As three days of forums, workshops, keynotes, and trainings came to a close at the American Booksellers Association’s seventh Children’s Institute, one thing was clear; the annual conference has become the most important event of its kind in America today, providing a space for children’s booksellers to share hard-earned tips and address gut-wrenching challenges in a collective effort to master their trade.

More than 330 booksellers from 44 states gathered for the conference in Pittsburgh held June 26–29, including 62 scholarship recipients and 230 participating stores. It was this diversity of attendees—from owners and senior staff to frontline booksellers, and from large stores to microstores—that fostered an atmosphere that was at turns both explosive and enthralling.

Inside Pittsburgh’s Bookselling Scene

Soon after their arrival in town last Wednesday, dozens of booksellers boarded buses for tours of Pittsburgh’s local independent bookstores, visiting well-established and new locations across the city’s many neighborhoods. At one point, two dozen booksellers crammed into The Tiny Bookstore, a 250-sq.-ft. bookstore in Ross Township that opened only six months ago. Among their ranks were a handful of authors, who marveled at the opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes view of children’s sections through booksellers’ eyes. Caldecott Medalist Jerry Pinkney was one of them.

“When I saw this on my schedule, I thought, 'I’m not sure what this is about and whether this is for me,' ” Pinkney said. By the end of the day, he said his entire view of bookstores had fundamentally changed. “I’m telling you, I’m delighted,” he said. “I’m now very conscious of how these bookstores are responding to the times we live in. They are really ahead of the curve on having a conversation with their public about what’s going on. I don’t remember another time when they seemed to be so expansive in terms of current subject matter.”

Finding the Right Attire

For the second year, booksellers kicked off the event dressed as their favorite characters from children’s books for a costume contest, which was judged by authors Sergio Ruzzier, Innosanto Nagara, Lin Oliver, and actor/author Henry Winkler.

Awards were given out for best animal, best group, best solo costume, and best overall, but in a last-minute switch, the judges eliminated the category for best villain and created one for the best young person in attendance. The award went to Harry Potter-garbed Charlie Vlahos, son of Tattered Cover Book Store co-owners Kristen Gilligan and Len Vlahos.

Winkler presented Vlahos with a $20 bill, his signed conference badge, and an autographed copy of his forthcoming book Alien Superstar (cowritten with Oliver), the first installment in a 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.”

Keynote Opens Doors with Ann Patchett

Novelist Ann Patchett was introduced at a Thursday morning keynote by ABA CEO Oren Teicher, who ascended the stage to a standing ovation. Teicher is poised to retire at the end of 2019, after 30 years with the organization. “This event has become a critically important part of the annual bookselling calendar,” Teicher said.

Trading biting humor and powerful reflections, Patchett regaled booksellers with the story of how she co-founded her Nashville-based independent bookstore, Parnassus Books, in 2011. Patchett said one of her favorite things about running a bookstore is making book recommendations to customers. “As all of you know, the contract you make between yourself and a book that you love is not complete until you can force someone else to read it,” she said. “It’s been my family and friends all my life. Now I can force strangers to read books.”

Patchett also reflected on publishing her newly released picture book, Lambslide, illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser to whom she gave credit for proposing the idea of writing a children’s book together, and ultimately changing her entire relationship with young readers. Patchett told audience members that the experience compelled her to confront her own painful memories of learning to read after finding herself illiterate in third grade. Concluding her remarks, she told attendees, “You are doing God’s work.”

Town Hall Turns Tense

In educational sessions throughout the morning, tensions rose as booksellers voiced concerns about representation on the panels, financial sustainability, board leadership in the ABA, and the types of trainings being offered at the institute.

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. At the afternoon Town Hall, Peregrine added to the list of concerns, asking the board to recognize that events were being convened on Native land, and arguing that a financially driven industry was at odds with many aspects of bookselling.

In stark terms, Annie Carl, owner of Neverending Bookshop in Edmonds, Wash., described her own hardships as the owner of a microstore and called on the ABA to provide enhanced education for microstore owners. “The education that is presented? I can’t use any of it,” said Carl.

Her calls were echoed by Word-Up’s Veronica Liu and Bank Street Books’ Kelsy April, who asked for similar offerings for nonprofit and hybrid stores. Kathy Burnette, owner of the South Bend, Ind.-based Brain Lair, added that she felt that the ABA should offer smaller stores a sliding scale discount on products like the organization’s Indie Commerce website platform.

Board members were defensive at points and supportive at others, as they struggled to address the many issues expressed. In one exchange, board member Christine Onorati of Word Bookstores in Brooklyn and Jersey City, N.J., responded to a bookseller's call for the ABA to confront publishers about the discount they give to Amazon. Onorati told the audience that the board is in discussions about such issues, and acknowledged booksellers' frustrations with the current industry model. "Things are fucked up," she said, "and we need to figure out how to fix them."

Teicher and board president Jamie Fiocco attributed the frustration among booksellers to the large numbers of new attendees and frontline booksellers, and they recognized the need for greater communication between the board and members. Despite the tension of the session, many booksellers said that the forthright nature of the conversation only contributed to their desire to attend more future institutes and get more involved in organizational leadership.

A Hopeful Finale

Actor, activist, and author Alyssa Milano brought the institute to a close in an interview with Kris Kleindienst, co-owner of Left Bank Books in St. Louis. She shared her forthcoming middle grade book Hope, which is coauthored with Debbie Rigaud and will be published in October by Scholastic.

Milano also gave attendees a glimpse of her life as an activist, sharing that her week began with a multi-actor theatrical reading of the Mueller Report in New York City, followed by attending both Democratic presidential primary debates, and an attempt to break into a government-run unaccompanied-child immigrant detention facility in Homestead, Fla. It was a dose of reality for attendees after three intensive days without much intrusion from national affairs, but it was also indicative of the deep connections formed in the environment created by booksellers at the institute.

That solidarity struck the publishers in attendance as much as the booksellers. Hannah Moushabeck, marketing manager at the Quarto Group, said, “This is the singular most important trade show to attend for children’s books. The intimacy that you get at this show is unlike any other.”

Looking across the entire conference, children’s bookseller Janice Penner was awed. Penner found herself among the 165 first-time attendees at the conference, just two months after coming out of retirement to take a position at Watermarks Books & Cafe in Wichita, Kan. “It was really important to me to be here as a first-timer, being new to the bookselling business,” Penner said.

Penner credited Watermarks owner Sarah Bagby, who previously attended Children’s Institute, for sending her. “She really sees the value in this. It does my heart a lot of good, just hearing that books save lives. I’m going to have to give her many thanks when I get back to the store.”