Despite pressure coming from a number of different areas on bricks-and-mortar bookstores, the American Booksellers Association's sixth annual Winter Institute, which took place January 18–21 at the Crystal Gateway Marriott in Arlington, Va., was surprisingly upbeat. Although many booksellers continue to wrestle with flat sales, that did not put a damper on the gathering. Nor did changes at the country's two largest chains—Borders sold its seasonal Day by Day Calendars kiosk business in a bid to raise cash; Barnes & Noble laid off between 45 and 50 people in its merchandising department—which formed a backdrop to the gathering. "The optimism [at Winter Institute] was palpable," says ABA CEO Oren Teicher. "There was no doom and gloom. Bricks-and-mortar bookselling is not going away."

That's not to say that the independent model won't continue to evolve. At panels on new strategies and partnerships, booksellers ranging from Roxanne Coady, owner of R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Conn., to Mitchell Kaplan, owner of several Books & Books stores in southern Florida and one in the Cayman Islands, shared how they have expanded their reach beyond their stores' four walls. For Coady, a two-month sabbatical led to the creation of a separate online gift book business in November 2009, Just the Right Book! (, based on her staff's hand-selling expertise.

By contrast, Kaplan is focusing on publishing ventures, particularly those related to Florida. He served as coagent and matched author Les Standiford with police detective Joe Matthews for a book on the Adam Walsh murder case, Bringing Adam Home, an IndieNext pick for March slated to launch with a 100,000-copy first printing from Ecco. Kaplan also formed a publishing group to create a photographic look at Miami's South Beach, South Beach: Stories of a Renaissance. And he has begun dabbling in film production with his sister, Paula Mazur. At Winter Institute, he announced that Mazur/Kaplan Company's first project, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, now has Kate Winslet attached. As for why Kaplan has chosen to use his relationships with authors, booksellers, and publishers, he says, "I want to get out from feeling threatened by credit departments."

But the industry transition responsible for drawing many of the 500 booksellers attending this year's conference, including more than 300 who skipped it last year, was digital books. "This is what I'm down here for, e-commerce," says Susan Porter, owner of Maine Coast Book Shop and Cafe in Damariscotta. "Just hearing how other booksellers are doing it helps." Adds Barbara Crane, co-owner of 35-year-old Browseabout Books & Cafe in Rehoboth, Del., "We're here to find out what ABA's going to offer us and what Google's going to do."

Booksellers from north of the border and overseas cited similar concerns about selling e-books. As the director of the board of the Canadian Booksellers Association, Lee Trentadue, owner of Galiano Island Books in Galiano Island, B.C., says, "I need to go back and really work with my board so they understand Canada will be behind if they don't get onboard with e-books."

In fact, how to sell e-books was such an overriding concern that ABA technology director Matt Supko led two back-to-back sessions about it. Panelist Jill Miner, owner of Saturn Booksellers in Gaylord, Mich., describes herself as feeling like a deer in the headlights, while Clark Kepler, owner of Kepler's Books in Menlo Park, Calif., says that he's the canary in the coal mine. The third panelist, Paul Hanson, manager of Eagle Harbor Book Co., in Bainbridge Island, Wash., is not against e-books per se but the devices. "I don't recommend any e-readers right now," says Hanson. "I tell my customers, if you have frustrations, the technology isn't there yet. We're in a Betamax moment."

Kepler, whose sales declined last year, says that he looks to Google eBooks as an opportunity to keep customers loyal and truly to become a 21st-century retailer. But, he acknowledges, there is much work ahead. "People refer to all the time," he says. "But they don't think of us selling e-books." One way to counter that, Supko suggests, is to do what Green Apple Books in San Francisco and McLean and Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Mich., do—use shelf-talkers with QR codes that customers can photograph with their cellphones and link to a store's Web pages. Citing a Verso Advertising study, he noted that 80% of consumers would be happy to buy e-books from independents if the pricing is comparable.

Since ABA's partnership with Google, which was announced last month, ABA continues to perfect its e-book/e-commerce experience. Among its top priorities, says Supko, are (1) working out a three-part agreement with Penguin to make its e-books available on IndieCommerce (Penguin is the only major house missing), (2) creating a payment option for gift cards, and (3) developing an app for reading Google e-books, which would drive customers back to independents. Supko also discussed adding downloadable audiobooks to IndieCommerce, as well as book and e-book bundles and/or book and audio packages.

For some, all the talk about e-books and e-commerce, is just, well, talk. "I have no problem selling e-books, but what we're going to live and die by is print," says Ed Conklin, buyer at Chaucer's Books in Santa Barbara, Calif. Another reminder of the importance of print was the sheer number of books at Washington, D.C., landmark Politics and Prose Bookstore and Coffeehouse, which hosted the opening night reception—and the number of potential buyers who have expressed interest in keeping it going. At least one of the finalists to buy the store was present at the conference. Owner Barbara Meade expects to announce a new owner in the spring.

Although the conference emphasized education, books and authors were never far from booksellers' minds, with more than 55 authors, a Winter Institute record, in attendance. Three books, all fiction, emerged as frontrunners for the coming season: two from Atlantic Monthly/Grove Press—Alice LaPlante's Turn of Mind and Francisco Goldman's Say Her Name—and Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife (Random House). "The best book I read for the spring is Francisco Goldman's," says Mark LaFramboise, trade buyer at Politics and Prose. "It's about the loss of his own wife, and it's awesome. I'm going to hand-sell it as beautifully sad." For Kelly Justice, owner of Fountain Bookstore in Richmond, Va., "One of my favorite books is Turn of Mind. I can see the same audience who loved The Lovely Bones loving this book."

In children's, the most buzzed book was Veronica Roth's Divergent (HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Books) "It's a dystopian novel and the closest thing I've read to The Hunger Games, without being copycat," says Susanna Hermans, co-owner of Oblong Books & Music in Millerton and Rhinebeck, N.Y., and chair of the New England Children's Booksellers Association. Other books that received attention included Blink & Caution (Candlewick) by Tim Wynne-Jones, John Stephens's The Emerald Atlas (Knopf), and Ladder to the Moon (Candlewick) by Barack Obama's half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, illus. by Yuyi Morales.

Among the firsts at this year's conference was a legislative day, which started off with PBS's Jim Lehrer interviewing Small Business Association administrator Karen Mills followed by bookseller meetings with their representatives. Another first was a day specifically devoted to small presses. Although some had attended in the past, many more were represented this year. "It's been a fantastic experience," says first-timer Julie Schaper, president of Consortium Book Sales & Distribution. "It feels like what BEA must have been like 30 years ago. It's not only nice to reconnect. I've always felt independent booksellers should support independent publishers."

Nor was Seven Stories Press disappointed with its first Winter Institute or its gamble that the midwinter conference would be a better way to spend its money than a booth at BEA, which it will skip. "I'm so happy to be here," says publisher Dan Simon. "The ABA was this kind of gathering. Then Bernie Rath sold it. This feels like the world come right again. It feels like a renaissance, and we're enchanted to be able to support it."

Next year Winter Institute will be held in New Orleans, January 18–20.

Prior to the Winter Institute, the ABA, in cooperation with Civic Economics, released the results of the first study to capture the importance of independent retailers to metropolitan areas. According to the study, Ocean City, N.J., was the city where indie business captured the highest proportion of retail activity.

Indie City Index

Metro Area Index
Ocean City, N.J. 147.7
Bellingham, Wash. 139.5
Medford, Ore. 138.7
Carson City, Nev. 137.1
San Jose–Sunnyvale– Santa Clara, Calif. 137.0
Barnstable Town, Mass. 135.6
Austin–Round Rock, Tex. 134.2
Dalton, Ga. 129.9
Harrisonburg, Va. 129.4
Gainesville, Ga. 129.3