Embracing the tagline “You don’t know what you don’t know,” the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association’s fall conference demonstrated a deepening commitment by indie booksellers to professionalizing their trade. Bookseller attendance at the Oct. 15-17 conference in Cherry Hill, N.J. jumped 20% over last year to 213 booksellers from 121 stores representing some of the nation’s largest literary hubs, including New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C.

A workshop on managing human resources captured the essence of the conference on its second day. Over 100 booksellers—including 20 frontline booksellers—attended “Managing Our Greatest Assets: Our Staff” to learn ways to substantially improve working conditions in shops across the region. Led by Hachette Book Group human resources director Stephanie Steinberg and Greenlight Bookstore co-owner Rebecca Fitting, the gathering drew attendees with challenging questions about an aspect of the trade that has become a serious concern for booksellers. “It’s the professionalism of the industry, which we’d like to address,” said NAIBA executive director Eileen Dengler.

Owners and managers voiced particular concerns about how to respect the line between the personal and professional in an industry that is often informal. Steinberg urged them to create boundaries that respect the privacy of their employees and allow owners to clarify their expectations. “Bring it back to the job,” said Steinberg, whose advice included implementing formal job descriptions, conducting occasional employee performance reviews, understanding the Americans with Disabilities Act, and creating employee handbooks.

Fitting told attendees that she has steadily been improving Greenlight’s human resources infrastructure for her stores’ 45 employess. The incoming NAIBA v-p said told attendees that the effort has been a way to strengthen relationships with employees. “It’s not about ‘how do I manage this?’” said Fitting. “It’s about ‘how do I not let people down?’”

“It was a great panel. It could have gone for days,” said Michael Triebwasser, who recently took on a new position at Washington D.C.’s Politics and Prose bookstores as director of training, development and service.

Frontline booksellers Julian Elliott and Asia Jannah discussed the session afterward with their boss, Watchung Booksellers owner Margot Sage-EL. Elliott said that Sage-EL’s commitment to doing work alongside her employees at the Montclair, N.J. store helps establish the foundation for the professional culture that the panelists discussed. “It’s equitable.” Elliott said, “and if you respect where your boss is coming from, you’re really willing to talk to them.”

Surprises on the Show Floor, Community Among Authors

Education sessions were balanced by publisher engagement on the show floor, and presentations by editors and authors in buzz panels and award banquets.

Bookseller Morgan Harding stopped cold after seeing a displayed copy of pop superstar Rihanna’s autobiographical compendium of photography and art. “I screamed when I saw it,” said Harding. “It’s her whole career in one book.” The book was only announced days earlier and is set for release by Phaidon on October 24. Prior to its debut at the conference, only a few hundred attendees at a recent event with the artist have seen or obtained copies.

At NAIBA’s annual awards banquet, booksellers honored novelist and PEN America president Jennifer Egan with the Legacy Award, along with outgoing ABA CEO Oren Teicher. Greenlight Bookstores’ Jarrod Annis was recognized as Bookseller of the Year and Chronicle’s Melissa Greco was named the Kristin Keith Sales Rep of the year. Jarret Kroscozka was given the Carla Cohen Free Speech Award for Hey, Kiddo.

Novelist Emma Straub spoke poignantly to attendees about her experience as a writer-bookseller. Straub opened Brooklyn’s Books Are Magic with her husband in 2017 following the closure of her neighborhood bookstore. She wrote her forthcoming novel, All Adults Here (Riverhead, May 2020) while raising two young children and launching the bookstore.

“Owning Books are Magic has been by far the hardest, most exhausting, and most rewarding challenge of my life,” Straub said. “When I’m at a playground now or at a restaurant in my neighborhood, there’s often a parent who pokes their child and says, ‘that’s the bookstore lady’ or ‘are you the bookstore lady?’ It makes me feel like one of the nice benevolent puppets on Mr. Rogers. A comforting and friendly character in their own story. It’s not about me, it’s about how this thing fits into their daily life.”

Growth and Outreach

Continued growth looks likely for the organization. 28 new stores have opened in NAIBA’s territory in the last two years. To enhance support and advocacy for stores, Dengler has hired bookseller KathyEllen Davis to boost NAIBA’s social media use. “We’re not trying to grow our own account,” said Davis, “we’re trying to share, and connect what booksellers are doing.”

The region will play host to the upcoming 2020 American Booksellers Association Winter Institute, where a session examining employee handbooks will dovetail from NAIBA’s human resources workshop. Dengler said she also intends to present expanded options to the organization’s board to further its development of programming that offers professional training.

“As long as it’s working for the booksellers,” said Dengler, “I’ll keep doing it.”