their anger, whatever it is that they're giving you, and take it and then massage it and get rid of it," said Bernard, adding that one of the best ways to respond is: "Thank you, I didn't realize this was a problem. Can you say more about it? Okay, I will deal with this.' That's a validation. So while they may not be right, they're valid.... Actually, some of those really high conflict situations, after they're resolved, are more rewarding than some of the easy ones."

Noting that the customer "is right in their experience," but may not be right "in the totality of the situation," Shaw said that "all you can really do is apologize to them for a negative encounter.... And then check in with your booksellers for details."

The idea of store atmosphere as customer service was brought up by Shaw, who observed that "something I always think about in relation to customer service is actually just how the store looks... the general upkeep and maintenance that is so important to how the store looks and feels and, a lot of customers would say, smells when they come in.... That welcoming atmosphere and living room atmosphere that will translate into making a better customer service atmosphere."

"A lot of customers feel this ownership of the store. And you want it to be a comforting place that's clean and light and not too dusty," Philbrick added.

While the patience-testing "parenting styles of some of our customers" can be a challenge in children's sections, Brigham said: "We just go through on an hourly basis... make it a clean, welcoming space again.... That requires quite a lot of tongue biting by our booksellers, but it's important to be nonjudgmental."

Shaw added that "these sweeps through the stores are an excellent way to engage with customers."

Brigham ultimately offered the simplest formula for great bookstore customer relationships: "We want every customer to have a better than expected experience."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2855


'In Conversation' at the NEIBA Fall Conference

I just ran the numbers. The word "conversation" has appeared in about 300 (more than half) of my columns, dating back to 2006. And here it is again, because that is precisely the word that came to mind often during last week's New England Independent Booksellers Association Fall Conference in Providence, R.I., where the atmosphere was a generous blend of conversation, energy and enthusiasm. And books, of course... lots of books.   

Zadie Smith and Christopher Castellani

It all launched Tuesday at an extraordinary keynote event, featuring Zadie Smith (Swing Time) "in conversation" with author Christopher Castellani, who began by saying, "We've already started our conversation, so you're just joining us."

Smith covered a wide range of topics, including the challenges of writing in first person ("It's quite curious the power that the 'I' has."); power dynamics ("Nobody thinks of themselves as an unimportant country or an unimportant person, but the world is structured in such a way that you're made to accept that role, or asked to accept it."); privilege ("There is no such thing as a perfectly right or authentic position to exist in.... I kind of work from the assumption that everyone is in some kind of existential pain."); cultural appropriation ("To me it's always a specific matter between an artist and a subject, between a reader and what they read. I can't generalize on the topic."); and the bond between authors and readers ("The relationship is fundamentally unfinished unless there is someone on the other side to talk about it with.... I do absolutely need readers.").

(l.-r.) Tom Wickersham (Brookline Booksmith), Zadie Smith, Karl Krueger (Penguin Random House), Carole Horne (Harvard Book Store), Christopher Castellani (Grub Street), and Ellen Jarrett (Porter Square Books)

Claire Benedict of Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vt., described the keynote as "the highlight of my NEIBA experience. Her thoughtful and compassionate discussion on everything from cultural appropriation to Facebook to Anthony Weiner was inspiring. I particularly appreciated what she said about cultural appropriation being more about aesthetic failure than ethical failure--I couldn't agree more. I now have a massive crush on Zadie and am smack dab in the middle of her gorgeous new novel."

Jan Hall of Partners Village Store, Westport, Mass., agreed: "I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation between Zadie Smith and Chris (another favorite author). Hearing her speak has added several other dimensions to reading Swing Time. I can now hear her voice, and respect more the story's time, place and characters. Zadie Smith is both elegant in visage, and eloquent in words."

The keynote, which NEIBA executive director Steve Fischer called an "extraordinary and a wonderful way to open the conference," proved to be an excellent launching pad for three days of panels, meetings, exhibits and celebrations, along with less formal yet equally important bouts of "talking books." Fischer noted that while the number of exhibitors at this year's conference was up 7% and authors (64) up 10%, bookseller attendance (400) was level with 2015, though we both agreed it felt like there were more booksellers.

"It has to be because the vibe was so positive and the enthusiasm for the authors and education was so apparent," Fischer said. I'll write in more detail next week about some of the education sessions I attended, since so much useful information was shared. This week's focus is on the events.

Andrea Beaty

As is often the case, authors celebrating booksellers was an ongoing theme. At the Children's Author & Illustrator Breakfast, Andrea Beaty (Ada Twist, Scientist), said, "You are the lifeblood of children's books.... The love you've shown for all my books has been breathtaking." She ended the presentation by reciting her "Ode to an Indie," which began "I want to say thanks to you indie booksellers/ Thank you book gals, and thank you book fellers," and concluded:

You are the heart of great kids lit.
Without your fine work we would lose much of it.
Not to get mushy, but I think it's true
That so many great books would be lost without you.

So thank you once more, yes thank you indeed,
For just the tonic this cranky world needs.
Your shops and your books soothe us like dogs with their bones,
And the best thing of all, you don't even need drones.

Fischer noted that he was "very happy with what we've done making the Awards Banquet such a festive evening of food and drink, authors and recognition of reps and bookstores." In addition to honoring Anne DeCourcey as this year's Gilman Award winner for outstanding rep, Norwich Bookstore for its Indie Spirit Award, and Elizabeth Strout as President's Award recipient, the banquet showcased the 2016 New England Book Awards winners and finalists.

In brief remarks, finalists Robin MacArthur (Half Wild: Stories) described indie bookstores as "holy places"; and Howard Frank Mosher (God's Kingdom) offered his thanks "for all you've done for clueless scribblers like me and for millions of readers throughout New England. Thank you so much for everything you've done for constitutional rights."

Sabaa Tahir

During the author breakfast on the final day, Sabaa Tahir (A Torch Against the Night) spoke of the range of people she writes for, adding: "You are the purveyors of such stories. Because it was someone very much like you who gave me my first story that, by extension, set me on this very crazy and twisty and weird path that has led me here in front of you. So, I want to say thank you for all that you do for readers, whether they're young or they're old."

And Min Jin Lee (Pachinko), whose first novel, Free Food for Millionaires, had been a BookSense #1 Pick a decade ago, summed it all up nicely: "If it had not been for independent booksellers, I would not be here today. I would not have a career."

"With 400 booksellers representing just over 100 stores we are firmly a retail booksellers conference," Fischer observed. "Our education is focused on bookseller education and the authors we choose are there so they can meet booksellers and booksellers can learn more about their books. The strong sales that most of our stores have been having for the past couple of years continued through the summer. Fall is teed up to be very strong which feeds in to a positive mood about the business in general. And wasn't it a relief to not harp on e-books and Amazon and to stick to our knitting and do what we've all been doing so well for so long--sell books!" The NEIBA conversation continues next week.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2850


BA16 & '#livingthedream'

As regional bookseller trade show season begins to heat up in the U.S., the annual Booksellers Association of the U.K. & Ireland Conference and Gardners Tradeshow was held earlier this week at Warwick University. The 2016 program, "celebrating the current confidence in bookselling," explored "how high street bookshops are breaking the mold of the typical bricks and mortar bookshop and exploring new ways of shoring up their place on the high street." I followed some of the biblioaction across the pond through the Bookseller's coverage as well as social media (#BA16). Here are a few highlights:

@kibworthbooks: "@BAbooksellers Can't wait! Lovely day for it #BA16"

Bookshop Day: The BA will hold its first Bookshop Day on Saturday, October 8, close on the heels of a very big date on the U.K. publishing calendar (October 6), when several major autumn titles are released. Alan Staton, the BA's head of marketing, said Bookshop Day "is a key part of Books Are My Bag's 2016 autumn campaign, and is all about getting shoppers to visit their local bookshop, whether it be to discover a new book or enjoy an in-store experience. We're very much looking forward to seeing the creative and fun ways bookshops up and down the country will celebrate Bookshop Day come October."

@mrbsemporium: "At #ba16 listening to fascinating study on reading to kids, print vs digital, from @egmontuk. Go to their website and read 'print matters.' "

@DubrayBooks: "Most children's books are bought in physical bookshops--being able to look, browse, enjoy the treat of visiting is important." And: "Few things more rewarding than reading with your children--scream it from the rooftops, says @callypoplak! @EgmontUK." And: "Great growth in children's books... now 24% of book market. Kids reading print despite lure of devices. #BA16."

The Booksellers Network: Frontline booksellers are being invited to join the Booksellers Network (@Booksellers_Nwk), which "aims to provide a vibrant ideas-sharing platform for grassroots retailers who are either young or new to the role.... The group has been founded after calls from some young booksellers: Jasmine Denholm of Wenlock Books, Robyn Law from Blackwell's, Marion Rankine from Foyles, Charlotte Colwill from Dulwich Books and Katie Clapham from Storytellers, Inc. are on board for the launch."

Meryl Halls, head of membership services at the BA, commented: "We all saw the merit in creating an informal space for young and new booksellers beyond that traditionally encompassed by the BA. We wanted to create a positive, mutually supportive and fun group, to attract shop-floor staff who work across the country in independent and chain bookshops. They have a lot of experience and enthusiasm to share, and we want to facilitate them coming together."

@BAbooksellers: "Helen @ForumBooks links up with local businesses including biscuit company--'booky cookies'. #BA16"

Bad day, good advice: Entrepreneur Jo Malone was interviewed about business strategies and her upcoming memoir, My Story. @IndieBound_UK tweeted: "Advice from @JoMaloneMBE for booksellers starting--never quit on a bad day #BA16."

Adopt a CEO: BA president Ros de la Hey, owner of the Main Street Trading Company in St. Boswells, wants to launch Adopt a CEO, a new initiative encouraging "those who lead the publishing world to step outside of London and their local neighborhood and spend some time inside a bookshop."

A former publisher at Bloomsbury, she "spent years taking authors on tour so I should have been fairly well informed about the life of a bookseller. In reality, I had never stood behind a till, never dealt with a tricky customer and never unpacked 12 boxes of books before 11 a.m. I tended to see each shop through the prism of the event I was attending.... I'd like to encourage publishers to rediscover the joy and beauty of the shop floor, coaxing them to join us in the fun of day's bookselling, speaking to actual customers." Faber CEO Stephen Page and Canongate CEO Jamie Byng have already agreed to visit the Main Street Trading Company.

Clare Christian, founder and publisher of RedDoor Publishing, agreed: "Specifically, we are three steps removed. We sell our books to our sales teams, our sales teams sell them to the bookseller, and the bookseller sells them to the customer. Publishers are effectively commissioning books based on trends and probably witchcraft. Unsurprisingly, the results are mixed." In July, Christian spent a day at Barton's Bookshop in Leatherhead.

@westbournebooks: "Martin Brown gave us and @gulliversbks a mention last night, but then his ferret went missing! #BA16 #wheresmyferret."

BAMB Readers Awards: The BA is launching the Books Are My Bag Readers Awards, which will ask the public to vote for the best books in fiction, nonfiction, biography, autobiography and children's categories, as well as a "breakthrough author." The shortlist will be unveiled October 6, and winners announced November 24.

Home again, home again

@drakebookshop: "Weighed down like a book pack horse. Can only mean the end of the #BA16 conference with @gardners. Alas poor Warwick @CathyReadsBooks !!"

@BookaBookshop: "Tired, happy booksellers heading home. Thanks @BAbooksellers for a great conference #BA16 #Warwick #livingthedream."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2840


The Underrated Art of #ShowingUp

We often run into people who understand their job to be showing up on time to do the work that's assigned.... Showing up is overrated. Necessary but not nearly sufficient. --Seth Godin in a 2013 blog post

Sorry, Seth, but I think it's more complicated than that. "Showing up" is, and maybe always has been, the essence of the working life, but there's been some misdirection over time about its meaning in the workplace. I chose to momentarily leave out a couple of sentences from the passage quoted above (see ellipsis): "We've moved way beyond that now. Showing up and taking notes isn't your job. Your job is to surprise and delight and to change the agenda. Your job is to escalate, reset expectations and make us delighted that you are part of the team."

That's true. And for great booksellers, it is the magic part--handselling, coming up with dynamic displays, hosting great author events, engaging in meaningful conversations with patrons and colleagues, community involvement. And much more.

All good. But not all.

Anyone who has worked as a bookseller knows the best ones show up day after day, ready for whatever the job requires, even when--perhaps especially when--they aren't in the mood. There is the magic of bookselling and there is the grind of bookselling, though the former tends to get better publicity.

So this column is celebrating the booksellers who are #ShowingUp for their stores every day, and it draws inspiration from a few disparate sources. The first occurred earlier this year as I was listening to Marc Maron's WTF podcast and he said to a guest, "But you showed up for your kids, right?"

That's what got me thinking about the phrase. Then I read a New York Times piece about Jodie Foster in which she said she had the chance to direct movies early in her career because so many male executives "knew me as the 8-year-old who showed up on time, and they didn't see it as a risk. They looked at me as if I was a daughter. They'd seen me grow up. They knew my professionalism." Producer Lara Alameddine (Money Monster) said, "Talk to anyone who has worked with her. They'll tell you the same thing. She is the most prepared person. She's the first one there and the last one to leave."

BooksActually's resident feline booksellers Cake, Pico & Lemon shared a pic of boss Kenny Leck #ShowingUp on their Facebook page: "while our hooman is #nevernotworking, we're #nevernotnapping."

Although I made note of the phrase "showed up" at the time, I didn't think about it again until recently, when I saw a notice about quarterly six-week BAxs internships being offered by one of my favorite-bookstores-I've-never-visited-but-want-to-someday: BooksActually & Math Paper Press in Singapore.

On his Facebook page, owner Kenny Leck noted: "Just to be sure, before you drop us an e-mail, bear in mind, it is going to be knuckle grinding work. Kid you not. But you will learn things, and it will be learning without any hand holding. You will make mistakes, and as long as it is an honest mistake, I will suck it up for you. Because. Only because you are BAxs. #BAxs #BAextrasmall #internship #nevernotworking."

And then I read an Inkshares interview with Allison Hill, president and CEO of Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena and Book Soup in West Hollywood, Calif., in which she was asked what she thought was the key to running a successful indie bookstore. "The answers to this question seem obvious--passionate booksellers, an awesome selection, hard work, but clearly that's not all it takes because we've lost a lot of great bookstores that possessed all of those characteristics," she replied. "Ultimately I think it requires resilience, adaptability, attention to the bottom line, creativity, a strong sense of identity, AND passionate booksellers, an awesome selection and hard work."

#ShowingUp in the best way possible.

I was a full-time bookseller from 1992 until 2006, and part-time until 2009. On September 12, 2004, I launched a blog called Fresh Eyes: A Booksellers Journal with these words:

It would be tempting to begin a journal like this on a day that might serve as an official portal into the bookselling world--the first day of the year, for example, with the journal reaching its climactic finish during the mad holiday season.

But bookselling isn't a dramatic profession. Often people who envy booksellers do so because they imagine some idyllic little bookshop myth, where the bookseller reads peacefully at a counter, his well-fed cat sleeping near his elbow, and when the little bell over the door rings, announcing a customer's arrival, he looks up casually from his book and welcomes the newcomer to biblioparadise.

I haven't had many days like that. I love bookselling, but part of that love is not unlike the day to day reality of any relationship. There are moments of wonder, moments of pleasure, moments of surprise, moments of joy, and these are all balanced with moments of melancholy, anger, boredom and frustration.

Like life

Here's to the booksellers who are #ShowingUp for their stores... every damn day.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2835

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