New faces packed the New England Independent Booksellers Association’s (NEIBA) fall conference, taking part in educational workshops, author talks, and publisher presentations at the Providence gathering from October 2-4. Of the 377 booksellers in attendance, 62 were first time booksellers, a rise of nearly 50% over last year.

Many of the newcomers were frontline booksellers, whose attendance was eagerly sought by publishers, according to NEIBA executive director Beth Ineson. “Our publisher partners are asking to meet frontline booksellers. They are looking for evangelists,” said Ineson, who encouraged owners to bring new employees in the lead-up to the conference.

Among the stores that responded were Gibson’s Books, Eight Cousins, and the Brookline Booksmith. Booksmith co-owner Peter Win brought two new booksellers and a handful of staff who had not attended the conference in years.

First-time attendee and frontline bookseller Lizzie O’Connor began working at Eight Cousins in Falmouth, Mass. in 2017. “I really didn’t know what a trade show was,” O’Connor said. At the encouragement of conference organizers, O’Connor and other frontline booksellers attended a luncheon with publisher representatives that would typically have been for owners and buyers.

She came away with a new pick for the store; Christina Soontornvat’s A Wish in the Dark (Mar., Candlewick), and a different outlook on bookselling. “It bridged the gap between bookselling and the publishing side of things,” O’Connor said.

From a sold-out show floor, Beacon Press director of sales and marketing Sanj Kharbanda said the opportunity to meet frontline booksellers was invaluable. “We have some ways to get the message and enthusiasm to buyers, but it’s frontline booksellers who make a connection with our books here.”

Kharbanda emphasized that the presence of younger booksellers at conferences was important for the publishing industry as a whole. “Then it feels like a profession,” he said. “You are going to a conference for a profession.”

Enhanced Education

Organizers made a broad effort to enhance the professional advice booksellers received at workshops throughout the three-day event. At a session for Windows & Mirrors, a group that creates an annual list of diverse children’s books for booksellers, the panel shared their approaches to finding and selecting good books with diverse content. The design of the workshop marked a departure for the group, which in previous years simply shared their list of selections.

Another workshop focused on worst-case scenarios for bookstores hit by fire, flood, and other disasters. Book Industry Charitable Foundation (BINC) programs director Kit Steinaway said previous attendance at a similar workshop had only drawn three booksellers, but 30 sat in on the NEIBA presentation. “This got it right,” said Steinaway, who used her time with attendees to encourage them to come up with a personal plan for exactly what to do in emergencies.

For the first time all workshops at the conference had handouts and takeaways that were also posted to organization’s website.

Bookazine had an expanded presence at the conference. Josh Harwood, northeast sales director for the company, was present to meet with booksellers from a growing number of accounts in the region following the exit of Baker & Taylor from the retail market. The company has recently expanded its title base and hired new employees, including Harwood, who joined the company in July after nearly 20 years at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

New England Book Awards

Winners of the New England Book Awards were announced at a gala dinner on the second night of the conference. Jerry Craft received the award for children’s books for New Kid. Jarrett Krosoczka took home the young adult award for Hey Kiddo. Pulitzer recipient David Blight received the non-fiction award for his biography of Frederick Douglass, and Ocean Vuong was honored with the fiction award for On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.

Korsoczka, whose book recounts his own difficult upbringing in the shadow of addiction and loss, attended with family and friends some of whom appear in the book. Speaking in a whisper, Vuong also addressed his youth surrounded by the ravages of the opioid crisis in Hartford, Conn., as well as common stereotypes that impede access by Asian Americans to literary culture in America.

Town Hall

A year of ambitious projects lie ahead for the regional association, which is moving its offices to Boston this month. At the town hall, Ineson announced expanded programming for the annual All About the Books author panel, which will include a second day of education beginning in 2020. NEIBA will also add a separate All About the Books event solely for children’s and young adult titles in January 2020.

For the first time in a generation, the organization will be headed up by a non-owner. Veteran bookseller Beth Wagner, the buyer for Phoenix Books Essex in Essex Junction, Vt. was elected the new board president for NEIBA. Wagner said she intends to use her experience to bring a deep understanding of bookseller issues to the organization, and also hopes to find ways to help booksellers with key technology issues.