The first standalone American Booksellers Association ABC Children’s Institute, held from April 6–7 at the DoubleTree Hotel in San Antonio, Tex., looked like it would be a success even before it began. In the weeks leading up to the institute, ABA was forced to cap attendance after nearly twice as many people registered as it initially anticipated. Close to 130 booksellers from 32 states, plus 39 authors—including keynote speakers Brad Meltzer, Tim Federle, and Chip Kidd—and 55 staffers from institute sponsors, attended the conference.

New booksellers were drawn to the opportunities for connection and education. Those attending included Erin Saldivar, co-owner of the Purple Chair in New Braunfels, Tex., a children’s-only bookstore founded earlier this year; Chris Crawley, who purchased That Bookstore in Blytheville, in Blytheville, Ark., in December; and Candace Tate, who is planning to open a children’s bookstore in Dallas. Also in attendance was Betsy Burton, owner of the King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City, who appreciated the “fresh” approach.

From the ABA’s perspective, the conference “exceeded our expectations,” said CEO Oren Teicher. “While we will await the postinstitute evaluations from the attendees before making any decision about next year, based on the feedback we’ve already received, I think it’s fair to say there will be future Children’s Institutes. Our job as an association is to keep growing, improving, and expanding these kinds of educational initiatives, and we remain committed to doing just that.”

PW also received positive feedback from booksellers, including Chris Erickson, manager of Off the Beaten Path in Steamboat Springs, Colo., who attended the institute on a scholarship. “I think this is really great,” she said. “All the sessions were educational and very well run.” Ann Diener, owner of Yellow Book Road in San Diego, Calif., who came to meet authors and learn from other booksellers, said, “I love these things.” Susan Thomas of Coffee Tree Books in Morehead, Ky., had a “terrific” time. “I thought it was a good balance of education and fun. The people in this industry were, as always, generous with their knowledge and experience. I came home with lots of fresh ideas,” she said, adding that she would like to see more panels on authorless events and managing teen books next year, along with some women authors as keynote speakers. Children’s specialist Faith Hochhalter at Changing Hands in Tempe, Ariz., also found it “fantastic” and looks forward to it becoming an annual event. “Working with children’s books is my heart job, and it was nice connecting with other people who are as passionate about kids' books as I am,” she said.

Off the record, a few publishers expressed concern about the timing and San Antonio location, and said that they would prefer to see the one-day conference added on to Winter Institute or BEA. But Jason Wells, executive director of publicity and marketing at Abrams Books for Young Readers, said he didn’t see the need for a change. He pointed to the fact that, this year, the Children’s Institute was held two days ahead of the Texas Library Association show, which was also in San Antonio. “It makes a lot of sense,” he said, noting that publishers brought authors to the region for TLA anyway. “As far as I’m concerned, you can usually find things for authors to do in bookstores, libraries, and schools in the area.”

The conference kicked off with a particularly moving opening plenary by Brad Meltzer, titled, “What Is Your Legacy?” The author had booksellers laughing and crying as he talked about the importance of ordinary heroes. Meltzer has already devoted two books to the subject—Heroes for My Son and Heroes for My Daughter (both Harper)—and he is in the midst of writing about 60 more heroes for a new series, Ordinary People Change the World, to be published by Dial. Speaking for many booksellers at the opening reception afterwards, Ellen Mager, owner of Booktenders’ Secret Garden Children’s Bookstore and Gallery in Doylestown, Pa., said, “I thought he was amazing. He’s genuine and he speaks from the heart.”

There were sessions on children’s bookselling basics, ranging from using social media to book fairs, as well as roundtables on Common Core and sidelines, a closing reception with signings by authors and illustrators, and two additional plenaries. Five, Six, Seven, Nate! author Federle spoke on “From Broadway to Books,” even managing to work in some soft shoe during his presentation. “I don’t think of you as booksellers,” he said, “but book soldiers, because you are fighting for stories that need to be read.” Among his tips from Broadway were that every performance has to be for the first time. “I encourage you to double down and greet each customer as if it’s the first time they’ve ever been to your shop,” said Federle. He also offered a tip he gleaned from working with the Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley, Pa.: to leave an extra box of books behind after a school visit. He’s found that those books will end up selling. Designer Chip Kidd, author of Go (Workman), spoke on “Go and Get the Kids!” As part of his talk he showed Batman covers that he’s begun collecting for a book to raise money for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. During the q-and-a Kidd recommended that booksellers hire a professional graphic designer to give their store and its collateral a distinct brand.

Among the standout panels was one on “Selling Picture Books in the Wake of Age Compression,” moderated by Valerie Koehler, owner of Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston. She led off by noting, “All of us have been in our shops when parents and grandparents say, ‘No, no. They’re reading now. No picture books.” Despite that, picture books is one of the two most top-performing categories at her store, “neck and neck” with adult fiction, because she has her staff read picture books. Panelist Marianne Follis, senior librarian at Valley Ranch Library in Irving, Tex., does storytimes for staff to familiarize them with picture books and also leaves them in the teen section. Ellen Mager of Booktenders’ Secret Garden has found that renaming them “picture novellas” works best with reluctant parents, while Anastasia McKenna, children’s book storyteller at The Twig Book Shop in San Antonio, prefers “a poem set to pictures.”

During the session on author events panelists shared strategy, like these tips from Heather Hebert, manager of Children’s Book World in Haverford, Pa., who reminded booksellers to ask authors if they ever come to their area and has drawn new customers ever since she began posting monthly events flyers in nearby libraries. Moderator Suzanna Hermans, co-owner of Oblong Books and Music in Rhinebeck and Millerton, N.Y., recommended group panels for YA and middle grade authors unless they’re well known. She also said that her store has doubled its sales when authors tweet that they will be signing preorders for the store.

Discussion on “How to Host a Successful Educator Night,” moderated by Becky Anderson, owner of Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, Ill., was particularly lively. Panelist Lauren Savage, owner of The Reading Bug in San Carlos, Calif., recommended three things: “food, wine, and marketing.” She also does raffles of entire libraries at her teacher nights. Panelist Meghan Goel, children’s book buyer at BookPeople in Austin, advised booksellers on the importance of focusing on relationship-building events.

Despite the likelihood of a second Children’s Institute, no dates or locations have been announced. Thanks to a grant from James Patterson, ABA was able to film every session and will post the video online.

Click here to see a photo-essay from Children's Institute. This story appeared in print on April 14, 2014 and has been expanded.