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Community, Transitions & Optimism at NEIBA


How big is a community? How big is your imagination? Last weekend, I was briefly part of the New England Independent Booksellers Association fall conference community, a ritual gathering of the book clan at the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence.

Flash forward: On the long drive home after the conference, I kept thinking about two moments that bookended my NEIBA experience. The first was at the opening brunch on Sunday, when author Scott Turow, the keynote speaker, chronicled the misadventures that caused him to arrive at the hotel around 4 a.m. after what we have all come to recognize as the routine flight from hell that is Chicago's O'Hare airport to, well, anywhere.

Karl Krueger, Penny McConnel, Liza Bernard, Steve Bercu

Steve Bercu, ABA president and co-owner of BookPeople, Austin, Tex., was on the same flight, having made a harrowing connection in the Windy City. As Turow spun their entertaining tale of high altitude woe, Bercu was sitting at my table, along with a small, if representative, selection of our wonderful, bookish extended family: Norwich Bookstore co-owners Penny McConnel and Liza Bernard, as well as Penguin sales rep Karl Krueger. You can do the math--author, indie booksellers, sales rep, editor; Chicago, New England, Texas, upstate New York = community.

Suzanna Hermans

The second key moment involved transition. It occurred at the start of Tuesday's Author Breakfast when Suzanna Hermans, co-owner of Oblong Books & Music in Millerton and Rhinebeck, N.Y., got things started by mentioning, to hearty applause and cheers, that she is NEIBA's new president. Oblong was founded by her father, Dick Hermans, in 1975. "I was 13 when I first came to NEIBA," she said. "Ever since then, I've been a big NEIBA nerd."

Community and transitions. Between these two moments were hours and hours of great conversations and upbeat reports from booksellers. Evidence of the level of attendance and enthusiasm at NEIBA could be found in the fact that the Publishers Pick-Nic Lunch Monday had to be moved to a larger venue just to accommodate the crowd.

That's NEIBA executive director Steve Fischer way off in the distance, serving as timekeeper for the well-attended Publishers Pick-Nic "speed dating" roundtables

In an interview yesterday, NEIBA executive director Steve Fischer recalled how great it had been to encounter so many first-time attendees at the conference this year, including several babies (aka future booksellers). "I kept running into new people," he said. "I was really pleased with that." This was nicely balanced by the presence at the Author Awards dinner of a distinguished group of retired New England sales reps, who were all acknowledged individually during the ceremony.

"I really see our job as building a community of booksellers," Fischer said. "In fact, the mission of NEIBA, written into the charter, is 'to further the success of professional independent booksellers in New England and to foster a vital and supportive bookselling community.' "

One of the education sessions addressed the theme directly. "Building Bookstore Communities" was moderated by Random House reps Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness, and featured Lynne Reed, co-owner of Misty Valley Books, Chester, Vt.; and Dawn Rennert, co-owner of the Concord Bookshop, Concord Mass.

"People shouldn't only think about going to your bookstore to buy a book," said Kindness.

"Community means relationships," Rennert observed, using the concept of a Venn Diagram to explain how all of the elements--personal, local, national, online and more--interconnect. "We're kind of where everything overlaps." She noted that a popular outreach effort for Concord Bookshop is an ongoing, ever-changing community display in one of the store's four windows. Local organizations build the displays (according to certain guidelines) and books are often added to complement a particular theme. These and other efforts "don't always lead to direct sales, but it's leading to relationship-building and community-building."

Dawn Rennert, Michael Kindness, Ann Kingman and Lynne Reed

Kingman noted that while community is often defined as a place, "my definition of community is when people are talking to each other." She cited the comments section at Books on the Nightstand, where discussion often evolves among the commenters themselves, so she and Michael can step back. She also has noticed that in many bookstores, a core group of loyal patrons attend every author event, but may not ever interact with other audience members. "What would happen if you could get those people talking to each other, with you at the center?" she asked.

Each year Reed's store hosts a "New Voices" weekend event that gives debut authors and local readers the opportunity to move past the usual walls between them and create a small community of their own. "For the last five years, we've asked community members to introduce the authors," she added. "We feel a responsibility to our small community."

Perhaps the most heartening words from a business standpoint came from Kingman: "It is possible to build community and make money from that. I don't think they're mutually exclusive."

Community and transitions and optimism... and babies. Oh my! More from NEIBA next week.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2105.


SIBA & the Complexity of Community


We use the word "community" a lot these days. It's a good word, a word that may ultimately save us all. It is not, however, a simple word. On the final afternoon of this year's Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance show in New Orleans, I took a five-mile cab ride from the hotel to Octavia Books. I'd had a few conversations with co-owners Tom Lowenburg and Judith Lafitte at the conference (and other trade shows over the years, for that matter), which made them part of my own extended bookseller community. Leaving town without seeing their bookstore wasn't an option.

Since I'm a bookseller by avocation as well as (former) vocation, I know a great bookshop when I meet one. With Octavia, it was love at first sight. The neighborhood seems inviting and the deceptively small storefront of the 100-year-old corner commercial building leads to a spacious interior, highlighted by intriguing angles and sun-drenched windows.

And a curated book selection, of course. I bought Dan Baum's Nine Lives: Mystery, Death and Life in New Orleans (Tom's recommendation) and Melinda Palacio's poetry collection How Fire Is a Story, Waiting, which was suggested by one of the booksellers on duty. During the ride back to the hotel, the cabbie served as tour guide for his community, offering a block-by-block history of the route, including the street where he'd been born.

Earlier this week, with the idea of community on both of our minds, Tom forwarded an e-mail he'd just received from one of his customers: "Judith and Tom: This is so great, I wanted to share it with you.... Lucy's iPod goes off with a notification. She had put into her calendar the release date for Exile, the next book in the Keepers of the Lost Cities series. She leaped with excitement, quickly got dressed, ran to Octavia Bookstore, bought the book, and is now home on the couch reading it. She did this all in less than 10 mins. This is one of the great joys of living near Octavia Bookstore and the reading culture that you create. Thank you!"

In my pre-SIBA column, I mentioned that the first session I planned to attend was called "How to Build a Genuine Community Presence both On- and Off-line." And so I did. Janet Geddis, owner of Avid Bookshop, Athens, Ga., highlighted a few variations on the theme of community: It can mean a bookstore's specific geographical area, customers near and far, book industry colleagues, the smaller yet critically important community formed by a store's staff, the bond of a social network formed with other booksellers nationwide, the community of other local small businesses, schools and nonprofits in the city or town and much more.

As I said, it's complicated.

Loyal customers often claim a kind of "ownership" of a bookstore. "This bookshop is their bookshop," Geddis said, noting as well the importance of fostering a community atmosphere among the staff: "The stronger that core community is, the better."

Many of the authors appearing at the SIBA show had gotten the community message, too. At the Kick-Off Lunch, Jude Watson, author of The 39 Clues: Unstoppable: Book 1, expressed excitement that her community, Katonah, N.Y., now has Little Joe's Books--owned by Jennifer Cook--and said its presence has "added immeasurably to the town." Then Anna Dewdney (Llama, Llama, and the Billy Goat) raised the bookselling community stakes a bit: "I truly believe that what you are doing is the most generous act... creating our culture. What books do is teach every individual to be human."

On Saturday during the Southern Life Lunch, Gigi Amateau (Macadoo of the Maury River) talked about the exciting developments in her home city of Richmond, Va., where businesses like Kelly Justice's Fountain Bookstore are banding together to make their community a better place to live and do business. "What's happening in Richmond is happening everywhere. It really is all about local community," she said.

Kelly Corrigan (Glitter and Glue) told the Saturday Supper audience they are "the engine of the reading community"; and Pat Conroy (Death of Santini) staked his own claim to the SIBA community: "Here's how old I am. I knew all of the founders of SIBA.... What they brought to it; what you still bring to it is passion for books."

"We do serve the community broadly--and beyond," Tom Lowenburg observed yesterday. "But, we are also deeply connected to our neighborhood. So we have become a destination not just locally. We're in a tourist city but not in a tourist location. People drive here from everywhere, but they also come by bike and on foot. Focusing on our local customers really determines the flavor of our bookstore more than anything. And when the wider world seeks us out, it is the flavor of the place that brings them. Of course our great staff, selection of books and outstanding architecture are all integrated into what people find when they walk into Octavia Books."

Tomorrow, I'll be heading to Providence, R.I. for the New England Independent Booksellers Association fall conference. What will we be talking about? Well, there is a session titled "Building Bookstore Communities."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2100.


SIBA, NOLA & Banned Books Week

The topic came up last Friday, during an education session, "Be Prepared: What Booksellers Can Do to Defend Kids Books and the Freedom to Read," at the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance trade show in New Orleans.

Chris Finan, Lauren Myracle, Acacia O'Connor

Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, moderated a panel featuring Lauren Myracle, author most recently of Infinite Moment of Us and Shine, and Acacia O'Connor, coordinator of the Kids' Right to Read Project, co-sponsored by the National Coalition Against Censorship and ABFFE.

Early in the discussion, Finan announced that in Asheboro, N.C., the Randolph County Board of Education had voted 5-2 to remove Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man from high school libraries. Their ill-timed decision, just days before the launch of Banned Books Week, quickly gained international media attention. Two days ago, at a hastily called special meeting, the board voted 6-1 to rescind the ban.

Both Finan and O'Connor were actively involved in challenging the original decision. "I hope our letter to the board made a difference," Finan said Wednesday. "I'm sure the international media attention didn't hurt."

Last week, there was something of a reality check in hearing about the Asheboro ban during the SIBA panel, which explored censorship directed at YA books focusing on real world problems teens face. "There are a lot of people who are on our backs about YA books," Finan noted, citing as an example Meghan Cox Gurdon, whose 2011 Wall Street Journal piece, headlined "Darkness Too Visible," had targeted Myracle's work and who claimed "literary culture is not sympathetic to adults who object either to the words or storylines in young-adult books." Cox Gurdon "really ultimately blames us--authors, publishers, booksellers," Finan said.

Myracle recalled that she had "read about a third of it and then I yawned and put it down.... Did you really read the book as a reader or did you read it as a grownup who is worried about these things coming apart?" She also suggested the increasingly popular YA label itself may have prompted some adults in recent years to begin questioning whether certain books are "appropriate."

"Should a bookseller ever refuse to sell a kid a book?" Finan asked. Myracle did not hesitate in her response: "I do think there's a lot of guidance going on that is moving kids from YA to middle grade. What that does to me is beg the question 'What is obscene?' "

Booksellers should never be forced into the role of morality police, deciding which child is ready for which book, Myracle contended: "I think about the broad range of what kids are like at that age. I don't think we can make that guess. The only person who can make that guess is that kid's parent. You can't ever not sell a book to a kid."

She also offered some advice to booksellers about dealing with angry adults: "I would say 'step up.' They're angry because they're scared. They want their kids to be safe, to live in a bubble. I want that for my kids, too.... Remember that they're scared. Remember they want to be heard."

Finan introduced O'Connor as a person who "has to deal with the consequences" of attempts to ban books. She said that on the following Monday, "I'm going to be back at my desk," where she would be working on Asheboro's Invisible Man issue. "I refer to these challenges as a case. I'm a banned books caseworker.... If it gets to a school board level, that's where we can help.... It is much more likely for us to have success when I find out early on that this is happening. Once a book is removed, it is more challenging."

O'Connor noted that in many of cases, even when "the result is your child doesn't have to read [the book] it is never enough.... For whatever reason, there are more people who are vocal about their disagreement than are willing to stand up for those works."

She has also observed that supporters of controversial books are often vocal online, but do not necessarily show up at school board meetings or other public venues where potential bans are being debated. "And we all ignore school board elections," she added, noting that it is important to get involved early, taking action rather than relying on reaction.

Booksellers, O'Connor noted, can serve as a public "locus of the resistance. Stand as a light--this is where you can go to read freely," O'Connor advised.

Myracle closed the SIBA session by sharing examples of some of the brutal online criticism she has received, as well as a more positive reddit AMA exchange between herself and the "scared dad" of a young daughter, who wrote: "I fear that I won't be able to connect with her in any way, shape or form while she's connecting with people all over the world with the click of a button, much like I am right now, but in ways I can't fathom."

Describing him as "cool for not freaking out after reading some of the 'scarier' content on this post," she replied: "You know what you could do if you wanted? And what lots of dads (and moms) have told me they've done? They read my books themselves to get a glimpse into what their kids might be dealing with. Or they read the books with their kids and use them as convo starters.... How do I connect? I just... try. I love kids. Love teens. Find them so smart and interesting. I talk to them and respect them and don't let myself be afraid of them!"

The father's response: "This was exactly what I needed to hear. Thanks for replying. You just sold some books, madam!"

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2094.


A Regional Digital Time Capsule

Remember the good old digital days when we were still trying to figure out whether e-books were just a fad and if bookstores really needed websites or blogs; when conference sessions focused on "Capturing the I and My Generation (iPods, IMs and MySpace)"?

This morning I'm in New Orleans for the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance trade show. If you're reading this between 8 and 9 a.m., I'll probably be at a session titled "How to Build a Genuine Community Presence Both On- and Off-line," featuring Janet Geddis, owner of Avid Bookshop, Athens, Ga.

As we continue our indie journey at retail warp speed, nostalgia is probably a dangerous commodity. I can't help recalling, however, the 2009 SIBA show in Greenville, S.C., where I first met Janet. She was still in the planning stages for her bookshop, but already building a community of colleagues and future customers through her website, blog and on Twitter.

Janet Geddis

At the time, she told me her "feeling is that social media tools are indispensable to prospective booksellers. What better way to get your feet wet and start conversations with people you might not come across in your day-to-day life? Athens has no indie that sells new books, which means I have to go on long drives to meet booksellers face to face. Through my Twitter account I've been able to befriend people all over the country who own and/or work in independent bookstores."

Maybe the past is always prologue. In 2007, Len Vlahos, then ABA's director of education and Booksense.com (now BISG executive director), moderated a panel called "Doing Digital Right," focused on the participatory nature of online life. "I think people are looking for a blend of professional and amateur information," he said.

On that panel we talked about investing precious time in Web marketing, about trusting staff and about the act of faith involved in working with digital options that might not pay immediate benefits. Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, then events coordinator for McNally Robinson NYC (which became McNally Jackson) and now co-owner of Brooklyn's Greenlight Bookstore, shared her thoughts on in-store and out-of-store blogging: "It's just another way of doing the things we do well."

Jessica Stockton Bagnulo (photo: Irish Echo)

Not everyone felt that way. At the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association show that year, a bookseller told me she already worked a brutal schedule and couldn't find good help to delegate any of these online tasks to. She had no interest in establishing an online presence. A hundred trade show panels wouldn't solve her dilemma because there'd never be enough time--nor a sufficient number of qualified, motivated staff members--to do everything that needed to be done.

I nodded sympathetically, but I also knew there wasn't "enough time" before the Internet when booksellers were slipping index cards between the pages of books for inventory control. And yet, they found time where they always found time, in its mysterious expandability.

Go back further. At the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association show in 2006, technology was the prevailing theme, with sessions like "Essential Technologies: An Overview" and "Digital Media Formats and the Independent Bookstore" At the time, I noted: "Most of the panelists at the MPIBA show were (how do I say this diplomatically?) not representing the MySpace generation, yet their attitude toward technology was generally curious, engaged and resourceful."

Dave Weich of Powell's Books (now president of Sheepscot Creative) said, "I don't know what's going to happen. The changes in the next 15 years will make the changes in the last 10 look like nothing." Noting that about 1% of Powell's sales came from e-books for Adobe Reader, Microsoft Reader and Palm Reader, he predicted the figure would rise dramatically when a first-rate e-reader was developed: "People are committed to their device, not to their desktop computer. Eventually there is going to be an iPod for books; that's when e-books will explode."

Carl Lennertz of HarperCollins (now executive director of World Book Night US) stressed the need for every bookstore to have a high-speed Internet connection in order to acquire information from and communicate with publishers. "Catalogues may go online in the next five years," he said.

Now travel back to 2005. "When our great-grandchildren are having Pride and Prejudice downloaded to their brainpans, how will they know that DirectLitFeed (patent pending) evolved from Gutenberg or cave drawings?" I asked. "What will bookstores look like in 10 years? A cross between Circuit City and Starbucks? And e-books? How do you read them comfortably? You don't. Not yet. We're an impatient species. We are turtles with delusions of hare. We think five or ten years is a significant amount of time for a technology to succeed or fail, but we're talking evolution here."

In less than a decade, the digital question for many independent booksellers has changed from "Why should we?" to "How do we?" to "How do we do it better?" The future is thoroughly embedded in how indies do business now, and the fall regional trade show season continues to be a place where they look ahead, just around the next bend. What are we talking about this year at sessions like "How to Build a Genuine Community Presence Both On- and Off-line"? Well, I'm here in New Orleans to find out. I'll keep you posted.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2089.


What Are the Odds? Who Do You Like?

In almost any situation, books and gambling can easily be linked by a single degree of separation:

What are the odds that Colm Tóibín would be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (currently 7-2 to win at British bookmaker Ladbrokes) and a Tony Award best play finalist during the same year for variations on The Testament of Mary. Has that ever happened before?

What are the odds that Barnes & Noble chairman Len Riggio would also be a member of the board of directors for the New York Racing Association?

What are the odds that Senator John McCain would be caught playing online poker during a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing about Syria? (Book connection? Check out author Matthew Dicks's amusing commentary on the incident.)

What are the odds that in 1981, I'd leave a Santana concert early, drive to the nearby harness track and watch Rambling Willie race during his nationwide book tour for Rambling Willie: The Horse that God Loved? (I bought a copy and had it signed.)

The odds, in each case, are pretty damned good.

A few years ago in the New York Times, Curtis Sittenfeld recalled an editor telling her that "people think publishing is a business, but it's a casino." Living in Saratoga Springs, I'd rather think of it as a horse race, with a mind-numbing list of factors to analyze before placing your bet and hoping for success: consider multiple entries, research past form, evaluate the people involved (owners/trainers/jockeys or writers/publishers/booksellers), weigh the current odds for success/failure and much more. Do your handicapping, eliminate the obvious losers, narrow down the list of potential winners and then place your bet.

What are the odds you'll be wrong? You know the answer to that one. And yet we keep going back to the book trade window to bet again as we write, publish and market more books, always hoping for the elusive, irresistible combination of luck and performance that makes for a winner, however you might define the term.

Speaking of winners, it's that time of year when British bookies train their focus momentarily on the world so closely aligned to their name, even if the stakes are low. The Atlantic pointed out that only £25,000 (US$39,563) was bet with Ladbrokes on the Booker prize last year, compared to as much as £350,000 on an important Premier League soccer match.

Noting that British newspapers traditionally cover major literary prizes in terms of odds, bookmakers "need a dependable, accurate method of calculating them in a way that ensures the house will still win--but also one that doesn't come with a required-reading list for potential bettors," the Atlantic wrote.

"The most important thing to be aware of is critical reception," said Alex Donohue of Ladbrokes. "We do not read all of the books and in actual fact avoid doing so in order to [not] cloud judgment."

Keeping in mind that this is a year in which Hilary Mantel can't win her biennial Booker, here are the current odds from Ladbrokes for two of the Big Games in this fall's book competitions:

Nobel Prize in Literature
Haruki Murakami (3-1)
Joyce Carol Oates (6-1)
Peter Nadas (7-1)
Ko Un (10-1)
Alice Munro (12-1)
Adonis (14-1)
Assia Djebar (14-1)
Philip Roth (16-1)
Amos Oz (16-1)
Thomas Pynchon (20-1)
Ngugi Wa Thiog'o (20-1)

Man Booker Prize
Harvest by Jim Crace (5-2)
The Testament of Mary by Colm Toíbín (7-2)
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (4-1)
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (5-1)
We Need New Names by Noviolet Bulawayo (6-1)
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (6-1)

"After years of hovering in the wings, this could be Haruki Murakami's year" for the Nobel, according to the Guardian, which pointed out that the Japanese author "has been considered a frontrunner for the past 10 years." But some curious betting trends last week that dramatically reduced Kenya's Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's odds are noteworthy, including a large bet at Ladbrokes by "a Swedish customer," the Atlantic reported.

Shortly before the Booker shortlist was announced, Ladbrokes had Crace listed as favorite at the same odds he is now, which may mean something. When the longlist first came out in August, Philip Hensher offered this early handicapping advice: "I can hardly see where else the prize can go than to the long-overdue Crace."

I was one for two in 2012, predicting that Mo Yan would win the Nobel and Alison Moore's The Lighthouse would somehow wrest the Booker from prohibitive favorite Mantel. But it's a new year and gamblers are ever-optimistic. Now it's time for my 2013 predictions. Drum roll, please.... Since no self-respecting, well-read punter would ever bet a favorite, I'm backing Colm Tóibín for the Man Booker Prize and Alice Munro for the Nobel Prize in Literature. So... Who do you like? --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2084.

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