The first full day of the American Booksellers Association ninth annual Winter Institute, which began on January 22 at the Seattle Westin, kicked off one of the most vibrant bookseller gatherings in several years. As ABA president Steve Bercu, owner of BookPeople in Austin, Tex., noted in his opening remarks, “independent bookselling is strong, vital, and growing.” Many stores, he noted, reported strong year-over-year sales—and some of their best days ever during the holiday season.
A new generation of booksellers, who seemed to make up half of the attendees, are giving the conference a new purpose and vitality. New owners of long-time stores are attending for the first time, including Lisa Poole of Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh, N.C.; Yolanda Harrison of That Bookstore in Blytheville, Ark.; and Charlotte Glover of Parnassus Books & Gifts in Ketchikan, Ala. Others like Marianne Lynch, manager of Books on Tap in Georgetown, Tex., are readying soon-to-open stores, while would-be bookstore owners like Rochelle Harris of Tollgate Creek Booksellers in Aurora, Colo., are continuing to scout for the right location.
Bercu used the opening of the plenary breakfast with Dan Heath, co-author of Decisive, to give a special thanks to Seattle author Sherman Alexie, who helped launch Indies First Day, which contributed to many stores’ hgher holiday sales. On behalf of independent booksellers, Bercu presented Alexie with a bright blue t-shirt with a tagline based on the title of his best-known book, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indie.”
Heath switched gears from Indies First to fun facts indicating that many decisions that seem good at the time aren’t. He showed a slide of a man’s naked back covered with a tattoo of the rock group Kiss and noted that more than 65,000 tattoos were reversed last year. Roughly half of all marriages end in divorce, and 80% of mergers and acquisitions create no value. He then proceeded to address what makes decisions go wrong, and how by widening options, reality-testing assumptions, attaining distance before deciding, and preparing to be wrong—or WRAP—people can make better choices.
Heath supplied specific examples from the book business to remind booksellers that decision-making affects everyone. He then proceeded to describe some of his own missteps when he sought venture capital for Thinkwell publishing company, which he helped start in Austin in 1997. “What we want to be true isn’t usually reality-based,” he said. After being turned down by several investors, Heath was encouraged by getting a proverbial pat on the back. He continued to give the same pitch, until his advisor finally told him the truth, “Nobody tells you your baby is ugly. These investors just don’t like your business idea.”
Another example looked at how Robert Sindelar, managing partner of Third Place Books in Seattle, turned around the café that wasn’t working in his second store. Rather than fire the manager, a gut reaction that many use when things don’t work, Sindelar took a different route by getting help from people who knew the restaurant business better, some whom his stores had hosted for their cookbooks. He looked at other restaurants and cafés to find what he wanted and remodeled the store and worked with Vios. He’s now seeing two to three times more foot traffic. “What you all have going for you,” Heath told booksellers, “is that you’ve earned the power of a point of view. You can change your perspective when faced with making decisions about your store.”
After Heath’s talk booksellers divided into groups to discuss many of their own difficulties making decisions, from hiring to right sizing by adding more space or shrinking from three storefronts to two or by selecting sidelines.
The Heath talk, along with many sessions on the first day, was designed to provide hands-on information for booksellers to take back to their stores, from managing cash flow to handselling. Paul Hanson, general manager of Village Books in Bellingham, Wash., which recently decided to get rid of its Espresso Book Machine but continue offering customers a self-publishing option, moderated a panel on how booksellers can work with Kobo Writing Life, Kirkus Indie, and IngramSpark. In fact, Hanson will be hosting a Kobo workshop with panelist Mark Lefebvre while he is out West. Through Kobo authors can publish e-books, while Ingram by combining its CoreSource and Lightning Source programs in IngramSpark is offering writers and small presses a way to print their books on demand and to publish e-editions of their work.
The ABC group at ABA kicked off a children’s track of panels with one on “Selling Sad and Dark Young Adult Literature.” Panelists Cathy Berner of Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, Suzanna Hermans of Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck, N.Y., and Lish McBride of Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park discussed how they deal with potentially difficult situations. McBride often pulls two sets of books, one for the teen and one for the accompanying parent. “Then I walk away and let them duke it out,” she said, adding “it’s interesting that kids who are assigned books about the Holocaust in school aren’t allowed to read Hunger Games.”
While many booksellers buzzed about the sessions—and took stacks of upcoming books from the galley room—it’s having the chance to compare notes that draws new and experienced booksellers to the conference. “I like coming and meeting with booksellers,” said Ed Chaucer, buyer at Chaucer Books in Santa Barbara, Calif. “It’s wonderful to hear of other booksellers’ experiences and ideas,” noted Peter Makin, owner of Brilliant Books in Traverse City, Mich., “to be in this atmosphere of kindred spirits.”