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Testing the 'Indie Mood' in Canada

Call it a highly unscientific poll, but I took advantage of my recent conversations with several booksellers who attended June's BookManager Academy in Kelowna, B.C., to ask a question somewhat unrelated to the conference: Having had the opportunity to spend a few days at BMA among so many other independent booksellers, what was your sense of the "indie mood" (for lack of a better phrase) overall?

"I think in general most of us booksellers live a passion running a bookstore, but the mood was generally upbeat and positive," said Joy McLean of Cafe Books, Canmore, Alberta. "I felt most of us were getting on and just selling books rather than moaning about things we can't control. I had a fantastic time and came away energized and excited for the future of small indie stores."

Melissa Bourdon-King of Mabel's Fables Bookstore in Toronto described the indie mood as "very positive. We were all so fired up after the conference, ready to get back to our stores and implement some of the new skills we had learned, to try new techniques we had discussed, and to brainstorm new ideas that had come out at the conference. We all came back with knowledge about new titles that had been selling well at other stores, eager to order them and try them out at our own locations.

"The conference was also a great opportunity for us to talk about the unique struggles we face as independent booksellers, and different coping mechanisms that stores are trying, and to discuss ideas for how we can change things," she continued. "With the loss of three main Canadian warehouses in the past six months, Canadian independent booksellers can find themselves at a real disadvantage in trying to get books into their stores quickly. I think being able to talk about some of these challenges with peers who understood and face the same challenges was a real asset. It can be really isolating focusing solely on your business (or the business you work for) and it was important, especially for me personally, to be reminded that there are so many others out there doing incredible things, and working just as hard as we are here at Mabel's Fables."

Cathy Jesson of Black Bond Books, Surrey, British Columbia, said her team "came away positive from BMA. Our 10 locations are ticking along, challenges with rent and suppliers continue, but overall I am feeling pretty good. Our biggest challenge will be the falling Canadian dollar, and the predator that is Amazon. In our business, it seems there is always something."

"I would say the indie mood is at this point very positive," said Jim Schmidt of Galiano Island Books, Galiano Island, B.C.: "Over the last few years we have seen our numbers shrink in B.C., Canada and the U.S., but now more bookstores are opening and those of us who have survived are a lot more savvy about what we need to do to survive. The big e-book revolution seems to have fizzled a bit, or at least plateaued well below the early projections of what their market share would be and more and more people are turning back to the traditional paper book. The whole idea of 'shop local' has also captured lots of people's attention and customer loyalty is growing, driven in large part by the way that independent bookstores and other independent retailers give back to their communities in so many ways from creating jobs to paying property taxes to sponsoring community programs to just giving folks a pleasant place to spend a few hours browsing.  To paraphrase Mark Twain, 'the news of our demise was greatly exaggerated.' "

While agreeing that "the mood was upbeat in general," Garry MacGregor of Volume One Bookstore, Duncan, B.C., added that "the only concern may have been the aging nature of the population. There are not enough young people entering the profession in Canada--perhaps a function of the unending false tale of woe issuing from the popular media even if it is not true or generally shared by people in the trade."
Offering an American perspective, Tiffany Harlan of Grass Roots Books & Music, Corvallis, Ore., said, "Our North American neighbors share the same challenges we do; but just like U.S. booksellers, those that remain (and the new stores opening) are reinventing the bookstore as a physical space for book lovers and communities to gather. The 'indie mood' is one of open-eyed (not blind) optimism for the future, so long as booksellers and bookstores continue to evolve to meet the challenges."

Barbara Pope of the Mulberry Bush Book Store, Parksville, B.C., struck a chord that will sound familiar to many of us: "When the 100 or so indie booksellers from across the country were introduced on the first morning, I felt like throwing my arms out wide and calling for a group hug! It's been so long since we were all together, and it was so good to be connected in person once again! I think all of us felt that." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2556


Are Smaller Conferences Better?

Last week, I shared reactions from some of the booksellers who attended June's BookManager Academy in Kelowna, British Columbia. There were two other questions I asked them, including: Do you think these smaller conferences are more useful to you as a bookseller than the traditional--if apparently fading--model of the mega-conference?

"I think the giant trade shows were very useful in several respects (e.g., opportunity to see publishers we wouldn't ordinarily see, such as academic or regional presses, to meet the 'big name' authors and to see book-related sidelines), but are probably, in the long run, no longer cost effective either for us or the publishers," Jim Schmidt of Galiano Island Books, Galiano Island, B.C., observed. "The regional book fairs, though, still play a critical role in informing the bookseller about what's new and hot as well as creating the opportunity to nurture and grow the bookseller/publisher community. The American Booksellers Association Winter Institute is without doubt the best educational opportunity, bar none, for booksellers, even non-U.S. booksellers and I have no doubt it will continue to thrive."

Attendees at BookManager Academy talking shop during a houseboat tour of Lake Okanagan

"I do think these smaller conferences are more useful than mega-conferences like BookExpo," replied Tiffany Harlan of Grass Roots Books & Music, Corvallis, Ore. "The large conferences can be overwhelming and don't offer the same opportunities to explore topics in depth and, more importantly, to connect with other individual booksellers. The more intimate social events at BookManager Academy (including a wonderful houseboat tour of Lake Okanagan sponsored by HarperCollins) provided valuable time to network and expand on ideas brought up during the education sessions."

Joy McLean of Cafe Books, Canmore, Alberta, said she prefers the BMA format "to a mega-conference where I think I would consider myself a small voice in a huge crowd. I wouldn't feel comfortable speaking up in that environment and I fear the louder voices would come from the larger indies rather than the smaller or unknown, but nevertheless important, stores who may be just as worthy and successful."

Smaller events like BMA "are much more useful," according to Melissa Bourdon-King of Mabel's Fables Bookstore in Toronto. "The focus topics were able to be more targeted and specific to my needs as an independent bookseller, and I did not feel lost in a crowd, I felt part of something exciting, something developing, something powerful."

Robert Moore of Oregon Books & Games, Grants Pass, Ore., agreed that "smaller is better because of the interaction and learning opportunities. BookExpo America is an event, not a learning venue."

Cathy Jesson of Black Bond Books, Surrey, B.C., also said "smaller conferences are better. I love the Winter Institute. I did attend BookExpo--in many ways I felt that was a tipping point show. I did not run into too many booksellers--more bloggers (not sure how these are qualified, as seemed an enormous group) and lots of librarians. There seemed little place at BEA for interaction."

Jessica Walker of Munro's Books, Victoria, B.C., "hasn't been able to go to BookExpo for a few years because of scheduling conflicts, but I think I've got much more out of the last two Winter Institutes that I attended. That said, BookExpo provides a good snapshot of the industry from the publishing side."

Noting that he had "attended the Winter Institute in Seattle a year or so ago and found that also to be very practically oriented, much more valuable than a show that is mainly display," Garry MacGregor of Volume One Bookstore, Duncan, B.C., said "the BookManager event was of the same ilk, the difference being that it was smaller, so the networking opportunities created more of a cohesive group."

BMA "was all about making connections," noted Barbara Pope of the Mulberry Bush Book Store, Parksville, B.C. "Ever since the demise of the Canadian Booksellers Association quite a few years ago now, there hasn't been an opportunity for indie booksellers from across Canada to come together, to share professional development learning, best practices, new ideas, industry concerns and connections with each other and our publishers. BMA provided this much needed opportunity.

"Some of us who met at BMA talked (only informally at this stage) about the need for a new Canada-wide alliance so that we would, once again, have a Canadian voice to represent Canadian independent bookselling across the country and internationally. It is very much needed. Obviously, all Canadian indie booksellers would be very much part of any new alliance, if it ever becomes a reality. It's only a dream right now, of course. Nevertheless, BMA was an excellent picture of what could be achieved in the future."

Next week, booksellers answer the question: Having had the opportunity to spend a few days at BMA among so many other independent booksellers, what was your sense of the "indie mood" (for lack of a better phrase) overall? --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2551


BookManager Academy 'an Amazing Event'

In May, I asked Michael Neill, president/head programmer of BookManager and owner of Mosaic Books in Kelowna, B.C., what he hoped to accomplish with the inaugural BookManager Academy, which he was hosting the following month. "Too many of us no longer communicate face-to-face with our peers," he replied, adding that while the conference's education programming would be valuable, BMA "will also be a catalyst for discussion during the social events where ideas for change really happen."

How did it all work out? BMA drew nearly 100 booksellers from about 60 stores in Canada and the U.S., according to Neill. I contacted several of the booksellers recently, and all were enthusiastic ("an amazing event," "extremely positive," "a breath of fresh air"). 

L.-r.: Sandy Cooper of Raincoast Books, Michael Neill, Jim Schmidt of Galiano Island Books & Anna Beddie of Misty River Books.

"I think BMA was a brilliant event for the whole Canadian book industry," said Barbara Pope, co-owner/manager of the Mulberry Bush Book Store, Parksville, B.C., and immediate past president of the British Columbia Booksellers Association. "Michael and his BookManager team worked extremely hard to put on a sterling event and I know all indie booksellers who attended were most grateful to them for the opportunity to come together and connect with one another.... All the professional development sessions were valuable.... Hearing from publishers and fellow booksellers at the Town Hall meeting was especially informative. And the social events were the icing on the cake."

"This was our first time organizing something of this scale," Neill said. "Promotion, fund-raising, hotels, materials, swag, badges, structured education, buses, food, drinks, social events, cleanup, store tour--a massive list for a small crew of first-timers. The BookManager and Mosaic Books team pulled out all the stops. And I think they hit it out of the park based on the many, many compliments we received. The common thread was the intangible benefit of everyone being together to talk about the book business."

L-r: Heather Parsons of Heritage Group Distribution, Andrea Davies of Hager Books & Nancy Wise of Sandhill Book Marketing.

Melissa Bourdon-King, general manager of Mabel's Fables Bookstore in Toronto, agreed: "My general reaction was extremely positive. I felt that the event really invigorated and energized the booksellers who attended. Personally, I found the event to be really stimulating. It was amazing to talk to so many other booksellers, to get to know them and their stores, and to hear positive feedback from other booksellers about the things that my store is doing. It was quite inspiring.

"Everyone who works in independent bookselling works so hard, and we are all so passionate about what we are doing and why. It was pretty infectious to be in a room of like-minded people, all being exposed to knowledge that can really help us make our stores an even stronger part of the Canadian Bookselling economy."

"Kudos to Michael and his gang," said Jim Schmidt, co-owner of Galiano Island Books, Galiano Island, B.C., adding that BMA "was easily the best regional event that I've attended for booksellers in the 18 years we've been in business. It combined a lot of solid, useful information with many opportunities to exchange gossip and ideas with fellow booksellers, book reps, folks from the publisher's headquarters and even a few authors."

For Tiffany Harlan, floor manager and book buyer at Grass Roots Books & Music, Corvallis, Ore., BMA "was a fabulous experience, and I feel so fortunate to have been able to attend. Two intensive days packed full of education allowed attendees to learn the ins and outs of the BookManager inventory program in much greater depth, as well as share general bookselling information.... The Town Hall, featuring guest panelists, was definitely a highlight with its question-and-answer format affording the chance for a lively exchange of bookselling ideas and opinions. The consensus in the room was that we learned so much, but still didn't have enough time to cover everything, and easily could have filled a third day of education to cover some topics in greater detail."

Dinner & beach bonfire at Neill's lake home.

Describing BMA as "a lot of work, a whole lot of fun and absolutely memorable and heartwarming," Diana O'Neill, who handles sales and technical/data support for BookManager, recalled the pleasure of seeing booksellers "from across the country gathered and sharing ideas, wine and laughs. It's pretty obvious that we are all thirsty for events like this in Canada; we need an excuse to get together and vocalize our woes, but more than that--we need an excuse to get together and come up with new ideas to stay afloat as indies and to bond over our experiences and how we plan on moving forward, always forward."

Neill observed that the challenge now becomes: "What is possible for an encore? We proved that the Canadian industry sorely needs to gather in person from time to time. Financial support from the publishing side was essential, and we are grateful to those who put faith in the idea. Thankfully, the digital world can only go so far."

The booksellers I contacted after BMA had much to say about not only this event, but small conferences and Canadian indies in general. I'll share more of their thoughts here next week. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2546


Patience and Fortitude, Libraries & Revelations

I like revelations. As I read Scott Sherman's Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate and the Fight to Save a Public Library, it occurred to me that I had sincerely believed I was paying attention to an important controversy as it played out over the past several years. What I'd actually done was read occasional media coverage of the New York Public Library's proposed Central Library Plan, which the author describes as a "wide-ranging reconfiguration of services" that "had been born in June 2007 and was announced to the public nine months later at a little noticed press conference." 

Because some of the most critical decisions regarding the CLP were reached behind closed doors, the issue tended to drift in and out of my field of news-vision. Fortunately, some people cared deeply and for the long haul. Sherman's book eloquently chronicles the back-room scheming and eventual blowback protests.

The CLP's goal was to consolidate three midtown libraries "into one colossal circulating library inside the 42nd Street building, which would undergo a $300 million renovation by Norman Foster, the British architect," Sherman writes. In addition to selling off two valuable properties (the Mid-Manhattan branch library on 40th Street and the Science, Industry and Business Library on 34th), NYPL would remove "the entire collection of [three million] books from the iron and steel stacks inside the 42nd Street building and send them to an offsite storage facility in Princeton, New Jersey."

Sherman first brought the issue to the public's attention in 2011, when he was asked by the Nation magazine to write a profile of incoming NYPL president Anthony Marx. "Today, top NYPL officials talk about the CLP--announced in late 2008 but delayed by the economic downturn--as a done deal," Sherman noted in the piece. "But Marx says the NYPL's powerful board of trustees has not yet given its final stamp of approval; he adds that he is still analyzing the plan."

Scott Sherman
(photo: Emrah Gurel)

In a recent e-mail exchange, Sherman told me: "Indeed, the recession of 2008 was crucial in derailing the plan for about 3-4 years. If not for the Great Recession, it is very possible that the Foster renovation might have been completed by the time Bloomberg left office."

Patience and Fortitude reads at times like a suspense novel for bibliophiles, with power and big money acting unilaterally until being challenged by citizen's groups, prominent architects (and, notably, architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable) and researchers; as well as an all-star cast of writers and celebrities including Salman Rushdie, Donna Tartt, Gloria Steinem, Mario Vargas Llosa, Tom Stoppard, Garrison Keillor, Malcolm Gladwell, Ann Patchett and Susan Sarandon.

Did the CLP backers assume the deal could be railroaded through as long as the public--and NYPL's staff--was kept in the dark as much as possible while decisions were made? "Yes," Sherman replied. "This is not in the book, but an NYPL staff member told me in 2012: 'We were made to feel old and against change.' A few trustees did call for open discussion at the start, but they were greatly outnumbered. The mission was to stifle discussion and get this thing done before anyone could stop them."

He added: "The takeaway for those who didn't follow the debate too much is that the public should be consulted before libraries and museums launch $500 million construction projects."

What I love about Patience and Fortitude is the way it coalesces all of the disparate bits of information I'd gathered over the years, adds pertinent facts I knew nothing about, and then offers readers the whole story. Sometimes narrative arcs are clearly visible only in retrospect.

And while there are plenty of villains in this tale, heroes abound as well. "Katz had an emotional attachment, colored by romanticism, to the library at 42nd Street," Sherman writes, describing legal historian (and much more) Stanley Katz, who co-authored a key protest letter shortly after Sherman's 2011 Nation article appeared. 

How rare, I asked, is it for "emotional attachment, colored by romanticism" to win a battle over power and money? "Activism is about deep passion," Sherman said, "and the critics were deeply, deeply passionate about the fate of NYPL in general and the 42nd Street building in particular."

Patience and Fortitude is, in its way, a complex love story about "an institution that mattered to me personally," as Sherman notes in his preface. It is also, as he observes in the final chapter, the tale of "a brawl about democracy, architecture, and, crucially, the role of books in the digital age." The ending is a little bittersweet, but so is the world, even on its best days. The book itself is revelatory. And I like revelations. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2537


Au Revoir, La Hune

A bookshop closed this week.

On a chilly March night in 2013, my wife and I left our Paris apartment (rented just for the week, alas) on Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, crossed the Seine on the Pont des Arts and strolled down Rue Bonaparte, heading for dinner at La Bastide d'Opio, a bistro that had been highly recommended by a friend. If this sounds like the beginning of a novel (or a deleted scene from Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris), it definitely felt that way, too.

We weren't necessarily seeking an oasis of warmth during our long walk, but when we noticed incandescent windows in the distance and discovered they belonged to a bookshop, we surrendered happily to temptation. Dinner could wait.

We entered Librairie la Hune, where a considerable amount of our time and money was soon well spent. The shelves and display space were open, bright and well-stocked. I retain the distinct image of a woman climbing stairs to the second floor, where an author event was about to begin. In her left hand she carried two bottles of wine, their necks held casually between her fingers, the glass clinking like wind chimes with each step. Outside, twilight enveloped an unfamiliar street in a country that was not ours. Inside, we were at home.

A bookshop closed this week.

This is how France 24 reported the end: "La Hune, the iconic Parisian bookshop which was the focal point for intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus for more than 60 years, closed for the last time on Sunday after a long struggle to make ends meet." Calling La Hune "one of the French capital's most loved bookshops, famed for its vast collections of French and international literature, history, art and design," France 24 also noted that it was "founded by a group of resistance fighters in 1949" and had been "originally located between the famed Café de Flore and the equally frequented Les Deux Magots in Paris's sixth arrondissement, [where it] became a landmark meeting place for France's intelligentsia."

The challenges La Hune faced in recent years were variations on a familiar theme: Olivier Place, director of La Hune's previous owner Librairies Flammarion, which sold the bookseller to Gallimard three years ago, said sales had fallen precipitously. The bookstore also fell prey to ever-increasing rents in the fashionable Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood. In 2012, La Hune "was forced to move from its emblematic address on 170 Boulevard Saint-Germain to the nearby 18 Rue de l'Abbaye to make way for a Louis Vuitton store," France 24 wrote.

A bookshop closed this week.

"I walked through La Hune one last time, sniffing the books and looking at the posters, and found myself far more distraught than I expected to be," Adam Gopnik recently wrote in the New Yorker. "I felt a deep sense of loss, more than mere regret, and ever since I have been trying to decide why I felt this way and whether the feeling was mine alone or might have resonance elsewhere."

Acknowledging that bookstores worldwide "open and they close, following the path of bright young people as migratory birds follow the sun," Gopnick observed that in Paris, "good bookstores have opened in, or migrated to, the popular quartiers of the 15th and 19th arrondissements, just as a few independent bookstores in this city have migrated to the sunnier climes of Brooklyn."

In conversations with his Parisian friends about La Hune, he "found they shared my sense of something that it would be indecent to call grief but inadequate to call sadness. At a minor level, once a bookstore is gone we lose the particular opportunities for adjacency it offers, determined by something other than an algorithm. It is rarely the book you came to seek, but the book next to that book, which changes your mind and heart."

A bookshop closed this week.

"If we try to protect small merchants, or mourn their disappearance, the last thing we are being is nostalgic," Gopnick concludes. "Books are not just other luxury items to be shopped for. They are the levers of our consciousness. Every time a bookstore closes, an argument ends. That's not good."

I'm not sure the announcement of a bookshop's closure can shock me anymore, in part because I also have the counterbalancing solace of witnessing, almost daily, so many bookstores opening, relocating, expanding or changing ownership. Perspective can be a healing gift. And yet, a bookshop closed this week. It was not my bookshop, but I had been a customer there one night, and I mourned anyway. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2532

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