This year’s ninth annual American Booksellers Association Winter Institute, held January 22–24 at Seattle’s Westin Hotel, gave booksellers a chance to take stock of their business after the holiday selling season. Both the timing, less than a month after New Year’s, and the location, relatively warm and snow free, contributed to a much happier atmosphere than in Kansas City in 2013, which was plagued with two major snowstorms. A strong holiday season for many stores contributed to an up mood as well. A number of retailers had either record days leading up to Christmas or a record year, including ABA president Steve Bercu’s BookPeople in Austin, which experienced both. Another reason for enthusiasm, as noted by ABA CEO Oren Teicher at the kickoff party at Elliott Bay Book Company, is the number of new booksellers in attendance and the number of younger booksellers. Both are bringing a new vitality to the business.
Seattle drew a number of booksellers who had not previously attended a Winter Institute as well as those considering or about to open a new bookstore, such as Shaelyn Germain, who is working with Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kinney to launch a bookstore in Massachusetts. Although Kinney didn’t attend, a number of children’s authors did, including Book Industry Study Group executive editor and former ABA COO Len Vlahos, who launched his debut novel at Winter Institute, The Scar Boys (Egmont USA). Because of Vlahos’s special relationship with booksellers (he refers to ABA members as “family”), ABA reserved a half-hour time slot for Vlahos to present his book.
Each year booksellers look forward to Winter Institute because it offers a chance to connect with their peers and to hone their skills at hands-on educational sessions, and this year was no exception. “I enjoyed it,” said Catherine Weller, new book buyer and co-owner of Weller Book Works in Salt Lake City. “I thought there were good seminars. I can see why some people focus on this more than national shows like BEA.” Kenny Brechner, owner of Devaney, Doak & Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Maine, has been among those booksellers favoring Winter Institute ever since he attended his first, in Washington, D.C. “I tend to go to Winter Institute rather than BEA. I took some substantive good ideas from just about everything,” he said. One focus for him was getting help with delegating more responsibility to his staff.
Amie Mechler-Hickson, children’s book buyer at Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, found the bookstore tours on the day before the conference started to be particularly helpful. “Every store I went into I pulled one idea,” she said. She thought this year’s programming was strong, and particularly enjoyed the ABC Group’s panel on Common Core. Rather than a rehash of last year’s seminar, which focused on what Common Core is, this year’s panelists – Brechner; Kathy Faber, director of sales at HarperCollins Children’s Books; Tegan Tigani, children’s book buyer at Queen Anne Book Company in Seattle; and teacher and librarian TeusDay Chambers – offered more of a 2.0 on the topic. “I thought it was really great to have someone there who was using it,” she said. Now she has a better sense of how to pitch a book to a local teacher that she thinks would work well for Common Core. She also singled out the workshop on how booksellers create teen and tween advisory boards, something she’d like to start at Boswell’s.
Publishers also look forward to Winter Institute just as much as booksellers do. For Andrea Cascardi, managing director and publisher of Egmont USA, who has attended three previous conferences, what stands out are “the opportunities afforded at Winter Institute [through] direct conversations with booksellers and executive directors. ‘Rep around lunch’ [where sales reps move from table to table to talk about their top books] helps get the word out about key titles on the list, and focus groups are extremely helpful to hear what booksellers really need in terms of advertising, co-op support, author tours, and social media.” This year Egmont’s list got an additional boost by the special attention given to Vlahos. “We experienced such an outpouring of excitement for The Scar Boys,” said Cascardi, “got great feedback, and had many stores asking Len to visit for in-store events or school visits.”
Next year the conference, which emerged out of a suggestion from Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books in Coral Gables, Fla., and was developed by Vlahos and the ABA board, will hold its 10th anniversary in Asheville, N.C., at about the same time as this year’s institute.