Booksellers may not have high-fived each other to celebrate that they had made it through a difficult year when they walked into the Sheraton City Center in Baltimore, Md., for the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association fall conference, October 3-5, but a sense of just how tricky it’s been to negotiate the retailing landscape was apparent at the annual meeting when a chorus of book people joined NAIBA president Joe Drabyak of Chester County Book & Music Company in West Chester, Pa., in reciting the closing lines of the St. Crispin’s day speech commemorating the Battle of Agincourt in Shakespeare’s Henry V: “And gentlemen in England now-a-bed/Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,/And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks/That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”
“It’s been a tough year,” said Rob Dougherty, manager of Clinton Book Shop in Clinton, N.J. “We’re looking forward to Jeannette Walls speaking at the store, because we’re going to have 500 people who could become customers.” Similarly, Hooray for Books! in Alexandria, Va., has found it rough. After opening at an inauspicious time, June 2008, in the space vacated by A Likely Story, owners Trish Brown and Ellen Klein have not yet been able to pay themselves.
The changed bookselling landscape is being felt by authors, and Paul Auster (Invisible, Holt) used his acceptance speech for this year’s Legacy Award to acknowledge the stores that have closed. “I admit that I feel nostalgic,” he said. “In my own city of New York, so many superb bookstores have gone out of business in the past years that the epidemic has reached tragic proportions. The Eighth Street Bookstore, the grand literary emporium of my youth, has been a shoe store for more than two decades now. The Gotham Book Mart ('Wise Men Fish Here'), the home of the James Joyce Society, the home in exile for André Breton and other French Surrealists during World War II, closed its doors recently. Books and Company is gone. Endicott Books is gone. Coliseum Books is gone.”
However, some stores, like Washington’s Politics & Prose, have successfully avoided today’s bookselling shoals. “We were girding ourselves for the drop-off that never happened,” said trade book buyer Mark LaFramboise. “It’s a great fall, and it’s our 25th anniversary.” He’s not alone. Pointing to the August opening of a third Barston's Child’s Play bookstore and toy store in the greater Washington, D.C., area, book buyer Deborah Johnson said, “Washington is not recession proof. But it bounces back.”
Several would-be booksellers are hoping to capitalize on that rebound with new stores in Virginia in the coming months, including startup consultant Eileen M. McGervey, who is planning a general store with a focus on international travel in Arlington, One More Page. Sisters Laura DeVault and Anne DeVault are preparing a bookstore/art gallery in Charlottesville, Over the Bookstore and Artisan Gallery.
Brooklyn continues to be a magnet for new bookstores. Jessica Stockton Bagnulo’s Greenlight Bookstore should have its soft opening very soon, while Tatiana Nicoli is working at BookCourt while she readies Boulevard Books & Cafe, tentatively scheduled to open in January. In the Adirondacks in Cambridge, N.Y., Connie Brooks is looking to purchase Battenkill Books and move it to a main street location that will double its size at the beginning of November.
To foster conversations between new booksellers and more experienced ones and to help those struggling the most, NAIBA built in lots of time for schmoozing at this year’s trade show. It encouraged booksellers to come in early for a pre-conference busman’s holiday/DIY Baltimore bookstore tour to Breathe Books, Atomic Books, the Ivy Bookshop, Sepia, Sand & Sable Books and the Children’s Bookstore, as well as other Baltimore area bookstores.
Even one of the conference’s most successful educational programs, the Morning Show, was built around talk and mimicked the Today Show format. However, in the NAIBA version, the news of the day included Breathe Books manager Jenn Northington one-on-one with Jonathon Welch, co-owner of Talking Leaves in Buffalo, N.Y., on the merits of selling e-books. Northington, who likes having 10 books in her pocket with her iPod Touch encouraged booksellers to stay in the loop so that customers will come to you for e-books. Welch, yellow legal pad and pen in hand, recommended taking a step back and considering just who is behind all the interest in e-books, Amazon.
Commercial breaks included timely announcements on new books like Colin Dickey’s Cranioklepty (Unbridled, Oct.) on robbing graves for skulls, and Joe Drabyak’s authorless cooking events for books like the latest in Anne Byrn’s Cake Doctor series, The Cake Mix Doctor Returns (Workman, Oct.). Drabyak said that his store set up an ER (eat and read) where patients/customers were served cake. As a result, the store sold 260 copies of one of Byrn’s earlier books in a single afternoon. “Weatherman” Sean Concannon at Parson Weems gave a shout-out to stores 55 years old and older, including Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem, Pa., 254; Otto Bookstore in Williamsport, Pa., 132; and the Drama Book Shop in New York City, 92.
The trade show preview was doubled in length from one hour to two to generate conversations on the floor. It’s also where the Helmuth Sales Rep of the Year award is given, which this year went to Tim Hepp of Simon & Schuster. Even without the added time, Scott Wythe of the Empire Group said that he finds the NAIBA trade show valuable. “I always find stores I didn’t know,” he said. “So it’s worth it for me.” Although the trade show was smaller than when it was last held in Baltimore two years ago, HarperCollins was one of the few publishers to take the same amount of space.
However, NAIBA executive director Eileen Dengler is already looking for ways to further strengthen the trade show, when it moves to Atlantic City next year, and the NAIBA board is considering proposals to eliminate the separate show floor in favor of a banquet hall display that will enable booksellers to sit down and do business with publishers. Also under review is a proposal to move to midweek, a la BEA. The reconfigured 2010 conference could more closely resemble the association’s popular trunk shows in upstate New York.