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Binc: 'Book People Helping Each Other'

As the holiday season approaches, I thought it might be an appropriate moment to showcase the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, which has been providing financial assistance to booksellers in need since 1996. During the New England Independent Booksellers Association Fall Conference, I discussed Binc's ongoing role with executive director Pam French, and checked in with her again this week because the organization's major fundraising campaign kicks off December 1.

"We are encouraging booksellers and others in the industry to see the foundation as their foundation, an example of book people helping each other," French said. "A donation to Binc will allow booksellers to take part in writing the next chapter on bookseller assistance (which also happens to be the theme of the annual campaign) and to continue providing bookseller assistance for years to come."

As of November 9, Binc had distributed $50,331 to 26 booksellers and their families this year. It had received 35 requests overall year-to-date and is actively managing several of those not yet resolved. In 2014, Binc fielded on average one request per week.

"We are still learning the cadence of requests," French noted. "There is typically an increase in requests after the fall trade shows, and after Winter Institute. It reinforces the importance of being present at those events and continually spreading awareness. We plan for grant requests to increase each year, but this year the number has not increased. In my ideal world that's because everyone who has a need has contacted us, but there remains an awareness gap.  

"One trend that does appear is that requests for major medical are consistent, but now are more complex and take longer to complete. For example, we have had several grant requests related to cancer treatment care. The requests can take months to manage since the treatments are longer and the bills higher."

In 2015, Binc has also distributed $200,000 in higher education scholarships, a $2,000 matching grant to an indie bookstore and about $13,000 for the professional development scholarship initiative that provides booksellers financial assistance to attend industry events.

Pam French (l.) at the NEIBA show with Binc fundraising committee member Susan Schlesinger of Books on the Square in Providence, R.I.

Since she became executive director of what was then the Borders Group Foundation in 2009, French has witnessed Binc's core mission evolve significantly "from an organization focused solely on one employee population, with direct communication channels, to a nationwide organization and a variety of ways to connect with booksellers. We initially focused on letting the trade associations and bookstore owners know about Binc and earning credibility.

"Our original outreach was to the CEOs of the national trade associations. Oren Teicher and the ABA board have become some of our strongest allies/supporters. And once we learned about the regional trade associations, we contacted each executive director and introduced ourselves. The regional e.d.'s have helped us spread the word; they are truly great partners and have been invaluable in getting Binc off the ground. We cannot thank Oren, the ABA and each of the regional IBA e.d.'s enough."

What does the future hold for Binc? "In 2011 we gave ourselves three years to determine if the foundation was useful and effective given the expanded mission of serving all bookstore employees," French recalled. "After a survey in 2013, increased grant requests in 2014 and input from key partners the board of directors determined that the foundation had met our original goals of earning credibility, creating awareness and meeting the needs of booksellers, and that we should work towards becoming sustainable."

She noted that the foundation "is extremely fortunate to have had existing funds to use while we launched Binc nationwide, established industry partners and determined if a charity focused on helping booksellers was viable. Up until 2015, we had done some fundraising but it was not with the goal of becoming sustainable or on a broad scale. Once we determined that the foundation served a need within the industry, we also determined that we needed to raise funds to continue to help booksellers."

Binc has made progress toward its fundraising goals in 2015, but still has a way to go to become sustainable. "Our learning curve has been steep since nationwide fundraising is new to Binc," French observed. "We are working to connect with publishers, bookstores and individuals throughout the industry as financial supporters."

Since we are in the storytelling business, I asked her to share one recent experience that stood out as an example of the importance of Binc's mission. She recalled a grant recipient who'd been uncertain about qualifying for assistance. "I always encourage booksellers to contact us with questions," French noted. "Often their situation does qualify for a grant, or we can point them to other resources for assistance."

Later, the bookseller shared this reaction: "At our regional trade show I attended the general membership meeting and heard from a rep of Binc. I hadn't suffered any of the major catastrophes that I thought were a necessary qualification for a Binc grant, but the presentation at the membership meeting made me realize that maybe I didn't need a major catastrophe, just a series of small ones. Within a week of initially contacting Binc I was informed that I would be receiving a grant sufficient to get me caught up on rent, which would allow me to also get caught up on utilities (and some of my lost sleep). They saved my life and my sanity at a time when I was feeling nothing but frustration bordering on despair."

Something for all of us to consider during the holiday season. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2634


'We Are the Reading Species'

"Please support your local independent bookstores. They are the heart and soul of every community where they are located, and they are keeping good readers, good writers and good books alive and well." That sage advice is on author Howard Frank Mosher's website, next to each of his 13 books.

Howard Frank Mosher

His latest novel, God's Kingdom, was an October Indie Next Pick. "If the past is a foreign country, we certainly have an expert native guide in Mosher who recreates perfectly, right down to the smoky fire smoldering in the town dump, the small town of Kingdom Common, Vermont, in the 1950s," wrote Darwin Ellis of Books on the Common, Ridgefield, Conn., calling him a "master storyteller."

That he is, but Mosher has also established himself over the years as a master independent bookstore supporter. This was well documented in his 2012 book, The Great Northern Express: A Writer's Journey Home, which chronicled, among many things, a barnstorming 100-city book tour in his 1989 Chevy with a healthy 280,000 miles on the odometer.

"I don't think I've ever had an unpleasant experience at an indie bookstore," Mosher told me recently. He spoke at length about the generosity, importance and dedication of independent booksellers; their crucial role in community building; the way they "keep the culture going." He believes it would not have been possible to have the career he's had without the longtime support of indies.

"I know so many indie booksellers who are now my friends," he said. This is more than apparent in his recent Facebook posts as he tours for God's Kingdom. Here's just a sampling:

Oct. 14: "Last night at my event in Hardwick, with the Galaxy Bookshop, I felt like the Red Sox playing at Fenway Park. Talk about a home-field advantage. The Galaxy is my personal bookshop. The audience, of about 70 people, was friendly and enthusiastic. What can I say but thanks, folks. To me, it felt like a homecoming."

Oct. 26: "Bookstores are the hearts and souls of their communities. Last Thursday evening Pat Fowler, of Village Square Booksellers in Bellows Falls, Vt., provided round trip transportation to and from my event for an older patron who no longer drives. On Friday evening, our long-time friend Carlene Riccelli brought maple sugar pie, molasses cartwheel cookies, Vermont cheddar cheese and apple cider for my event at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Mass.... Then there's Susan Little, who's kept her marvelous Jabberwocky Books in Newburyport, Mass., going through thick and thin by continuing to affirm her primary commitment to literary fiction and nonfiction.... Want to see hope, faith, and love in action? Susan and her bookselling colleagues nationwide have hope for the business, faith in readers and writers and an abiding love of good books."

Mosher at Concord Bookshop

Oct. 30: "Last night my long-time bibliophile friend, Dawn Rennert, drummed up a great SRO audience for me at the Concord Bookshop. It was a lovely evening. I kept wondering what Thoreau would have thought about the proceedings, much less the not-so-quiet desperation of all of us Patriot fans in the bar up the street when Tom Brady & Co. got off to a slow start against the Dolphins."

Nov. 3: "An excellent turnout last night in Bennington. Congratulations to Linda Foulsham and Phil Lewis for buying the renowned Bennington Bookshop, the oldest book store in Vermont, and keeping it alive and well. Also to Karson Kiesinger, at the Bennington Free Library, for bringing authors to the community.... Thanks to all bookstores and libraries, in Vermont and beyond, for helping us to do that. We are the reading species. Subtract books and stories from our culture, and we'd be left something less than fully human."

I first met Mosher in 1994, when I worked at the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vt., and Northern Borders had just been published. As a native Vermonter, I've always been drawn to his stories about a part of "my" state he knows better than I do, and the way he captures the essence of complicated people living hard lives, confronted by hard decisions, and just doing the best they can.

Yet the word that came to me as I began considering Mosher's Facebook posts and the author I have encountered off and on over the years is also a word I would use to describe the man himself: courteous. As might be expected, when I mentioned this to him, he deflected the compliment. When he's on tour, Mosher dictates those Facebook entries by phone to his wife, Phillis, who then posts them: "She also helps with the courteous tone," he joked.

Of course, it's not that simple. Our brief phone interview this week quickly evolved from q&a into two guys telling each other stories--about Vermont, the book trade, favorite writers and more. Mosher loves a good story, and I think his deep-rooted connection to independent bookstores is a tale worth sharing. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2629


Trick or Read!

The Elephant Man was there, chatting with Dorian Gray. Count Dracula met Huckleberry Finn, and the Invisible Man met the Invisible Woman. Marley's Ghost clanked around, and Dmitri Karamazov stood at attention. There were three Anna Kareninas and any number of Nicholas Nicklebys.... It was Brentano's pre-Halloween party Thursday night and the invitation advised guests to dress "as a character in a novel you wished you had written." --New York Times, October 31, 1981

From Christopher Morley's The Haunted Bookshop to Malachi O' Doherty's "ghost" photos shot at Bookfinders Bookshop & Cafe in Belfast, Ireland, bookish spirits just seem to bring out the best in book people this time of year. What better time, then, to highlight some of the haunting events taking place this weekend:

Very Literary Halloween Party: Newtonville Books, Newton, Mass., is inviting grown-ups to "come celebrate Halloween at our Very Literary Halloween Party. Come dressed in your literary-themed best for tricks and treats..."

Zombies!: Tonight, Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore, San Diego, Calif., is hosting "a Mad Zombie Hallowe'en Party--we will have candy & other tasty refreshments, plus a wonderful prize package for the best-costumed attendee... If you are in Los Angeles this weekend, it will be nigh impossible to distinguish Hallowe'en costumes from general cosplay at Stan Lee's Comikaze Expo at the Los Angeles Convention Center."

And Zombie ballerinas: "Join us for a special Halloween storytime with the Caldecott Honor-winning picture book author [Molly Idle, Zombelina Dances the Nutcracker] and a troupe of zombie ballerinas from the Arizona Youth Ballet" at Changing Hands Bookstore, Tempe, Ariz.

Lego Librarians at Truro Public Library, Truro, Mass.: "Our library pumpkin has gone viral with Facebook shares from libraries all over the U.S. and from Canada, U.K. and even Norway!!"

Trick or book: In addition to sweets, David Osborn, owner of Adventures in Bookselling bookstore, Omaha, Nebr., "hands out books to the little ghosts and goblins who come to his door. He estimates he has distributed thousands of gently used books in the last few years."

More book treats: Bob's Bookstore, Pensees Bookshop and the Lincoln Book Shop in Charleston, Ill., will be handing out free books for children on Halloween.

Monster Mash Costume Party: Village Books, Bellingham, Wash., will hold a Monster Mash Costume Party and Parade for kids tonight, followed tomorrow by the Bellingham Storytellers Guild telling spooky stories.

Edgar Allen Poe: The Harvard Book Store, Cambridge, Mass., is hosting a Poe party and a reading by William Giraldi from The Annotated Poe, for which he wrote the foreword. The evening will include a Poe look-alike and costume contest, prizes, a cash bar and a book signing.

Candy buyback: Edgewater Books and Pottery at South River Colony in Edgewater, Md., will buy back Halloween candy. Beginning November 2, unused candy can be exchanged for a $1 store credit per pound, redeemable at either retailer. All collections will be donated to Operation Welcome Home.

Alice at 150: Brazos Bookstore, Houston, Tex., is celebrating the 150th birthday of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland by throwing a Mad Hatter's Tea Party for kids and families Saturday morning. An evening Caterpillar's Costume Ball for adults will feature "EAT ME treats from Dixie's Dessert Delivery Service, DRINK ME treats, as well as a few party games and a costume contest. The best Alice-inspired costume and the best other costume will win gift certificates."

Alice with a twist of gore: Ann-Marie Finn and Kaylene Hobson, owners of the Mad Hatters Bookshop in Brisbane, Australia, decided the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll's classic "was a fitting time to give his beloved characters a gory twist for the Manly Harbour Village Halloween Street Party."

"Franny is still deciding on her Halloween costume": Noting that "some books are scary because of other reasons beyond zombies, ghosts, and mixed metaphors," the staff at Skylight Books, Los Angeles, Calif., "came up with these titles that are sure to be dark--dark like when the sun goes out... forever."

Spend Halloween in a bookstore: Japan's bookstore chain Junkudo is letting a small group of people spend the night inside its "three-story shop in Osaka--and on Halloween, no less.... Let's just hope that a group of 10 strangers spending Halloween night alone in a bookstore doesn't turn out to be quite as horror movie-esque as it sounds."

Halloween Hangover? Rediscovered Books, Boise, Idaho, suggests a Mark Z. Danielewski reading cure: "It's November 1st, the day after Halloween. You still have your costume on from the previous night. Your hair is a wreck. You don't know where that stain came from, and the last few hours you can remember are still a little fuzzy. Let Rediscovered Books ease you out of your Halloween hangover with a reading and signing."

Does all this bookish terror make for sleepless nights? Here's a little retail treat: According to the National Retail Federation's Halloween Consumer Spending Survey, more than 157 million Americans are celebrating Halloween this year, with total spending expected to reach $6.9 billion. And while 20 million humans are expected to spend $350 million on costumes for their pets, there's still some discretionary funds left over to buy Halloween-themed books and greeting cards (33.5% will buy greeting cards, spending a total of $330 million) from indie booksellers. Happy Bookish Halloween! --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2624


Pew Report: 'The Kids Are All Right'

"When it comes to reading books, the kids are all right. But the rest of us have some work to do," Jacket Copy observed in reaction to new survey results released this week by the Pew Research Center.

This is what we're up against: 72% of American adults have read a book within the past year, whether in whole or in part and in any format. That figure is down a bit from 2011 (79%) but is "statistically in line" with survey findings starting in 2012.

As they say in disaster movies just before the proverbial sh$% hits the fan, "There is no cause for alarm at this time." But, yes, the end is near, the sky is falling, it's an "emergency, everybody to get from street." Or is it?

Here's my favorite stat from the Pew survey: A "somewhat surprising generational pattern in book reading" emerged, with 80% of young adults (18 to 29 years old) having read a book, compared with 71% of those ages 30 to 49, 68% of those 50 to 64 and 69% of those 65 and older.

And here are some other Pew highlights:

  • 63% of American adults said they read at least one book in print in the past year, compared with 69% who said the same the year before and 71% in 2011.
  • 27% read an e-book (down from 28% in 2014).
  • 12% listened to an audiobook, a figure that has remained stable.
  • 12 was the mean average and four the median number of books read in the previous year.
  • Women read 14 books on average, compared with nine by men, which Pew deemed "a statistically significant difference."
  • The "typical college graduate or someone with an advanced degree" read an average of 17 books in the previous year, compared with nine for high school grads and three for those who did not graduate from high school.
  • 27% of adults said they hadn't read any books over the past year, while 1% said they did not know or refused to answer.

If I worry about anything after seeing these numbers, it may be the folks among that 1% who didn't know whether they had read a book during the past year. Here's a hint (though they won't be reading this either): If you did not know, you did not read.

Maybe I should be more concerned with statistical declines in reading habits, but they don't scare me. In 2004, National Endowment for the Arts chairman Dana Gioia announced the disheartening results of an NEA survey, including the news that people who said they had read fiction, poetry or plays dipped to 46.7% in 2002, down from 54% in 1992.

At the time, I wrote a blog post (later picked up by Bookselling This Week) in which I said that as a bookseller, "I live in a narrow corner of the universe where perhaps 90% of the people I converse with every day are readers by almost any definition of the term. The simple act of opening a bookshop's front door and walking in separates these people from the herd."

Still, I was actually amazed that 47% of Americans had read novels, plays and/or poetry. It seemed remarkable that we'd somehow managed to cling to a readership that high. "As to the dumbing down of young people that the NEA study seemed to imply, I can't imagine when this was not an issue in societies the world over," I wrote. "One imagines Og complaining to his wife a few thousand years ago that Og, Jr. showed no interest in making proper stone axes or painting accurately detailed woolly mammoths on the cave wall.

"Children have always been going to hell. The majority of my college classmates 30 years ago certainly exhibited no mass interest in reading for pleasure, at least none that was apparent to me at the time.... Statistics show... And yet, and yet, I work with young people at the bookstore all the time who read, who reflect, who think outside the cultural handcuffs of peer pressure and media influence."

What will become of our book readers?

In 1936, the New York Times reported that a nation-wide survey of reading habits conducted by Columbia University, the University of Chicago and the American Library Association found that only 30% of the the adult population "reads books, most of which are 'cheap' fiction, only a third representing the best in research, scholarship and creative ability.... In the country as a whole it was found that each person reads fewer than four books a year."

The distractions of modernity are everywhere. Why, just 162 years ago the Times cautioned: "It would be better, perhaps, if the solid, coherent substance of erudite books were more the vogue; and all subjects were studied profoundly and systematically. But not such is the order of the day.... The call for magazines--quarterly, monthly and daily--will therefore continue with increasing activity, answering to the accelerated progress of the world in civilization and its incidents."

I agree with Jacket Copy. The kids are all right, though it looks like Boomers, my generation, could stand to flip a few more pages each year. Readers, however, are not an endangered species. There's no need for everybody to get from street. Unless, of course, it's to go back inside and read a great book. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2619


#NEIBA15: 'There Don't Seem to Be Trade Secrets.'

As this year's New England Independent Booksellers Association Fall Conference was winding down last week, I asked NEIBA executive director Steve Fischer for his first impressions: "I'm very pleased with the show," he replied. "I think we accomplished what we set out to do, which is deliver great education, amazing authors and that energy that's created when a bunch of booksellers and publishers get together in the same space."

Fischer also mentioned something I think resonates throughout the world of indie bookselling: "We are all so free and open to share what we do and how we do it. There don't seem to be trade secrets."

It's true. There are, of course, any number of trade secrets in the industry as a whole (Amazon's book sales numbers being Exhibit A). But when you spend a few days in the company of indie booksellers, you can't help but be impressed by the range and level of sharing that occur in formal discussions as well as casual conversations, all of which contribute to making everyone better at their chosen profession.

Take the education programming at NEIBA as a prime example. A two-day Human Resources Workshop, featuring John Sherlock and presented by the American Booksellers Association, was held for bookstore owners & managers at the Providence Biltmore Hotel. Meanwhile, at the convention center, sessions ranged from a "Publisher Reps and Book Buyers Panel" to "Everyday Diversity: NECBA Handselling Contest"; from "Frontline Booksellers Meet & Greet" to "One Good Idea!"

Samantha Schoech of IBD with NEIBA's Steve Fischer

At a panel focused upon the second annual Independent Bookstore Day, several booksellers shared ideas that had worked for them (and a few that didn't) this year. IBD director Samantha Schoech noted that 80% of the participating stores reported a sales increase compared to the first Saturday in May 2014, with an average gain of 70%. In terms of successful events, she said, "What seems to work best is a little off-kilter approach." Words to live by for any indie bookseller.

At NEIBA's keynote luncheon, Kristen McLean, director of new business development at Nielsen Book, presented detailed information on shifts in book buying habits, content and format, ranging from current statistical challenges ("Coloring books are really hard for us to track right now because they fall into so many categories.") to developing trends ("I'm starting to see kids' reading habits being inspired by their parents' TV habits," she said, citing HGTV, food, sports and DIY channels as examples.). She also offered good news for indie booksellers: "You represent an important part of the market, especially where discoverability is an issue."

Another well-received presentation was "The Economics of Publishing & How They Impact Booksellers," featuring Bloomsbury USA publishing director George Gibson, who used the Profit and Loss statement for an upcoming trade title to show booksellers the myriad factors that ultimately affect both the bookstore channel and consumers. "We really don't understand each other's business," he suggested, adding: "You can tell the story of publishing through one P&L statement."

Gibson also offered a prediction: "I have absolutely no doubt that 50 years from now print books will still be the dominant form." Citing the number of publishers clamoring to attend ABA's Winter Institute, he stressed that the independent bookstore channel "has become so much more important in the past five years."

All of that education was counterbalanced by bookish celebrations at an author reception, as well as a pair of author breakfasts that featured Jack Gantos, Marie Lu, Sara Pennypacker, Roberta Kaplan, Sonia Manzano, Elizabeth Strout, Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner.

During the annual New England Book Awards dinner, host and Captain Underpants creator Dav Pilkey offered his thanks to "all of you whom I consider my friends and family, really."

Phoenix Books co-owner Mike Desanto, Burlington store manager Tod Gross and co-owner Renee Reiner

This year's BPRNE Independent Spirit Award went to Mike DeSanto and Renee Reiner, co-owners of Phoenix Books, which has employed a "community support" business model to open locations in Essex, Burlingon and, most recently, Rutland, Vt. Accepting the award, Reiner said, "It's really been a terrific experience. Folks crave indie bookstores, and that's why the model works."

Nonfiction book of the year winner Atul Gawande (Being Mortal) expressed his gratitude for "the honor of being introduced by the guy whose books I read to my kids over and over and over again." He also called indie booksellers a "fundamental" part of his book's success, which he described as a "consequence of people like you pressing it into people's hands.... Having your praise and support means a lot. I was very glad to be able to come and tell you that in person."

The conference also saw changes to NEIBA's board of directors. Gillian Kohli of Wellesley Books succeeded Suzanna Hermans of Oblong Books & Music as president, with Hermans becoming treasurer. Courtney Flynn of Trident Booksellers & Café remains v-p. New to the board are Laura Cummings of White Birch Books and Mike Katz of PGW/Perseus Books Group. They join directors Nancy Scheemaker of the Northshire Bookstore and Vicky Titcomb of Titcomb's Bookshop.

While the 700 people in attendance at NEIBA's Fall Conference 2015 was on par with last year's numbers, Fischer said there "certainly was higher energy.... The feedback from everyone has been really positive and actually rather glowing." With this kind of atmosphere, who needs trade secrets? --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2614

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