This year’s New England Independent Booksellers Association fall conference, held at the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence, R.I., from October 12–14, offered a chance for children’s booksellers to get a refresher on basics like handselling and to meet authors like Jeanne Birdsall, winner of a NEIBA Children’s Book of the Year Award for The Penderwicks at Point Mouette (Knopf), and breakfast speaker Kadir Nelson, author of Heart and Soul (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray). The New England Children’s Booksellers Association also named its new co-chairs: Jan Hall of Partners Village Store in Westport, Mass., and Ellen Richmond of Children’s Book Cellar in Waterville, Maine.
Attendance was slightly up, according to NEIBA executive director Steve Fischer, with more than 400 booksellers for the organization’s first mid-week show. It was also its most compressed, with educational sessions and author events packed into the first two days to avoid any conflicts with booksellers spending time on the exhibit floor on the last day of the show. In one sign of the times, many stores rotated staff at the show to keep their doors open. Others drove an hour and a half or more each way to avoid hotel costs. Most bookstores have recently experienced flat sales, or slightly up sales. Karlene Rearick, owner of The Alphabet Garden in Cheshire, Ct., put it best when she said, "We’re sputtering along."
A plenary session on the first day, The Bookstore of the Future, moderated by ABA president Becky Anderson, raised more questions than it answered. The conversation continued at the Moveable Feast of Ideas with nine tables and topics, such as communicating value to customers and selling e-books. The day concluded with the perennially popular Children’s Author and Illustrator Dinner. The earlier programming made no attempt to sugar-coat the difficulties of surviving, much less thriving, in a changing bookselling and publishing landscape, but it didn’t dampen the robust evening spirit as booksellers took in slideshow presentations by Brian Selznick, author of Wonderstruck (Scholastic Press); Loren Long, author of Otis and the Tornado (Philomel); and Ally Condie, author of Crossed (Dutton).
If the conference began on a somewhat unsettling note about the state of the book business, it also offered reassurance that booksellers can prevail. At the annual meeting, outgoing president Dick Hermans, co-owner of Oblong Books & Music in Millerton and Rhinebeck, N.Y., noted, "Lisa Sullivan deserves to be acknowledged for going through real s**t this year." Sullivan is in the midst of rebuilding Bartleby’s Books in Wilmington, Vt., which was destroyed by Hurricane Irene; her other store, The Book Cellar in Brattleboro, was demolished by a fire in the spring. To help, the Booksellers Representatives of New England donated all the books left after the show to Sullivan.
Booksellers unaffected directly by the flooding have shown support to neighboring libraries, some of which suffered significant damage. Liza Bernard, co-owner of the Norwich Bookstore in Norwich, Vt., is helping rebuild the nearby West Hartford Library, which lost its entire children’s book collection and many of its adult titles. Because structural engineers haven’t yet assessed whether the building can be saved, Bernard is encouraging the community to buy Norwich Gift Cards to be given to the library and is holding an event on Sunday in conjunction with the publication of Countryman Press’s new edition of The Soul of Vermont by Richard Brown.
The Bookstore Plus in Lake Placid, N.Y., is also hosting a fundraiser this coming weekend for its local library, The Wells Memorial Library of Upper Jay, which lost its children’s collection and part of its Adirondack Collection to the storm. In addition to appearances by area authors like Kate Messner (Over and Under the Snow, Chronicle) and Erin Dionne (Notes from an Accidental Band Geek, Dial) at the event, the store is holding a silent auction with over 50 autographed books and original artwork donated by Mercer Mayer, Maxwell Eaton III, Matt Phelan and Tom Angleberger.
Among the many stand-out educational sessions at the show was one on creating successful, and not too labor-intensive, in-store book fairs. Moderator Kenny Brechner, owner of Devaney, Doak & Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Maine, advised crafting a story to sell the fair to the media, parents, and the community. For his last book fair, for example, he wrote an article, which ran in the local newspaper and on his store’s Web site on the budget freeze and how area schools need new books. In addition he posted wish lists for each of the school libraries and had a display of the books in his story, both of which promoted sales.
At The Alphabet Garden, Rearick made an end run around school indifference to working with a local bookseller for an in-store book fair by “making them an offer they couldn’t refuse, she quipped. "I announced it and picked the dates for them." Most of the schools got on board and sent home flyers that she made to promote the event. And about half the money the schools earned at the in-store fair ended up coming back to the store. In the end, Rearick said, the schools were grateful that she had taken the initiative.
Susan Savory, children’s book buyer at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven, Mass., went to the six schools on the Vineyard and offered to do two school book fairs with three schools each. "I used the ‘buy local card,’ " she said, "and suggested a school book fair that would supplement the Scholastic Book Fair." At the beginning of each fair, she holds a party to which she invites local businesses and the press to get the whole community involved. Sometimes she will also invite a local author. She is very careful not to make the schools feel as if she’s trying to take away their Scholastic connection, but rather to add a local partner.
Although educational sessions like the one on in-store book fairs was the biggest draw for Marika McCoola, children’s department buyer at Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Mass., for a number of booksellers it was the whole show altogether: meeting old friends, picking up signed books and galleys, and talking with sales reps. For Betsey Detwiler, owner of Buttonwood Books & Toys in Cohasset, Mass., the show was worth it. “I made lots of notes, and connected with authors for events at the store,” she said. And a few booksellers like Book Cellar’s Richmond even dropped off their orders.