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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.


Synergy 'Creates a Special Sense of Place'

Whether the challenge is increasing sidelines inventory, adding on a complementary business or even opening a sister (or brother, your choice) store in another location, indie booksellers are always exploring ways to increase margins without sacrificing integrity.

Mark Kaufman and Donna Paz Kaufman run the Bookstore Training and Consulting Group of Paz & Associates. When Mark responded to a recent column, it sparked my curiosity regarding what prospective booksellers might understand about nonbook merchandising possibilities as they consider entering the book trade.

"Before we even read your piece in today's issue of Shelf Awareness, Donna and I were talking over breakfast about how interesting it might be to create a little side-business suggesting appropriate nonbook items that stores could merchandise alongside the book," Mark wrote. "It distresses us no end to hear some booksellers insist that they don't want to sell 'all that crap,' mostly because if you were just to depend on the slim margins available from selling books alone, you'd likely not last very long in business. What we embrace (and teach at our workshops) is that there are plenty of opportunities to offer customers a more interesting selection--and make more money at the same time--without having to add an entirely new business to the bookstore."

Long ago and far away (1993 at the ABA trade show in Miami), I attended one of Donna's workshops during Bookseller School. I wondered how much her advice about nonbook inventory for indie booksellers had changed since then.

"Even 20 years ago, there was room to launch a bookstore and financially do well without constant worry about cash flow," she recalled. "Retail bookselling today is more of a challenge, requires more creativity and demands many more skills than it used to. We encourage people to consider ways they'll be unique and how they'll become the 'go-to' place in their community for people who love to read. Why not add a little extra to bump up the average sale, especially when you see customers laugh and have a good time finding things in your store? Each combination will be unique, and there is a wide range of general merchandise categories, services, learning opportunities, and food and beverages to help create that special store."

She cited one of her favorite retail stores in Savannah, One Fish, Two Fish, "with a delicious selection of beautiful art, home decor, books, kitchen items, jewelry. You could buy a beautiful set of sheets there and you can find a collection of poetry and cookbooks displayed so you just have to go look (then buy). I just love it. What kind of store is it? It doesn't matter. It's the same with the fabulously successful Anthropologie stores. It's the synergy that creates a special sense of place."

As far as prospective booksellers are concerned, "everyone who comes to our training usually considers themselves readers and most have acknowledged a lifelong dream of owning a bookstore, but in years I haven't seen anyone who spoke of any concerns about carrying general merchandise (a term I prefer since 'sidelines' marginalizes the importance of other items)," she said. "When trainees learn the financial dynamics of a bookstore, it's crystal clear how valuable higher-margin merchandise is to the bottom line. To some, I think that's a real eye-opener. As trainers, we think it's the perfect prompt to help them think more creatively about what's in the store's selection that will appeal to people who like to read."

Noting that her early experience as a bookseller at Davis-Kidd "was a good place for me to learn about the importance of keeping an open mind," Donna observed that small stores of all types "have been hard pressed to compete in today's retail world, which is why we believe it makes sense to morph into more of a general store. 'The Merc' (Mercantile) has been a favorite place of mine in Ann Arbor and it's so much fun to visit because you never know what you'll find. On Amelia Island, we have lost our quality indie toy store, Hallmark store and wine bar and there's no shortage of artful items made by local artisans who are always looking for a place to show their items. While many specialty stores cannot survive on their own, a combination of merchandise can help a bookstore become an even stronger destination."

She added that when the big box chains "are selling cheap, imported goods, many hunger for unique, handmade, locally crafted, quality items. Booksellers don't have to sell out or feel compromised. It's smart retailing to keep the selection fresh and exciting, filling niches and seizing opportunities. It's time we focus on serving our target markets (people) instead of being focused purely on our product (books). We are so fortunate to have target markets that value education, have disposable income and understand the importance of local business to sustainable communities. We should be obsessed with catering to their intellectual, spiritual and aspirational needs. A dynamic and lively selection will help us remain interesting, relevant and profitable."

Her conclusion: "I think we're in an era where we are transcending categories and that is a very good thing for all retailers, especially indies." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2079

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