Approximately 340 booksellers attended the American Booksellers Association’s Children’s Institute, which ran June 5–7 in Milwaukee. Bookstore owners, managers, and staffers participated in educational sessions that highlighted how booksellers can meet neighborhood needs, adapt to readers’ changing interests, and sustain their operations whether they run pop-ups or are outgrowing their spaces.

While CI2023 was undeniably festive, with booksellers lining up to participate in the opening reception costume party, dancing at the Scholastic Graphix after-party, and belting tunes at Drag Story Hour karaoke, participants also engaged in much more serious discussions: about defending the freedom to read, developing literacy initiatives, and implementing best practices as employers.

Gen de Botton, ABA’s senior manager of children’s bookselling education and programs, called the show “the largest gathering of children’s booksellers in the history of CI.” She said “attendees prioritized being wholly present during education sessions. People were taking in information and creating action plans.”

In the “Communication in a Changing Workforce” session, Timo Anderson of ZingTrain, a leadership training organization for retailers, pointed out that people’s belief systems have an impact on how they give and receive feedback. He suggested that owners and managers should regularly provide employees with detailed feedback. Employees “who know exactly the expectations are happier,” he said, adding that feedback of any kind “is a gift, because it takes so much energy. Thank even customers who complain.”

Communication, hiring, and inclusion also were on the mind of featured speaker Adia Harvey Wingfield, a sociologist and the author of Gray Areas: How the Way We Work Perpetuates Racism and What We Can Do to Fix It (Amistad, Oct.). She researches hiring,
promotions, and norms in organizations, and the ways racial disparities are perpetuated despite stated DEI intentions. “Organizational norms often encourage color blindness,” Wingfield said, but working environments aren’t “race-neutral.” Employees still face overt harassment in some settings, while in others they encounter “subtle biases”—as when managers ask whether a hire will be a “good fit” with the company’s culture. She suggested substituting the term “race-conscious” for “race-neutral” in store culture, being aware that calling a business a “family” might not feel inclusive for all, and expanding hiring networks to include HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities) and HSIs (Hispanic serving institutions).

Being mindful of employee morale was also a theme of the “Small but Mighty” session, during which ABA CFO PK Sindwani chatted with Kathy Burnette, owner of Brain Lair Books (South Bend, Ind.), and Heather Hebert, owner of Children’s Book World (Haverford, Pa.). Citing the ABACUS report, Sindwani noted that smaller stores average a higher inventory turnover, spend less on rent, and sell more per square foot than bigger outlets. This may afford owners of smaller stores to pay their employees a little more than they think percentage-wise, due to having a smaller staff and potentially more flexible finances.

In a session titled “A Child’s Freedom to Read,” a trio of librarians and a bookseller suggested ways in which booksellers can most effectively help librarians battle censorship. All agreed that access to books and informational media is essential, awareness is key, and action is necessary.

Laura DeLaney of Rediscovered Books (Boise, Idaho) urged booksellers to join state library associations. “That means you get alerts to legislation,” she pointed out. “Encourage your customers to join them too.”

University librarian and Idaho Library Association president Lance McGrath recommended that booksellers reach out to elected officials, from school board members to state legislators, and “build relationships.” He also endorsed public testimonies. “Make yourself heard,” he advised.

Literacy and economic diversity propelled the “Serving Children’s Book Deserts” panel, which offered nonprofit strategies for becoming neighborhood oases. Ashley Valentine (Rooted MKE, Milwaukee) established a literacy center, Calvin Crosby (The King’s English Bookshop, Salt Lake City) began running Brain Food Books, and Brein Lopez (Children’s Book World, Los Angeles) used a James Patterson grant to start the Readers and Writers Rock! program. “Serving book deserts helps your community, and it also helps your store [foster] personal relationships,” Lopez said.

During “Averting the Adult Gaze in YA Literature,” a freelance book reviewer, two booksellers, and a literary agent urged publishers to publish what teens want to read and booksellers to stock more trope-driven books. “Kids aged six to 18 lead challenging lives,” said Cathy Berner, the children’s and YA specialist at Blue Willow Bookshop (Houston). “Kids want to escape, and we’re not giving them that.” Noting the popularity of “pulpy” adult science fiction and romance among Blue Willow’s teen customers, Berner said, “[Genre] books are the money makers, so sell them. We are booksellers, not book judgers.”

Children’s Institute 2024 will be held in New Orleans, June 10–12.