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Regional Education Sessions: Sidelines Buzz 

"The only thing you deserve is the chance to do the work," Kate DiCamillo said a few weeks ago at the Heartland Fall Forum, co-hosted by the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association and the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association. As I mentioned recently, I've been encouraged by the trend in bookseller educational programming to focus more on doing the work--on getting better rather than just getting by.

"That is exactly what we are trying to do," said GLIBA executive director Deb Leonard. "Both boards are creative and focused, and we want to continue to give our members the kind of education that helps our stores adapt to the evolving challenges of bookselling in the 21st century. We listen to the feedback we get from our booksellers, and try to incorporate their suggestions for the next year."

Eric Heidemann, Cecile Fehsenfeld, Kelly Estep & Jessilynn Norcross

In upcoming columns, I'll share a few things I heard and learned at education sessions this fall, beginning with a Sidelines Buzz Panel at HFF. Moderator Jessilynn Norcross of McLean & Eakin Booksellers, Petoskey, Mich., was joined by Eric Heidemann of Fujii & Associates, Cecile Fehsenfeld of Schuler Books (with stores in Grand Rapids, Lansing & Okemos, Mich.) and Kelly Estep of Carmichael's Bookstore, Louisville, Ken.

Norcross suggested there are three priorities to consider when dealing with sidelines in a bookshop: available space, the passion to sell certain items and whether you have particular customers in mind for them.

"Don't be afraid to try something new," advised Fehsenfeld, who admitted the decision to diversify had not been an easy one for her. "We'd always been purists. My staff had to argue with me to put greeting cards in 30 years ago." Ultimately, however, "It actually has been a positive and not a negative, which I was afraid of." She backed up her opinion by noting that she was wearing earrings, a necklace and scarf that are all fair trade products carried by her store: "Fair trade happens to be huge for us. It's most gratifying."

"Zen Display" at Schuler Books

To source useful information on sidelines, Norcross recommended Giftware News., adding: "It's also important to see what's happening on the West Coast. There are a lot of companies that are based out there." She noted that McLean & Eakin "tries not to carry things that are going to be carried downtown or near us." When ordering from sidelines vendors, she said "meeting minimum orders may be optional. All you have to do is ask.... Offer to pay up front to get lower minimums. And co-op is often available; they just don't call it that." Most of all, she counseled, "Ask your customers, 'Would you buy this?' "

"If you like something, try it. The bottom line is your staff has to be passionate about it," Heidemann said, adding that vendors "love doing sample request orders." He also noted that "pictures are worth dollars," encouraging booksellers to send display photos to their sales reps.

Regarding price points, Norcross suggested "looking at the product before you look at the pricing. How much would you pay for it if you were the customer?" Estep agreed: "I choose to price my sidelines when they come in and I look at them." Fehsenfeld noted that her standard markup is 120%, and Norcross added: "You can always lower your price. You can never raise your price."

When the conversation turned to displaying merchandise, Fehsenfeld cited the standard 80-20 rule, but added this reservation: "While 20% of your product is going to produce 80% of your sales, you still have to have enough items to make the display look good."

Bird display at Carmichael's

Be creative, Estep advised, noting that sales of Sterling bird kits at Carmichael's spiked only after she created a front window display featuring already-assembled birds perched on a limb: "I think we've sold 60 boxes now." Heidemann called this "the difference that four birds can make in sales," and reiterated: "Don't eat that cost. Ask for a sample."

Schuler's display of Crabtree & Evelyn products "sells really, really, well," as do $3 chocolates placed near the cash registers, Fehsenfeld said, offering high praise as well for the store's cross-promotional "Zen display," which "has been up for three years and we just keep changing products."

Discussing shelf life for sidelines, Fehsenfeld observed that "when something gets to be six months old and hasn't sold, it isn't going anywhere." While the store watches inventory turn carefully, "the more product we add, it seems like our turns slip a little." Norcross cautioned, however, that "the turn for a gift item is not the same as for a book. It will be high on Chapstick or glasses, but the higher-priced items, you want to give more of a grace period."

Staircase puzzle display at McLean & Eakin

And, in an election year, Heidemann noted that with more communities instituting plastic bag bans, sales of products like Envirosax and ChicoBags are increasing: "Sometimes politics provides opportunity."

Booksellers talking to each other. What a concept. Carrie Obry, MIBA's executive director, told me that total attendance (exhibitors, attendees, and authors) at HFF this year was 882, up from 748 in 2013 (Chicago) and 770 in 2012 (Minneapolis). Notably, attendees numbered 408, a substantial increase from last year's 304 and 373 in 2012. More is better, especially during the education sessions involving booksellers with a wide range of experience, challenges and solutions. I learn something every time. Class will be in session again next week. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2371.


A Family Gathering at MPIBA Fall Discovery Show


If you don't work in the book trade, it's hard to explain what happens at an event like the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association Fall Discovery Show, which took place last week in Denver. Call it a family reunion. No, better than that--a family gathering, albeit one with more fun (think Literary Trivia night or Books & Brews afternoon) than squabbles, more friendships than rivalries; and, most importantly, a shared mission.  

Nicole Magistro and Eric Boss
Nicole Magistro of the Bookworm of Edwards and Eric Boss

Here's a great example: at the start of Thursday's exhibit hall opening reception, a crowd gathered near the entrance, where a plot was being hatched, drinks poured and anticipation rising. A celebrity appearance, perhaps? When newly retired Penguin Random House sales rep Eric Boss appeared in the doorway, applause echoed throughout the Colorado Ballroom. Anne Holman of the King's English Bookshop, Salt Lake City, Utah, stepped up to the podium and lauded Boss's passion for, and deep knowledge of, books. She described him as "one of the kindest, funniest men I've ever met.... He cares about all of us so much." It was a family celebration; this just happens to be a really big family.

Boss and I chatted later about our years in the book trade. We'd never met before, but we spoke a common language as we discussed the book community and how difficult it is to adequately explain that concept to people who do not live and work in our world.

MPIBA executive director Laura Ayrey later recalled: "If I had to pick my favorite moment from the show it would be a tie between when Eric Boss walked into the exhibit hall and received such a heartfelt standing ovation from his colleagues and/or when South Dakota won the Literary Trivia Contest and Valerie Koehler [of Blue Willow Bookshop, Houston, Tex.) stormed the stage in protest."

This is a business, of course, and plenty of business was being conducted at the Fall Discovery Show--in the exhibit hall, at "Pick of the Lists" sessions, during educational programming (which I'll explore in an upcoming column) and elsewhere.

At the general meeting luncheon, Ayrey noted that in the past year a record-breaking 13 new stores had joined the association. "This year's show attendance was higher than ever in all categories, from booksellers to publishers to authors," she told me this week. "All of our meal events were sold out. In fact, we had a waiting list for the Author Banquet and a number of exhibitors who had purchased tickets for the event graciously gave them up so booksellers could attend. That speaks volumes about the camaraderie we have in the Mountains & Plains region." She also praised "my extraordinary staff and board of directors."

Valerie Koehler and Dan CUllen
Valerie Koehler and Dan Cullen

Dan Cullen, American Booksellers Association senior strategy officer, reported during the general meeting that booksellers at all of the regionals he'd attended this year "have been incredibly upbeat, incredibly energized.... There is a real resurgence of indie bookstores in America.... We are finally seeing the media decouple the word 'beleaguered' from indie bookstore." The MPIBA show certainly reflected that trend, if my numerous conversations with booksellers in Denver were any indication.

One of my favorite moments occurred during the Reading the West Book Awards presentation, when Kevin Fedarko, nonfiction winner for The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon (Scribner), chronicled the challenges his book had faced last year, having been published in the midst of a dispute between Barnes & Noble and Simon & Schuster.

"I spent a good portion of the year living like a river guide, driving all over the Intermountain West," he said, noting that his bookstore "compass points" were BookPeople of Moscow, Idaho; Changing Hands Bookstore, Tempe & Phoenix, Ariz.; the King's English Bookshop in Salt Lake City; and Full Circle Books, Oklahoma City, Okla. During his indie bookstore expedition, Fedarko said he discovered two things: that a book is a "passport and doorway to meeting, and engaging with, a whole community of people; and that there is another side of this business that does not treat a book like dog food or carpet cleaner.... For someone who is in the business of writing, words fail me when I try to express my gratitude for what I owe you."

Author Buzz: (l.-r.) Catherine Weller with Lin Enger, Molly Gloss and Christopher Scotton.

At the Authors of Buzz Books Breakfast Friday, Catherine Weller of Weller Book Works, Salt Lake City, moderated a fine conversation among authors Lin Enger (The High Divide, Algonquin), Molly Gloss (Falling from Horses, HMH) and Christopher Scotton (The Secret Wisdom of the Earth, Grand Central). Gloss's novel is about a 19-year-old ranch hand who moves to Hollywood in 1938 to seek work as a stunt rider in Westerns. "Even kids who grew up on a ranch were influenced by cowboy movies," she said. "Bud wanted to be like the cowboy heroes he saw growing up in the movies."

The book world can play that magic trick, too. At some point early in our reading lives, most of us imagined ourselves as "book people," and our fantasy somehow came true, even if the requisite ballast includes financial sacrifice, long hours and hard work.

As Fedarko put it, "You're thriving because you are part of the glue that holds your communities together. I think you will continue to survive and excel because you offer something that no one else does and it's incredibly important." How do you explain that to an outsider? You just can't. You have to be here.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2366.


Good Work at the Heartland Fall Forum


On my flight from upstate New York to Minneapolis last Tuesday for the Heartland Fall Forum, I had to connect through O'Hare just days after a headline-making fire at an FAA radar facility prompted a rolling tide of delayed or canceled flights. Once I reached my hotel room (relatively undelayed), I happened to read a post on the Economist's blog that noted the situation was already improving: "The system was sorely tested, and while it strained under pressure, it held." The piece was titled "Infrastructure resilience," which seemed an apt analogy for the current state of independent bookselling.

Booksellers hunting for great reads during the Heartland Fall Forum

At the HFF book awards presentation a couple of hours later, I thought about words, which is an appropriate thing to do when you're attending a trade show sponsored by the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association and the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association. Words like "connections" and "work" and "business."

In accepting her nonfiction Midwest Booksellers Choice Award for Braiding Sweetgrass (Milkweed), Robin Wall Kimmerer thanked indie booksellers who "tirelessly promote the books they love. Where would we be without them?" She also expressed her gratitude to author Kate DiCamillo, who had carried Braiding Sweetgrass with her to Washington, D.C., when she was sworn in as National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. GLIBA's Great Lakes, Great Reads children's book prize winner Andrea Beaty (Rosie Revere, Engineer Abrams) chronicled the passionate indie support she had received for her first title, Iggy Peck, Architect, adding: "This book only exists because of independent booksellers."

And Nickolas Butler, a double-barreled MIBA and GLIBA fiction winner for Shotgun Lovesongs (Thomas Dunne), admitted that while there had been a time when he "didn't know how I was supposed to approach booksellers," this had changed dramatically: "Many of you I'm proud to say are my friends now." He also said something else: "This is a business and we're in business together."

David Wheaton, author of My Boy, Ben (Tristan Publishing) with his dog Gracie (wearing a show badge) and Cynthia Compton, owner of 4 Kids Books & Toys, Zionsville, Ind.

DiCamillo, who won both the Midwest Booksellers Choice YA (for Flora & Ulysses, Candlewick) and Voice of the Heartland awards, told her personal story of moving to Minneapolis two decades ago and landing a job as a picker at the Bookmen's distribution warehouse. Becoming an award-winning author was not on the agenda then. "The only thing you deserve is the chance to do the work," she said, noting that during those years at the Bookmen, she "started to do the work. I started to write.... This award matters so much to me because it is here, with all of you, that I found my voice."

Having attended bookseller trade shows for more than two decades, I've had a front row seat for the rise, and fall, and rise again of indie bookstores. The conversations at these gatherings 10 years ago were often about survival, but many Heartland panel topics focused on getting better rather than just getting by: "Let's roll up our sleeves and analyze turn" or "ABA session: nuts and bolts of personal finance." And once again, a wide range of practical creativity was on display at the popular annual education plenary session "Ideas that work (and those that don't)." I'll write about these sessions in more detail in an upcoming column.

Nina Barrett, owner of Bookends & Beginnings, Evanston, Ill., with Bruce Miller of Miller Trade Book Marketing and artist Julia Anderson-Miller, who illustrated The Lost Clerihews of Paul Ingram (Ice Cube Press). The legendary bookseller at Prairie Lights Bookstore watches over them from a poster in the background.

Infrastructure resilience, personal connections and hard work were also evident during Thursday's exhibit hours in the Depot Pavilion, with booksellers fully engaged in both the business and pleasure of their chosen profession. While there may not be any Pollyannas left in our corner of the world, most of the conversations I had with booksellers and sales reps were decidedly upbeat. That is a good, if hard-won, place to be right now, regardless of how much work remains to be done.

In her education plenary session on the indie revival, Institute for Local Self-Reliance co-director Stacy Mitchell spoke of the next steps on this journey, citing a surprising increase in the number of independent businesses--including long-thought-dead record stores--nationally as a sign that "if you become part of a community, if you can create a sense of place, you can do anything." She also noted that among the ever-increasing number of shop local chapters in the U.S., "almost every one of those groups has a rabble-rousing bookseller" at its core.

"Books don't fly into the hands of readers of their own volition... readers believe you," Elizabeth Berg, author most recently of The Dream Lover (Random House) told her audience at Wednesday night's adult author dinner. "We all trust you. We all appreciate you. We love you, in fact.... Your bookstores are our modern day salons. Merci beaucoup."

The infrastructure is resilient, and good work was being done at the Heartland Fall Forum. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2357.


The Quotable Banned Books Week 

Which banned book am I? How many banned books have I read? How well do I know my banned books? How scandalous is my reading history? Banned Books Week raises a lot of questions (and eyebrows) annually. In the midst of all the events, media coverage, infographics, lists and quizzes, I found myself collecting some words of Banned Books Week wisdom during the past few days.

But let's begin with this year's epically bad timing prize, which goes to Highland Park High School in Texas, where seven titles assigned as required class reads were suspended on the ironic eve of Banned Books Week after parents complained about content. In addition to Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain (which students were reading at the time of the ban), the list includes The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, who is scheduled to be keynote speaker at the district's annual literary festival in February. Ouch.

"My book has ugly elements to it, but it's about hope and resilience, and I don't know why that wouldn't be an important message," Walls said. "Sometimes you have to walk through the muck to get to the message.... What I worry is that in order to protect them, we may be taking away the tools they need to protect themselves later on."

In keeping with the spirit of autumn, here are a few more Banned Books Week quotes I harvested:

Benjamin Rybeck, event coordinator at Brazos Bookstore, Houston, Tex.: "I wrote about The Giver. It seems to me that the exact kind of young-adult novel that gets banned for being 'dangerous' ends up being the exact kind of novel that would wind up making a teenager read more books, and read more deeply. I don't know if it's my favorite banned book, but I remember reading it as a teenager and being kind of blown away, not knowing books could ask darker or stranger questions."

Tony Diaz of Librotraficante: "Every week is banned books week for Chicanos.... The Arizona book banners aren't afraid that the next Julius Caesar will simply go by the name 'Julio.' They're scared that their next governor might."

Carolyn Chipley-Foster, media specialist at Muriel Williams Battle High School, Columbia, Mo., which is rewarding students who check out one of its top 10 banned books: "We support everyone's right to read and believe in the power of change that books can bring. We like to bring in new ideas and share ideas so that students can have the opportunity to grow their brains."

Dav Pilkey, author of the Captain Underpants series (#1 on the ALA's most banned and challenged book list): "So what's the big deal? Well, most of it boils down to the fact that not every book is right for every person. There are some adults out there who are not amused by the things that make most children laugh, and so they try to stomp these things out. We've all met people like that, haven't we?"

Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith, author of the graphic album series BONE (#10 on the 2013 list): "Reading lets our imagination grow, and helps us find the paths that will inspire us for the rest of our lives. That kind of inspiration should never be taken away. But when a book is banned, that's exactly what happens."

David L. Ulin in Jacket Copy: "First, I think, we must acknowledge that books can be dangerous.... When a parent group goes after Dav Pilkey, for instance--or John Green, or Toni Morrison--it's not necessarily because they're ignorant, that if they knew more, or understood more, they would see things through a more accepting lens. They understand the power of books and are reacting to it, if not in the manner we might prefer."

Laila Lalami at the PEN America website: "I wonder if the deeper reason for the ban is that The Bluest Eye makes some people uncomfortable. It says plainly what many among us refuse to admit: that our aesthetics are not entirely our own, but are at least in part a function of the racist culture in which we live.... Rather than 'protecting' high school students from The Bluest Eye, educators can use the novel to start discussions about body image, self-esteem and the power of cultural narrative."

I'll end with a little historical perspective from a September 1936 New York Times article on the removal of novels by Victor Hugo and Alexander Dumas from the required reading list at three high schools in Bridgeport, Conn.

"I feel it is rather ridiculous to deprive children of very fine pieces of literature because one particular sect has some objections to a few passages," said Mrs. William Cohn, president of the Parent-Teacher Association. "I looked at the books last night after I learned they had been removed from the list. There are a few things which if you are very fussy, might be objected to, but the good features of the books, the beauty of the literature, far over-balance the objectionable." Or, to be more succinct, FREADOM. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2351.


Octavia Books & NOLA's Cycling Community 

"We just installed a new bike rack," Tom Lowenburg, co-owner of Octavia Books, New Orleans, La., e-mailed me recently. Reading his words and opening the attached photo offered brief and welcome respite from the latest update on Hachette vs. Amazon or a book banning somewhere or yet another article on declining book readership planet-wide.  

Lowenburg also told me that New Orleans geographer Richard Campanella, who "has always ridden his bike to the book launches we've hosted for him at Octavia Books," had posted an early positive review for the bike rack on Twitter: "I love it. For the first time, the mundane act of locking up a bike will become playful and engaging--very, very well done." 

So I asked the question I always ask when something in the book business intrigues me: What's the backstory?

"When we opened Octavia Books almost exactly 14 years ago, my mother--a passionate bike rider into her 70s--gave us a bike rack as a housewarming present," he replied. "It lasted in good shape a few years until a customer backed her car into it one day. And then it held on in not so good shape until we finally had to take it down."

The inspiration for creating a new "fun bike rack" had occurred to Lowenburg and his wife/co-owner Judith Lafitte "as far back as when we stayed at 'Hotel ABA' in Brooklyn, where we saw a couple of examples right in front of the hotel in the form of brightly colored mounted bikers with long-flowing hair. I started researching bike racks and collecting images, but none were exactly right. Online, I found a commercially available rack in the shape of a book--but it was very two-dimensional and not interesting. So, I called on my local ironworks guy."

The original plan was to craft a 3-D book icon with words on the cover, but Lowenburg said "my iron guy had a backlog of jobs and months became years. Finally he turned me over to Scot Evert, who enjoys the challenge of building unique projects. I settled on the idea of angling the book and adding pages to accommodate more bikes. We decided that the cover should be our logo, and Scot said he could cut it out of a sheet of steel by hand."

On Facebook, Evert noted: "I don't normally do this kind of stuff, but sometimes I do...because I actually ride my bike to this book store!"

Lowenburg added: "Working in his back yard, he did a great job of sculpting the frame out of square tubing; and added special touches such as the curved page. The finished rack, painted our store colors, now proudly sits on the corner of Octavia and Laurel Streets in front of our building, which has housed independent businesses for well over a century."

Octavia Books Bike rack
photo: James Wilson

James Wilson, a bookseller at Octavia for the past six years, is also president of the board of directors for bicycle advocacy group Bike Easy. "With our brand new unique and very stylish bicycle rack, I'm very excited to be able to provide bike parking for our customers," he observed. "Bicycling magazine just came out with their ranking of the most bicycle friendly cities in America, and New Orleans is now ranked 22 (in 2012 we were ranked 43). Lots more people are biking, and there is a huge demand for bicycle parking all over the city. I'd say we have several customers a day who ride their bike to the store."

A handseller at heart, Wilson noted that Octavia features "the best selection of books on bicycling in New Orleans. Tom always asks my advice and I'm constantly scouring catalogues and the Internet for the newest and best titles, whether it be Grant Petersen's Just Ride (a personal favorite), Velominati's The Rules or the excellent Life Is a Wheel by Bruce Weber. Or even a classic bicycle maintenance book like Chainbreaker Bike Book, written by local bike mechanics Shelly Jackson and Ethan Clark. I'm happy to talk to anyone about bikes and books."

Octavia also offers New Orleans Bicycling Maps created by Bike Easy, as well as "information about great weekly rides hosted by NOLA Social Ride," he said. "And yes, I ride my bike to work every day, rain or shine--but it's easy, I only live two miles from the store. I'd like to think Octavia Books is helping New Orleans become even a more bicycle friendly city."

Lowenburg agreed: "A bike rack is an essential feature for an urban, neighborhood-based bookstore like Octavia Books and it is a welcoming beacon to all who come our way."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2346.