The largest annual American Booksellers Association Children’s Institute kicked off on June 26 in Pittsburgh with more than 330 booksellers in attendance, dozens of authors, educational workshops, and visits to local bookstores.

At the Thursday morning keynote, novelist Ann Patchett told booksellers about her newly released picture book Lambslide, illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser, as well as her journey to becoming a bookseller. Patchett opened Parnassus Books in Nashville in 2011 with Karen Hayes. “The contract you make with a book is not complete until you can force someone else to read it,” said Patchett to laughter. She also told booksellers of her own life as a reader, and how she had not learned to read until third grade.

On Wednesday evening, actor and author Henry Winkler co-judged a costume contest of booksellers who dressed as their favorite children's book characters. Winkler and co-author Lin Oliver also signed copies of Alien Superstar, the first book in their new series due out from Abrams in September. “I love their courage. I love their personality. I love their inventiveness. I love that they love books,” Winkler said of the costumed booksellers. “I’m so happy that I’m here to do this.”

Booksellers also toured local bookstores, and were joined by a handful of authors, including Caldecott Medalist Jerry Pinkney. Pinkney said that the trip had changed his view of bookstores from being places that need support to being “places for the celebration of books.”

A Contentious Town Hall

The institute also hosted its first ABA town hall for children’s booksellers, which became a wrenching and sometimes contentious conversation. Tensions had been building throughout the day; at both a morning panel on diversity and during lunchtime remarks by author James Patterson, Third Place Books—Seward Park bookseller Avery Peregrine interrupted ongoing sessions to raise concerns about diversity and sustainability issues for bookstores.

In the town hall, booksellers were quickly at odds with their own leadership, calling for expanded educational opportunities to meet the needs of the country’s smallest bookstores, as well as lower costs for membership services.

“The education that is presented? I can’t use any of it,” said Annie Carl, owner of the Neverending Bookshop in Edmonds, Wash., during the packed meeting between booksellers, board members, and ABA leadership.

Carl described the hardships of running a micro-store, and of finding representation at the conference. “I’m not buying books for next month because I have to pay rent for next month,” she said. “Is there any sort of specific to micro-store education coming? We need it. We need it. Because the stuff that is working for the medium and big size [stores] isn’t working for me. It’s just me. I’m wearing all the hats. I need my board members to help.”

Her comments were echoed by Kathy Burnette from The Brain Lair in South Bend, Ind. Burnette closed her store just to be able to attend the conference, and pleaded with board members to find ways to lower operational costs for micro-store members of the ABA, including implementing a sliding scale on payments for items like IndieCommerce website support. “I could do better if ABA could help on my end,” said Burnette.

Newly elected ABA board president Jamie Fiocco, who moderated the gathering, and ABA board members struggled to find common ground with their fellow booksellers, who ultimately asked for more educational opportunities, not only for micro-stores, but also for nonprofits and hybrid stores.

At one point, Burnette said that she felt the board was not listening to the immediacy of her concerns. Visibly concerned, Fiocco responded with regret. “It’s really troubling if you feel like you’re not being heard,” said Fiocco, “and I’m hearing you right now.”

Peregrine at Third Place Books spoke repeatedly, asking the board to recognize that conferences are taking place on native land. Peregrine also challenged them on sustainability, arguing that a cash-focused trade is inherently problematic. “I would like to see the ABA represent booksellers as a whole and talk with publishers about what can you do to reduce the margins,” said Peregrine. “Can you extend the dating? I’m not a buyer, [but] can you talk to publishers and say… ‘What if you don’t give Amazon a discount?’ ”

Board member Christine Onorati of WORD Bookstores in Brooklyn and Jersey City, N.J., replied that, “This is what we’re doing,” but she also bluntly acknowledged that relations with publishers regarding sales terms are fraught. “Things are f----- up,” she said, “and we need to figure out how to fix them.”

Donna Wells, a longtime bookseller from Politics & Prose in Washington D.C., said that the best way to address the issues was to find effective ways forward after the meeting. Wells said that smaller gatherings are needed and that booksellers need to find ways to convey their criticism effectively with the board. “We need to be able to help come up with some recommendations of what you can do to help us,” said Wells.

Following the town hall, Fiocco and ABA CEO Oren Teicher said they believed that the participation of so many first-time attendees had contributed to the tenor of the event, with more than 60 booksellers attending on scholarship. "This event is attended by far more frontline booksellers, many of whom do not usually attend other national industry events," said Teicher. "Of the booksellers attending Ci7, for example, more than 70% did not attend the Winter Institute in Albuquerque. Further, we are particularly pleased that we have so many first-timers with us here in Pittsburgh; and that the programming attracts lots of frontline booksellers."

Both Fiocco and Teicher validated the concerns expressed by the membership, and Teicher said it was clear that the ABA needs to “communicate, communicate, communicate” in order to ensure that all bookstores know what the organization is doing, and feel that they can take part.

In conversations with PW, booksellers said they were concerned about whether change would actually follow the session, but all also agreed that they were eager to continue to work with one another and attend future Children’s Institutes. Nor did the town hall appear to affect booksellers' perception of the overall gathering.

This article has been updated.