It’s hard to top a menagerie: “Did you pet the silky chicken? If you closed your eyes, it felt just like fur…” “And how about the tarantulas?” “Plus the all the cats.” “Amazing.” Time and time again conversation at Winter Institute 12 in Minneapolis returned to local bookstore Wild Rumpus, which was a destination on the bookstore tour that opened this year’s conference last week. The visit to the store, which is shortlisted for PW’s Bookstore of the Year award, was a highlight for many.
On the whole, Winter Institute – which this year drew 654 booksellers – is largely about helping booksellers sell more books, and several panels contained tips and best practices that can be implemented at children’s bookstores. A Saturday panel on “Successfully Selling and Merchandising Graphic Novels” focused how to best present and promote graphic and illustrated novels to customers. Michael Link of Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Cincinnati, Oh., served as moderator and was joined by Heather Hebert of Children’s Book World in Haverford, Pa., Marika McCoola of Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., and Michael Bender of the Community Bookstore in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“Graphic novels now have validity in the home and the classroom,” said Hebert, who noted the increase in popularity for illustrated and graphic nonfiction titles. “Visual literacy is important,” she added. “And graphic novels are good not just for reluctant readers, but for those kids who are blowing through books of prose – the visual aspect can slow them down a bit and get them to read more deliberately.”
The panelists advocated a variety of strategies to interest children in graphic novels, from putting large or awkwardly formatted titles on bottom shelves so they can pull them out and read them on the floor, to enticing adults to browse the section first – with “gateway” titles such as Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? or books by Lynda Barry. Bender noted that there are certain books that can appeal to both adults and children alike, in part because of their high production values, such as many books from Nobrow Press. “They have a book, Robert Moses: Master Builder of New York City, that we sell a ton of,” he said.
Throughout the weekend, the question of diversity in the book business was under much discussion, prompted in part by an opening keynote speech from writer and activist Roxane Gay, in which she stated that publishing itself was predominantly white and the majority of people she met on book tours were “white women and the men who love them.” Underscoring that “bookselling has a diversity problem,” and that it “is a problem seemingly without solution,” Gay nevertheless encouraged booksellers to work to promote diverse reading habits.
On Sunday afternoon, two We Need Diverse Books representatives and two booksellers presented an ABFE-sponsored panel, “Hot-Button Issues in Kids’ Books,” moderated by Chris Finan. Authors Miranda Paul and I.W. Gregorio informed the audience of roughly 50 booksellers about WNDB resources that are designed to make multicultural books more easily discoverable to booksellers wanting to add them to their inventory. WNDB is planning on launching an app that will make a database of 1200 books available to booksellers, and will partner with Above the Treeline to add WNDB tags to appropriate titles in Edelweiss.
Booksellers Nicole Brinkley of Oblong Books in Rhinebeck, N.Y., and Joan Trygg of Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, Minn., provided audience members with tips on making multicultural books more accessible to customers. “Sell the book, not the issue,” Brinkley said. “Just put them on display,” and also promote a diversity of titles in the store’s newsletter and on social media. Trygg suggested “double shelving” books in different sections to enhance their visibility.
Several booksellers and publishers took strong stands on the subject of diversity throughout the weekend. Margie Wolfe, publisher of Second Story Press in Toronto, who attended Winter Institute for the first time, told PW she was both surprised and pleased at the emphasis on diversity. “We have been publishing a catalog of books about social justice and diversity for years – it is the whole agenda of the press and we can only hope than now, with the current political climate, booksellers will pay more attention to what we have to offer.”
Booksellers also explicated their feelings about repeated calls – several of which were made during the ABA’s Town Hall meeting – to present their stores as “inclusive, safe” spaces. “I would think that any bookstore that sells children’s books and deals with children in any way would have to be a safe space, by the very nature of that fact,” said Sarah Bagby, owner of Watermark Books in Wichita, Kans. “And rather than calling my store a safe space, I would rather that the books were themselves perceived as the sanctuary and the store itself is a portal to that sanctuary.”
Valerie Koehler, ABA board member and owner of Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, added, “One way that we ensure our store is a safe space is by always making sure that a child feels they have a voice and that they have been heard. Sometimes that even means getting in the way of their parents to let them do so.”
Among the prospective new booksellers at WI12 was Zsamé Morgan, who is planning to open Babycake’s Book Stack, a children’s bookstore, in the Lowertown neighborhood of neighboring city St. Paul. A banker for the last 20 years, she said she “wanted to do something fulfilling” with her life after the sudden death of the father of her three-year-old daughter several years ago. Morgan, who is African-American, noted that her store, which is expected to open this spring, will serve a diverse community, many of whom are immigrants from Vietnam, Ethiopia and Somalia. Asked about the diversity discussion at WI12, she said it was “interesting and timely,” and though she found the bookselling community largely “a homogenous group,” it was also one with “tremendous capacity for acceptance, and I don’t feel singled out or exceptional.”
But, she added, “it’s one thing to talk about diversity, and another thing to act.”
To this end Morgan would be heartened to learn that two new imprints for children announced at WI12 will focus on diversity issues. Restless Books, which focuses on literature in translation, is launching Yonder, an imprint that will offer children’s books from abroad in translation, while Agate Publishing’s Bolden Books imprint is expanding its line of books edited by author Denene Millner, aimed at African-American parents and children.