Winter Institute 16, the American Booksellers Association’s annual conference for booksellers, opened on a bittersweet note yesterday, with a seven-minute slide show featuring a montage of photos and media headlines that brought tears to booksellers eyes. “Who’s cutting onions?” LitBar owner Noëlle Santos wrote in the chat room, while images scrolled by of the past year both inside and outside indie bookstores, beginning with WI15 in Baltimore last January, shifting to headlines about the pandemic and photos of booksellers' creative responses to the national lockdown. Images included huge displays of books about race issues that have been in demand since George Floyd's death and the slide show ended with photos capturing the holidays inside bookstores this past December and positive words about 2021.

The ambiance of WI16 created by the slide show lasted throughout the day, which featured a presidential welcome, poetry interludes, and presentations educating booksellers on how they can become the best they can be, both in bookselling and in life in general.

Barack Obama’s three-minute pre-recorded welcome to booksellers set the right tone for this annual celebration of indie bookselling. Obama, whose memoir, A Promised Land, pumped up year-end sales for bookstores everywhere, spoke with his trademark charm and humor of the impact books have had on him since childhood when his mother would encourage him to read when he complained that “I was bored or distracted her.”

“Reading became my refuge, a world I could escape to no matter what was happening in my life,” he said, recalling that when he was in 10th grade, his grandparents took him to a rummage sale, where he eagerly filled a box with copies of the classics, prompting his grandfather to joke that he must be wanting to open a library. After rattling off the names of their authors, Obama noted that reading “all those books: they were expanding my mind” while he was grappling with his “budding identity of who I wanted to be and how I wanted to live.”

Addressing the booksellers directly, Obama said, “You aren’t selling books: you’re selling knowledge, discovery, wisdom, empathy, access to thoughts and worlds that readers have never experienced before. As a reader and as an author, I couldn’t be more grateful for the work that all you do every single day, especially during such a tough year.

And in a tease concluding his presentation that may have raised hopes of a post-pandemic author tour for Promised Land, Obama expressed his hope that he would “see some of you again soon” at their bookstores or in the public libraries in booksellers’ communities.

While the conference was a virtual affair, the weather still had an impact, just as it does almost every year during Winter Institute. Dr. Brené Brown, who lives in Houston, was unable to give the morning keynote due to the storms and bitter cold that is crippling Texas. Stepping in for Brown was Brian David Johnson, who was scheduled to give the Saturday keynote; Brown will now speak Saturday.

Johnson, author of The Future You: Break Through the Fear and Build the Life You Want, told booksellers to “know thyself” when mapping out the future for their businesses, though his advice could apply to life in general. “Who do you want to be?” Johnson asked, “Where do you want to be? How do you get there?” He urged booksellers to focus on what they can actually control in setting goals, be as specific as possible, put them in writing, and tell others -- such as employees and professional colleagues -- about what they want to attain in the future in order to be held accountable.

“Find your people,” he said, urging booksellers to talk to veteran booksellers during WI16. “What tools do they use to thrive? Use the future, where you want to go, as the language for your conversations.”

Johnson concluded by noting that goals may change, “but that’s okay: the future is fluid. It’s all about that story and writing it down so you start to live in the future.”

The day’s first poetry interlude featuring the poet Amanda Gorman, unwittingly underscored the points Johnson made in his presentation. In a pre-recorded segment, Gorman, who rocketed to fame this past month after reciting a poem at President Biden’s inauguration, recited the title poem from her forthcoming debut picture book, Change Sings, illustrated by Loren Long.

“I can hear change humming its loudest, proudest song/ I don’t fear change coming, and so I sing along,” she began, finishing with the words, “We all hear change coming. Won’t you sing along?”

WI16 continues today and tomorrow with a full roster of educational sessions and rep pick presentations, interspersed with poetry interludes.