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Booktopia: 'The Best Weekend of the Year'

Every bookseller knows that running a successful author event is challenging. On the weekend of May 4-5, the Northshire Bookstore welcomed 86 "Booktopians" and 10 writers to Manchester Center, Vt., for Booktopia 2018, a "weekend full of highly acclaimed authors, enthusiastic readers, games, food, drink, laughter, new and old friends and great conversations--what's not to love?" Organizing an event on this scale raises the stakes considerably. Twenty U.S. states, as well as Ontario, Canada, were represented among the Booktopians, with some attendees traveling from as far away as California, Washington and Florida.

Top row (l. to r.): Stephen McCauley, Jonathan Miles, Bianca Marais, Heather Abel, Ariel Lawhon; Middle row: Pamela Paul, Peter Swanson, Robin Oliveira, Stan Hynds (Northshire buyer). Front row: Chris Morrow (Northshire co-owner), Aubrey Restifo (Booktopia coordinator)

"As an event, Booktopia flowed very smoothly this year," said Aubrey Restifo, Booktopia coordinator and Northshire bookseller. "Our authors were fantastic, the Booktopians were thrilled to be there, and our staff jumped in to make sure that everything was set up or done right before anything could even consider becoming a problem. When the mechanics of the event function so well, you can focus on the best parts of Booktopia--like handselling and talking about books for days and days with some of your favorite, best customers."

This year's author lineup featured Bianca Marais (Hum If You Don't Know the Words), Ariel Lawhon (I Was Anastasia), Peter Swanson (All the Beautiful Lies), Heather Abel (The Optimistic Decade), Robin Oliveira (Winter Sisters), Stephen McCauley (My Ex-Life), Jonathan Miles (Anatomy of a Miracle: A Novel*) and Pamela Paul (My Life with Bob). Additional guest authors included Eric Rickstad (The Names of Dead Girls) (in conversation with Peter Swanson) and Steve Yarbrough (The Unmade World).

Booktopia 2018 was not without its complications, however. A last-minute staffing change for health reasons prompted Northshire Bookstore co-owner Chris Morrow to ask Restifo if she would step in to coordinate because she had prior experience running large events and had coordinated parts of four previous Booktopias. 

Now that the Booktopian dust has settled, I asked Restifo to provide a glimpse behind the scenes.

"Booktopia is always an extremely demanding undertaking," she said. "It requires the talents of nearly every person on staff, not to mention the cooperation and coordination of many authors, publicists, and venues (to name just a few). Yet no matter how complicated the planning process becomes, nobody ever loses sight of those two days in May. It's a bookseller's dream."

Booktopians eagerly anticipating the main event

Each Booktopian purchases a ticket well in advance, and most have bought (and read) the authors' books in time for the weekend. Booktopians also register for their preferred author sessions (18 options are offered across six time slots) ahead of time. "This way, attendees, authors and staff can expect that sessions will stay intimate and comfortable, allowing for readers and authors to engage in in-depth conversations about the author's featured title," Restifo noted.

It has been three years since Northshire launched Booktopia to replace the former Books on the Nightstand Retreat, which was created by Random House reps Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness. Restifo observed that "every year we relearn just how complex, expansive, and important the event is to our readers and authors. Booktopia unites readers from all around the country with a swarm of authors and booksellers--all for the purpose of talking books.... It is an event that always demands extensive preparations by the store's staff, but also one that staff and Booktopians alike regard as the best weekend of the year."

To keep the bookish deluge organized and fun for participants, Northshire's booksellers set up and maintain a special hold/shipping zone for Booktopia only, ensuring that Booktopians (who peruse and often buy a lot of books) can set aside large quantities of titles. Booksellers then ferry the stacks from the holding area to guests, who can alter or vet their selections before shipping them home.

(l. to r.) Peter Swanson (author), Chris Morrow, Aubrey Restifo, Charles Bottomley (bookseller) and Pat Friesen (Booktopian)

"Booksellers also pitch their favorite titles of the year at an hour-long presentation, an event which tends to feature bookselling veterans of diverse tastes--many of whom stick around all weekend long to handsell and chat with new and old Booktopian friends," Restifo said. "Not only does Booktopia bring together authors, book enthusiasts, and booksellers, but it highlights the magic of bookselling and publishing: the reason we work with books (or buy them), the reason we attend (or host) author events in the first place.

"Every year, we welcome new Booktopians. Whether these individuals, couples or old friends find us through our staff or via veteran Booktopians [check out the Fans of Booktopia Facebook page], we have the pleasure of connecting them with new friends, our store and staff, and new books. When Booktopians leave, we always hear how they plan to come back. And they do!"

At Booktopia's final night presentation, which is open to the public, authors can discuss anything they want to within a 10-minute window. The day after this year's closing event, Northshire co-founder Barbara Morrow observed: "Last night was the culmination of months of preparation for a weekend of books, book lovers and authors, and it ended with total triumph. Eight very different personalities, all of whom happened to have written books, entertained a full house upstairs at the Northshire Bookstore, with erudition, comic relief, moving personal stories, compassionate concern for the plight of the world, but mostly with their beautiful humanity and their dedication to what they have chosen to devote a life to.

"And guess what, there was not a mention of the swamp in Washington, not a mention of our president, but only love and devotion to the world of books and how reading has made them who they are. I frankly was overwhelmed by the end, and more than ever, I felt so grateful to be surrounded by such an incredible group of people and to have found a life grounded in books."

With the momentous weekend behind her, Restifo is already looking ahead: "We're definitely going to organize another Booktopia for May 2019. Why would we ever stop?"

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3252


Warren Buffett-: Be Sure to Visit the Bookworm'

One of the central tenets of Warren Buffett's investment strategy has been that what matters is where you are in the long run. This philosophy seems an appropriate way to consider the long association between Phillip and Beth Black--co-owners of the Bookworm in Omaha, Nebr.--and the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders Meeting, which took place last weekend.

The relationship began during the 1990s with Sunday signings after the meeting. "Mr. Buffett has always supported reading and self-education and we were invited to sell books in 2004 when the shareholders meeting was relocated to a larger convention center," Phillip Black recalled. "The Bookworm continues to be the only non-Berkshire affiliated booth at the meeting. We consider this a great honor as well as testament to Mr. Buffett's desire for his shareholders to be educated about their financial lives."

In his annual letter to shareholders this year, Buffett wrote: "Be sure to visit the Bookworm. This Omaha-based retailer will carry more than 40 books and DVDs, among them a couple of new titles. Berkshire shareholders are a bookseller's dream: When Poor Charlie's Almanack (yes, our Charlie) made its debut some years ago, we sold 3,500 copies at the meeting. The book weighed 4.85 pounds. Do the math: Our shareholders left the building that day carrying about 8-1⁄2 tons of Charlie's wisdom."

Warren Buffett (center) with the Bookworm's staff just before opening last Friday. Beth Black is in front, holding flyers; Phillip Black is on the far right.

Black said the recent gathering was "much the same as previous meetings, except more shareholders seem to come each year. We sell many of the same books and see many of the same shareholders and authors from year to year. It's a reunion."

More than 42,000 shareholders attended, filling Omaha's hotels and restaurants. "They are in a party mood and tend to spend generously, especially where they receive shareholder discounts and special offers," Black said. "A number of other events for shareholders have developed, giving them additional reasons to come and extending activities into a long weekend."

The Bookworm's Loveland Centre location joins in the festivities, offering shareholders with credentials the same discount they receive at the meeting. "Many shareholders will come by the store to shop in a more relaxed atmosphere and to avoid having to carry the books around at the annual meeting," Black noted. "Our sales volume over the weekend is more typical of December than May. We also do some nice bulk sales related to Berkshire and the annual meeting."

At the CenturyLink Center, the Bookworm operates a 30' by 35' booth (reduced from 40' by 40' in past years as Berkshire has acquired more companies and exhibitors). "We plan down to the inch now," Black said, adding that the book selection "would be considered special interest by many booksellers." A full list of titles approved by Buffett for sale at the 2018 annual meeting may be seen here.

Black described the book selection process: "As I go through front list buying throughout the year, I send Mr. Buffett information about books I think he may be interested in for sale at the next annual meeting. He also sends me titles to add to next year's list as he comes across them. In January I send him a list of new titles for his consideration for the upcoming annual meeting. I also send him the sales figures at the last annual meeting, suggesting titles to drop. We always need to drop some of the weaker titles to make way for new titles. I get back the lists I sent with Mr. Buffett's markup of additions and deletions. We also ask Charlie Munger if he has any selections for the next annual meeting--sometimes he does and sometimes not. We will have the list of books approved by Mr. Buffett for sale at the next annual meeting firmed up in February. Sometimes we need publishers to make their book available earlier than their announced pub date in order to get them for the annual meeting."

Staffing presents another challenge. "We set up our booth Wednesday and Thursday, requiring six to eight people each say," Black explained. "For the past three years, Berkshire opens the exhibition hall to shareholders on Friday afternoon, requiring a full staff then. On Saturdays we are open for sales from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. or so. We dropped from ten cash registers to eight this year due to space constraints. We also need a number of people to work with authors, restock and straighten the stacks of books, hand out flyers, etc. We have about 30 staff overall at the annual meeting Saturday, plus we still need to staff the store."

As might be expected, the atmosphere in the Bookworm's downtown store alters during shareholders weekend. "We see people from all over the world," said Black. "We also have people who come back to visit with us year after year. Of course, we still have our book clubs meeting and our usual customer base to serve. It's an interesting mix."

He added that shareholders say one of the main reasons they attend Berkshire's weekend "is to meet people with common interests and make contacts. Our years of selling books at the annual meeting have given us a similar benefit. We've met famous people and many authors, which is interesting as we often learn something new. We have met many of the Berkshire executives, giving us a deeper appreciation of Berkshire and what they do."

After all these years, Black said the adrenaline rush is still there as shareholders weekend approaches: "I will have been working on Berkshire for several months, and need to switch from planning to execution mode. Beth has to get the staff organized and coordinated. But when Berkshire opens the doors to shareholders, we get a second wind. The excitement of the crowd and level of activity energizes you."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3247


Surprise! It's Small Business Week!

Maybe I'm the only one who missed the memo, but I just realized on Monday that we'd already begun National Small Business Week, which started April 29 and runs through tomorrow. On the other hand, even a cursory glance at #SmallBusinessWeek on Twitter seems to confirm a certain... lack of enthusiasm. The tweets are dominated by local, state and national politicians cashing in some goodwill chips. President Trump and Small Business Administration head Linda McMahon issued proclamations, but in the wake of Independent Bookstore Day excitement, it all seems pretty tame.

Deciding to carpe #SBW18, I did a little last-minute digging anyway. As it turns out, booksellers have gotten some ink this week. In a feature showcasing 15 "cool small businesses," Business Insider noted that Brooklyn's Books Are Magic "is run by novelist Emma Straub and her husband, graphic designer Michael Fusco-Straub.... Why it's cool: There's no getting around it: New York City is running out of bookstores. Straub and Fusco-Straub are among a growing group of entrepreneurs trying to change that, to the delight of bibliophiles in all five boroughs."

Bob Oldfather, Bookmans.

Each day this week, Inc. magazine is spotlighting "a different competitive advantage of local brick-and-mortar companies." As an example of "exemplars of community involvement," Inc. showcased Bookmans Entertainment Exchange, with several locations in Arizona. Company president Sean Feeney said, "The confluence of customers here can be remarkable.... [Founder Bob Oldfather] "had to work there every day so he wanted it to be a cool place to hang out.... We still have a good price and an incredible selection. But now it is more about the environment."

Elliott Bay Book Company was chosen by the Seattle Times as one of "5 Seattle shops to inspire your small-biz week shopping." 

Rachel Wood, owner of Scrawl Books, Reston, Va., told the Connection: "Independent bookstores play a unique role. We are part of the community we serve, and connected to our customers through schools, neighborhoods and common experiences. Our business is built on creating connections and responding to community interests.... I'm happy to see Reston gain recognition as a place that embraces books and reading. I'm grateful for the support Scrawl has received from the publishing community, as well as our local readers and writers."

Indies rule; we already knew that. During my #SmallBusinessWeek explorations, I also noticed that statistics are addicting. 

In its Heart + Hustle: Small Business Summary, payment processing company Square found that 72% of small business owners agree they face more challenges today than five years ago; 65% feel confident they are going to meet their five-year goal; 58% say increased competition from big corporations has motivated them to adapt for the better; and 49% say cash-flow concerns keep them up at night.

Survey results from the Better Business Bureau showed that 84% of consumers trust small businesses most, with respondents citing reasons like wanting to support local businesses (60%), convenience (30%), better customer service (27%), and unique items unavailable elsewhere (24%). The BBB said there are 29 million small businesses in the U.S., employing nearly 57 million people.

For the UPS Store, Inc.'s first annual Inside Small Business Survey, 66% of respondents said they dream of opening a small business, and the primary motivators include being their own boss (38%), believing in the power of their own idea (17%) and creating their next career path (15%).

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, since the end of the Great Recession small businesses have created 62% of all net new private-sector jobs, Inc. reported. Among those jobs, 66% were created by existing businesses, while 34% were generated through new establishments.

The U.S. Census Bureau tweeted: "DYK there were 5.6 million employer businesses in the U.S. in 2016 that had less than 10 employees?"

Thankfully, stats also show how small business success is tied to its most basic ingredient: people. WalletHub's 2018 Small Business Owner Survey revealed that 38% of respondents said access to a talented workforce was more important than limited regulations (25%), low taxes (21%), easy access to credit (13%), and government incentives (3%).

In an interview with the American Independent Business Alliance, Adriana Paliobagis, owner of Country Bookshelf, Bozeman, Mont., said one of her biggest challenges is "maintaining staff, for an interesting reason. We have an incredible community of well-educated people (actually... I often have incredibly overqualified people working for me) but the cost of living here is really high. Housing is a problem, and I have seen my staff couch-surf and roommate with each other in order to be here. The low unemployment rate in Bozeman is amazing but it also makes competing for good employees really tough, so compared to other independent bookstores, and for the size of our community, we probably pay on the high end. To compete I also offer more benefits than a lot of other independents. The higher cost is worth it. My business wouldn't exist without my employees… these amazing people who love books... without them the Country Bookshelf is not here."

When AMIBA asked, appropriately enough, what book every small business owner should read, Paliobagis recommended Boss Life: Surviving My Own Small Business by Paul Downs: "I consider this book to be an incredibly honest depiction of what it's like to run your own business. It's warts and all--the good, the bad, the ugly, and the unexpected."

I agree. In fact, I'm on record, too. Maybe rereading Boss Life is the perfect way to celebrate #SBW18.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3242


IBD & Measuring Success by Relationships 

"You can find many ways to feel depressed about being an author when you measure your success by bestseller lists and money. But if you measure it by these relationships, by time spent wandering through the unique stores, their regional sections, their staff picks, there is nothing better than being an author on book tour." --Susan Henderson

Tomorrow is Independent Bookstore Day, and if I were still a frontline bookseller I would be handselling the hell out of Susan Henderson's new novel, The Flicker of Old Dreams (Harper Perennial). The narrator is Mary Crampton, a mortician in a once prosperous Montana prairie town where the population has dwindled to less than 200 due to economic changes and one particularly devastating tragedy.

She has dreams ("Secretly I think of myself as an artist.... A mortician is an illusionist.") that are tempered by circumstance ("I'd developed an expertise in my work, and staying in Petroleum allowed me to keep an eye on my father.") and habit ("You think a life is built of dreams when, really, a life is made up of daily to-do lists."). The arrival of a stranger--who isn't really a stranger--shifts her small world out of orbit.

Since The Flicker of Old Dreams is one of my favorite books this year, and I know Henderson is a passionate supporter of indies, I thought asking her a few questions would be a good way to start my own IBD celebration. So that's what I did.

"The first thing I do when I go to a person's house is stand in front of a bookshelf. Right away, I get a sense of them," Henderson told me, adding: "This is the great pleasure of walking into an indie bookstore. From the name the owners chose for the store, to how they selected and organized the books, you have an intimate look at a personality and a community's values. Sometimes it's in a dark cave, books all around you and having to walk slowly so as not to knock over piles. Sometimes deep inside that cave, you'll find an old beat-up chair and a standing lamp. I've spent whole afternoons in these colorful caves, in well-lit stores, in musty stores full of used books, stores with cats, stores with dogs, stores full of mismatched furniture and threadbare carpets. Sometimes the owner is shy and it takes several visits to have that first conversation."

Susan Henderson with Carol Hoenig at Turn of the Corkscrew.

Henderson's book tour for The Flicker of Old Dreams began with a March launch event at her home bookshop, Turn of the Corkscrew Books & Wine in Rockville Centre, N.Y. "How can you not love a bookstore that plays off of a Henry James classic and a love of wine?," she asked. "Turn of the Corkscrew is a gorgeous series of connected nooks that lead you to the bar and café in the back. The co-owner, Carol Hoenig, is hands on, sometimes chopping vegetables, sometimes at the cash register, and always cultivating a community. She hosts book clubs and writer workshops and events with local libraries. When she falls in love with a book, she presses it into your hands and tells you why you might love it too.... Whenever I need books, I try to order them through Carol's store because authors and bookstore owners both survive and thrive on word of mouth."

Reflecting on how The Flicker of Old Dreams has found its readers, Henderson said: "Everything about the life of my current book has come through indie booksellers, one reader and bookseller at a time." For example, she is "becoming familiar with a number of indie bookstores throughout Montana as booksellers and members of the community discover my book and bring it to the others' attention."

Susan Henderson during her event at Book Show in Los Angeles

At Book Show in Los Angeles "I was warmly greeted by Jen Hitchcock, who was enthusiastic about my book, especially the inside look at embalming dead bodies," she noted. "Walking into her store was like walking into the freak show tent at a carnival. It was quirky and comically morbid, and filled with books for misfits. Like most bookstore owners, she was a great resource for recommending a place to grab dinner."

Seth Marko, co-owner of the Book Catapult in San Diego, "hosted our discussion about the dead and dying with an audience that included people who had worked in or grown up in funeral homes and a woman who operates a local death café," Henderson said. "They are still uncovering their community as each new author event brings out another selection of locals. You see the relationships happening--I was here last week. This is my friend. These are the books we love. It was so great to see that happening in real time."

Recalling her event at Main Street Books in St. Charles, Mo., she said, "I'm so glad I've learned the habit of meeting the owners because they always have interesting back stories. Take Emily Hall, who had a good number of birds about the store (Megan Mayhew Bergman's Birds of a Lesser Paradise, a finger puppet of Edgar Allan Poe's raven, and excitement about Alex London's soon to be published YA fantasy, Black Wings Beating). It turns out Emily was a trainer and a naturalist at World Bird Sanctuary in Valley Park, Mo."

"This is the great gift of visiting real life stores that were born of passion, each store as individual as the person who dreamed it into reality," Henderson observed. "No matter the city, I know where to find my tribe. And I don't just ask them for book recommendations. I also let them lead me to the coffee shops, the restaurants, the music venues, and the art and recreation of their town. Because booksellers are the creative and intellectual heart of that community. And just as word of mouth keeps books alive, word of mouth keeps these small, vibrant bookstores and their communities alive."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3237


'The Best Way to Tell the Story'

On Monday, I read that during the London Book Fair's Quantum Conference, Hachette U.K. CEO David Shelley said he was "optimistic" about "people's relationship with paper" and the trend of younger generations gravitating back toward paper, along with the resurgence of independent booksellers. "If you look at what consumers are saying they want from us, they're not saying they want interactive e-books," he observed. "What consumers are saying that they want from us are really, really beautiful books."

That's true... and heartening. I'm one of those people described above who have a lasting "relationship with paper." I'd guess you are, too. It is only a slight exaggeration to say: "Books are my life." But I'm also intrigued by other voices out there. No, this isn't a ghost story, though there is a ghost story coming up if you read just a little further.

On Tuesday, I read an interview with "applied futurist" Tom Cheesewright, who contends that e-book sales statistics "are completely wrong--they only take account of established publishers, so it's measuring the wrong thing. As I say, technology breeds diversity, and that includes diversity of publishing models as well as diversity of formats." The next question posed to him was about the future of bookshops, and he was optimistic, in a futurist kind of way: "Machines remain really bad at giving us a good discovery experience."

So... that's a consolation.

On Wednesday, I read Kate Pullinger's story "Breathe" on my iPhone. It was produced in association with the Ambient Literature project, which launched in 2016 to "investigate the locational and technological future of the book. The project is focused on the study of emergent forms of literature that make use of novel technologies and social practices in order to create robust and evocative experiences for readers."

"I plan to write a ghost story to be experienced in a bedroom in a city--any bedroom, in any city," Pullinger had noted in the Bookseller when the Ambient Literature project began. And she did just that, later describing "Breathe" as "a literary experience delivered through your smartphone that responds to your presence by internalizing the world around you. Using APIs--application programming interfaces--the story leverages data about you, including place, weather, time, in order to create an experience that is personal and uncanny."

In a recent blog post, Tom Abba wrote: "Ambient Literature has been an extended conversation about storytelling, situation, audience, presence and much much more." During this year's Hay Festival, his group will be running workshops, hosting a panel discussion and making a new piece of work--"Words We Never Wrote"--that will premiere there and "explores the meaning of writing, language, and storytelling. I'm incredibly proud of this piece--it asks questions about linearity and form, art and suggestion that I've been aching to address for years."

Ambient Literature is one of many ways to answer the eternal storytelling prompt: "What if?" As a reader, former bookseller, working member of the book trade, and person "of a certain age," I am as devoted to the traditional book as I've always been. I have never become an e-book guy, but I am intrigued by alternative ways in which stories can be told using technology.

In 2016, the same year Ambient Literature launched, I saw Simon McBurney's stage production The Encounter in New York (It has just opened in London to begin a European tour). You could say that the production is "based on" Petru Popescu's book Amazon Beaming, which chronicles the head-spinning 1969 journey by National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre into a remote area of Brazil, where he became lost and literally/figuratively blew his mind.

You could say it was about that, but it becomes so much more when filtered through McBurney's imagination. He explains it better than I ever could here, and here, and here. I sat in a sold-out Broadway theater, wearing headphones like everyone else in the audience, and became part of this incredible act of storytelling. Safer than being lost in the Amazon jungle, but mind-blowing nonetheless (trailer).

On Thursday, I read an interview with Gareth Fry, a member of The Encounter's sound design team, who said: "Simon was given the book about 20 years ago and he spent a long time mulling over how to do it. He did some workshops before I came on board and began to think about the story's epic scale, its claustrophobia and its characters. That the audience wear headphones is something that evolved out of that process of trying to find the best way to tell the story." (McBurney's take on storytelling).

That's it, really--"the best way to tell the story." Printed books have always done the job flawlessly for me, and still do every day. But there are stories that can be told in other ways. Kate Pullinger's "Breathe" is one; The Encounter another. While e-books themselves don't interest me, I'm fascinated by the technological exploration of "What if?" Ultimately, I think the best way to tell a story depends upon who the storyteller is.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3232

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