The American Booksellers Association’s eighth annual Children’s Institute was dealt a series of blows by the new coronavirus, from the cancellation of the in-person gathering to the subsequent re-envisioning of programming and events. None of these hurdles appears to have impeded booksellers’ enthusiasm for the event, which drew record attendance and accolades from attendees regarding the online platform.

Just over 400 attendees from 266 stores participated in the digital conference, which was held on July 15 and 16. That number was up substantially from 330 booksellers and 230 stores at last year’s gathering in Pittsburgh.

ABA CEO Allison Hill attributed part of the rise in attendance to the fact that the event was held online. “We all miss being together physically, but there were also significant benefits to meeting virtually, not the least of which was the lower barrier of entry in terms of travel, time away from the store, and cost. We had many booksellers attend who had never had the opportunity to attend CI or WI previously.” According to the ABA, 209 attendees were first-timers, as were more than half the stores.

While the outbreak has had a severe impact on booksellers, the conference also showed that it has led ABA to deliver on a years-long goal of offering easy-to-access fully digital educational content to booksellers. Hill told PW that “our experience and success with CI8 will definitely inform out planning going forward.”

An In-Person Feel Online

The conference featured a main track of sessions along with breakout spaces for smaller groups and chat functions for ongoing dialogue between attendees. As questions and comments streamed through from booksellers, the chat function had an effect of leveling the often-varied knowledge sets that booksellers bring to educational sessions.

It also energized what can otherwise be a fatiguing experience of spending hours online. “The chat box was fantastic,” said Mariana Calderon, manager of Second Star to the Right Books in Denver. “It really brought the feel of Children’s Institute to the virtual realm, what with everyone shouting each other out and saying hi, and recognizing names. The end-of-day ‘rooms’ on the first day were so fun too. It became almost a competition to see what room could have the most pets on-screen, and seeing the faces of so many beloved friends and acquaintances was so uplifting.”

The format was also helpful for industry professionals who are planning to host their own digital events in the months ahead. New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association executive director Eileen Dengler is co-organizing an online conference with the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance this fall and was looking at what worked throughout the sessions.

“NAIBA is on so many of these events and we take copious notes on what works, what we don’t need, and what missteps to avoid,” Dengler said. “We take every good idea we see and hear, and as we attend these events, we are also gauging our own feelings throughout so we can make our own event the best it can be.”

All the digital planning alone would not make for a successful event without strong content, and booksellers responded with overwhelming positivity to the event’s emphasis on anti-racism in bookselling and publishing. “I loved the obvious emphasis on anti-racism,” Calderon said, “not just with the workshop, but the panels and discussions as well.”

Black Authorship and Anti-Racist Bookselling

From the outset, the conference aimed to feature Black authors along with discussions about anti-racism. The opening session on “Representation in Science Fiction and Fantasy Young Adult and Middle Grade Books” featured a wide-ranging conversation between authors Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Dhonielle Clayton, and Tracy Deonn about their perspectives as Black authors. The theme of anti-racism was taken up again later in the day during a two-hour closed session called “White Anti-Racist Allyship: What Is Our Role in the Struggle?”

On the second day of programming, authors Kwame Alexander and Jerry Craft discussed the landscape of Black bookselling over the last 20 years and how it facilitated their own journeys as writers.

“What booksellers need to know, need to remember is that bookstores are sacred places, that can really help mold and shape us into beautiful human beings,” Alexander said. “Teachers and educators have that power; booksellers have that power too. You open us up to these worlds that we had no idea existed.”

Other sessions followed a traditional path for Children’s Institute, with ABA sharing Indies Introduce picks, publisher reps discussing forthcoming titles, and booksellers leading a tips workshop for fellow booksellers. Booksellers were rapt during a keynote by Isaac Fitzgerald, former BuzzFeed books editor and now a picture book author, who read from Where the Wild Things Are and his own How to Be a Pirate.

The streamlined track of sessions followed a format that has become increasingly popular with some regional bookseller associations in recent years. Instead of multiple concurrent panels and workshops, most were standalone for their time slot, with occasional breaks for booksellers to get support from ABA with IndieCommerce and IndieLite.

Calderon from Second Star to the Right called the event an unqualified success. “We had a fabulous time participating.

ABA’s Hill agreed. “It was not surprising that the passion of the booksellers was undiminished in the virtual translation of the conference,” she said. “You could feel everyone’s energy and enthusiasm. I think we all felt lucky to be together and to celebrate what we love—books.”