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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

Friday
Sep292017

'Our Shared Language' at NEIBA's Fall Conference

"It's really wonderful to look out and see many familiar faces, but even better, new faces, the next generation coming up," said Steve Fischer, executive director of the New England Independent Booksellers Association, in his opening remarks at this year's Fall Conference. Some 42 booksellers attended the show for the first time this year.

Words are our business, so it’s not surprising that a couple of words struck me during the conference--conversation and neighborliness. Both came up early, in the opening keynote, which featured "bookseller emeritus" Linda Ramsdell, former owner of the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, Vt., in conversation with Bill McKibben about his upcoming book, Radio Free Vermont (Blue Rider Press, November 7).

"It's very good to be here, and very good to see lots of old friends," McKibben said. "I wrote a book 10 or 11 years ago called Deep Economy about localism and smallness..... A Pollyanna I'm not, but two things that consistently cheer me up are 1) you can now get delicious bottled beer from almost every town in New England; and 2) somehow a lot of independent booksellers survived, in spite of everything that came at them."

McKibben noted that he and his wife, author Sue Halpern, "go to the Vermont Bookshop in Middlebury, and we know what a center of life it is.... It's abundantly clear that independent booksellers don't really do it for the money. So thank you guys, for providing extraordinary help for all the communities that I know of."

He also talked about "neighborliness," a word that initially sounded a little old-fashioned and then, quite unexpectedly, appropriate and timely. (I'll write more about that next week.) "Conversation," however, is ubiquitous at an event like NEIBA's Fall Conference, as you know. Booksellers, reps, writers and publishers gather in small groups for events like the Publisher's Pick-Nic Lunch and the Author Cocktail Reception; share meals at author breakfasts or the awards dinner; and congregate "after hours" for post-show gatherings. Not to mention the buzz of animated conversations about books that echoed throughout the exhibit hall on Tuesday. 

     Lara Phan, Pamela Jaffee, Deb Seager & Annie Philbrick

 

 

We are in the conversation trade, and the importance of communicating was a recurring theme. For example, at an education session called "Unlocking the Grid: Secrets and Best Practices of Events," Pamela Jaffee, senior director of publicity for Avon/Harper Voyager, said she continues to learn from booksellers every day: "The conversation is evolving.... The communication should be going both ways, and I think that's something we'd like to strive to improve upon.... That's why my name is on the galleys. E-mail me and we'll have a conversation.... You have to create the connection. I chase the media; you chase me."

     Mike Katz, Megan Sullivan, Liza Bernard, Stacie Williams & Jill Cadogan  

 

During the panel "View from the Other Side: Reps Who Were Buyers," Stacie Williams of Ingram Content Group noted: "Being a bookseller informs almost everything I do as a rep.... I do leverage my bookseller experience a lot in order to earn a little bit of trust as far as what I would sell, [which] allows us to talk about books and find our shared language so that we know how to interpret needs and sales."

And Jill Cadogan, who reps for Chesapeake & Hudson, considered what she would have done differently as a buyer now that she has seen the process from a sales rep's perspective. Opening additional avenues of conversation was a central theme: "When I was a buyer, I really would have benefited from more interaction with other buyers.... I've learned so much from other people.... I definitely would have involved my other booksellers in the store more in the buying process because I've seen stores that do that and it seems to be really effective."

During the Author Awards banquet, New England Book Awards fiction category winner Jessica Shattuck (The Women in the Castle) said: "This was a fantastic experience, to have so much support from independent booksellers.... It's been an amazing thing to be out there with this book and having the conversations that it's inspired.... I met so many independent booksellers... and felt that you were doing this really important work fostering these conversations and fueling the life of the mind."

I particular loved something Michael Finkel, who won in the nonfiction category for his book The Stranger in the Woods, recalled from his youth. "Even in elementary school, I took my mom's money and often went to a bookstore," he said, noting that the owners were "the first people to treat me like an adult. I remember them saying, 'well, what book did you read that you liked; and what didn't you like?' They respected me and they introduced me to new books, with which of course I traveled around the world. I was enlightened. I was informed. I was entertained. And because of this I've been a reader all my life and I wanted to become a writer."

The conversation, in our "shared language," continues.

Shortly after the NEIBA Fall Conference, Fischer told me: "From my point of view, it was everything we had hoped for in our planning: great education, lively rep picks, a very busy show floor from opening to closing and wonderful authors." Noting that all of the meal events sold out, he observed: "The New England Book Awards banquet really stood out, and having John Irving there in person to accept his President's Award was really the icing on the cake!"

Accepting the honor, Irving said, "I am extremely grateful for this award because you guys are more important than you ever were, and you always were." Now there's a conversation starter.

--Shelf Awareness, issue #3097

Friday
Sep222017

When the Magic Happens

There are special moments at every book trade conference that compel you to pause and consider the extraordinary business we are fortunate enough to be part of. Quite often these moments are subtle, existing within the fabric of a show like a well-made seam.

The New England Independent Booksellers Association's Fall Conference was held this week in Providence, R.I. I'll write about the show as whole soon, but for today I wanted to focus on one of those magical "seam" moments.

Water Street Bookstore in Exeter, N.H., won the 2017 Independent Spirit Award, given annually by the Book Publishers Representatives of New England to honor the region's indie bookstore of the year. During the awards banquet on Tuesday night, BPRNE president Megan Sullivan introduced owner Dan Chartrand. He began his remarks with an acknowledgment of Exeter native John Irving, who was there to receive NEIBA's President's Award: "I am painfully aware that I am one of the speakers standing between you and hearing from one of our greatest American writers."

Dan Chartrand & Stefanie Kiper Schmidt

And then the magic happened. Chartrand accepted the Independent Spirit Award "on behalf of our mission. About five years ago, [manager] Stefanie [Kiper Schmidt] went into a room with some of our core patrons and a couple of our best local authors and she came out with a mission. That mission was to build a vibrant and diverse community around the written word. Full stop. So, thank you Stefanie. We test everything we do against that mission, and I accept this award on behalf of it."

He expressed his gratitude to several people who were part of the bookstore's founding group, including co-founder Bob Hugo, who died last year ("I miss him every day.") and the late Rusty Drugan, the longtime NEIBA executive director "who was my New England bookselling mentor and who drove me to found my own store."

Smiling, Chartrand then looked toward the center of the Biltmore Hotel's elegant ballroom and a table that was occupied by Water Street booksellers. "You know, the bookstore is never closed except for weather events, but we closed our bookstore today at two o'clock because we have these amazing booksellers, who are here at the table." After an enthusiastic round of applause, he continued: "We closed so the angels that took that mission on five years ago and have made it their mission and their living could be here. I can't tell you how much I love you all and how grateful I am."

He offered more praise for Stefanie Kiper Schmidt's contributions, noting in particular that "what I love most about you is that you are one of the greatest and most discerning and tasteful readers that I have ever met. And you write beautifully about your reading. I've never met anyone who writes as beautifully about reading as you. So thank you so much for being a part of our store. it's yours and mine."

Readers and patrons of Water Street Bookstore were recognized: "Without them, obviously, we would not be a vibrant and diverse community.... And not just readers from Exeter, but readers from across the country and the world." Chartrand noted that when parents stop by the shop while visiting Phillips Exeter Academy students, "they walk away from our bookstore and they become lifelong fans. And that's really a testament to our booksellers. Having that diverse and vibrant and national and international patron group is just the most remarkable thing."

He thanked authors, beginning with Irving and A Prayer for Owen Meany: "Thank you so much for writing that book. It has been a guiding spirit for me, especially that spirit of Owen Meany, in my work in the bookstore." He cited Ta-Nahisi Coates, "who wrote a book [Between the World and Me] a few years ago that commanded us to begin a One Town, One Book program in Exeter. And I want to thank Roxane Gay, who attended the Academy a number of years ago and in her most recent book wrote a searing passage that made me realize we have much work to do to build that beautiful, diverse and vibrant community in Exeter."

Calling them "my two author mentors," Chartrand said Dan Brown and Joe Hill, while technically local writers, "teach us every day what it means to build community with their readers and their fans and they give us an opportunity to work in that space. I'm so grateful to both of them. And I'm also grateful to Howard Mansfield and Sy Montgomery, who are the very height of great New Hampshire authors."

Finally, he thanked BPRNE members, calling them "the leading edge of publishers. And publishing personnel are such an important part of our diverse and vibrant community. Without you, we would not have the voice we have within the houses, and those voices that are being developed in the houses would not be transmitted to us without you. You are part of our beautiful community, and to be honored by all of you... is just the highest praise for all of us."

Chartrand concluded with an inspiring observation: "We hear a lot about how what we do is hard. And there are moments when it is hard. But I contend that what we do is nothing less than to build the beautiful community in this country and around the world. The life of the mind. Finding dimension through these great works, like John Irving's work, is just the most beautiful work. And I believe that it is the closest we can come to heaven on earth."

It's nice to be there... when the magic happens.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3092

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