When booksellers gathered online last July for the American Booksellers Association’s annual Children’s Institute, the future of indie bookselling was anything but certain. A sharp economic downturn caused by the emergence of Covid-19 led some industry leaders to predict widespread bookstore closings by the end of 2020. Yet there were already signs that booksellers were adapting and in some cases thriving.

Children’s booksellers cultivated close relationships with customers who were educating their children at home. Black Lives Matter protests led to a surge in sales of antiracist books. E-commerce, online author events, and virtual story times became essential components of day-to-day business and drew avid viewership. Communication among booksellers and between bookstores increased.

When last year’s Children’s Institute began, 415 booksellers logged on, up from 330 attendees at the in-person conference in 2019. The 2020 conference reflected the collective pride of having overcome the first of many waves of adversity. “Last year’s virtual Children’s Institute, when the pandemic first hit, was a celebration of community and resilience,” says ABA CEO Allison Hill.

This year’s Children’s Institute, slated to run August 30 through September 1, will remain online, and there is still uncertainty ahead for booksellers. Children under 12 are not yet vaccinated. Warnings about supply-chain interruptions are already beginning to create concern regarding holiday sales.

CI9’s conference format is intended to create a space that will allow booksellers to creatively and collaboratively confront the unknowns they are facing. “This year’s event is more forward-thinking,” Hill says, “with programming that children’s and general booksellers alike will find useful as they move into the future.”

Many of the changes booksellers are interested in understanding have to do with new sources of revenue, driven by e-commerce, online events, and digital marketing. Those shifts have occurred at the same time that owners and managers have re-envisioned business operations from the back office to the sales counter.

Throughout the year, ABA Children’s Group manager Gen de Botton has been observing those shifts, along with industrywide issues such as supply-chain disruption and fluctuations in children’s book sales. “While it is impossible to predict what will come next for children’s booksellers, we’ve spent much of the last 16 months actively listening,” de Botton says. “Ironically, what we know is there is a lot we don’t know.”

The conference program is intended to embrace unknowns and use collaboration to confront them. “This virtual Children’s Institute will allow the community to explore the uncertainty and move into action by creating think tanks in roundtable discussions,” de Botton notes, “providing opportunities to speak candidly and openly about needs surrounding the future of events and operations, and continuing to address the systemic issues within the indie channel.”

Among those planning to attend are a crop of new children’s bookstore owners who were inspired to open during the pandemic after seeing how their communities have come together during challenging times. They will find sessions on topics that include nontraditional store models, enhanced use of social media, ways for employees and employers to have difficult conversations, the future of virtual events, and holiday planning.

Booksellers will also be able to connect with keynote speakers and debut authors, along with hearing from publishers and bookselling colleagues about forthcoming titles. Authors Hanif Abdurraqib, Tami Charles, Tiffany D. Jackson, and Jason Reynolds are among the many writers and illustrators slated to present to booksellers throughout the three-day conference.

For de Botton, CI9 is a chance to help booksellers embrace growing momentum, fueled by a deep resilience developed throughout the last year and a half. “We are seeing children’s book sales begin to bounce back at a higher percentage rate than other categories,” she says. “The future of bookselling begins at Children’s Institute, an event for booksellers, informed by booksellers.”

Below, more on Children’s Institute 2021.

Indies Introduce Debut Authors
At each Children’s Institute, a panel of booksellers presents its 10 favorite fall debuts, and each of the authors gives a reading. Here, the editors of this year’s picks discuss why they think their books were chosen.

Deck the Shelves
Children’s booksellers embrace new strategies and revive old traditions as they head into the holiday season.

No Time Like the Present
Intent on building community, children’s booksellers are opening new stores, in spite of lockdowns and uncertainty.

Social Media Springboard
Tips from children’s bookstores offer new ways to boost sales