The New Atlantic and Southern Independent Booksellers Associations (NAIBA and SIBA) kicked off a combined virtual fall conference on September 27, marking the second year in a row that the two organizations have joined forces to offer educational programming, author readings, and editor buzz picks.
Dubbed “New Voices New Rooms” the conference’s opening day showcased booksellers’ expertise from the opening keynote until the day’s closing educational gathering for small bookstores. The event began with a panel featuring authors Sesali Bowen, Imani Perry, and Jason Reynolds in a discussion about being Black in America.
Ramunda Young, co-owner of MahoganyBooks in Washington D.C., moderated the free-ranging conversation, which reflected her bookstore’s rise to prominence among indie bookstores as much as it delved into the experiences and thoughts of the panelists.
Perry led the way, praising the bookstore in her opening remarks. “The first time I was in MahoganyBooks, I literally wandered around with my mouth wide open and got teary,” she said. “It's such a beautiful space.”
From there, the conversation roved across regions, age groups, and talk of a writing life for each of the three authors as Black people in America today. Reynolds spoke about underlying themes he hopes to share with young Black people when they read his books. “I'm always trying to figure out how to make sure that they understand that we already exist in a place of abundance, that we exist in a place of surplus, that we are more than equipped and more than adequate, more than proficient in all the ways, despite some of the physical challenges and resource challenges that we may have, in some certain instances,” Reynolds said.
Bowen discussed the decade-long process of developing the ideas that underpin her forthcoming Bad Fat Black Girl: Notes from a Trap Feminist (Amistad, Oct.), which received a starred review from PW, telling readers that her interest in looking behind the stigma of misogyny applied to Trap music led her to broader thoughts about feminism that coincide with the rise of rappers like Meghan Thee Stallion.
Following the keynote, booksellers were guides for one another through a series of educational sessions, beginning with a preview of the newly launched Professional Bookseller Certification that was developed by NAIBA executive director Eileen Dengler. The program offers advanced courses for booksellers, and the conference featured one from a forthcoming course on school book fairs. Booksellers Molly Olivo of Child’s Play Books and Toys in Washington D.C., and Maribeth Pelly of BookTowne in Manasquan, N.J. led the session, which provided an in-depth look at how booksellers can master book fairs.
Olivo encouraged booksellers to approach school book fair committees with confidence, which can be challenging, but is necessary as they develop relationships with schools. “You can say no,” Olivo said to the 50+ attendees. “Your instincts are better than theirs because you do actually know better. There will be titles that they're right about, but you don't have to agree to every book they request. Your curation is the reason they have come to you. So be confident in your instincts and curation skills.”
During the afternoon sessions, 12 breakout round table sessions awaited booksellers on a range of topics, and confidence was again at the fore during a round table on handselling, which many booksellers are still adjusting to doing in new ways because of the pandemic and the ongoing—and expected—shortages of titles going into the holidays.
Kimberly Daniels of The Country Bookshop in Southern Pines, N.C. facilitated the sessions with Anna Weber, of White Whale Bookstore in Pittsburgh, Penn. Both dispensed fundamental advice to booksellers, starting with Daniels’ dictum, “Making eye contact is core.”
“I don't care how nervous you are,” she said. “Do you make eye contact and if you're too nervous to say hello, you might want to work on that. If you're on the [sales] floor, make that eye contact.”
From there, the two booksellers gave advice on creating shelf talkers, navigating the challenges of recommending books to readers of genres that a bookseller may less familiar with, and asking questions that help a bookseller discern what to recommend overall.
Asking the duo for tips, one bookseller wrote that they had been on the job all of eight days. Both facilitators encouraged them to stay confident, know that their skills will grow over time, and to approach customers with ease, even when they might not know all of the books at hand.
The conference continues throughout the week, including independent annual meetings for both associations on September 30, the conference’s first video “Vindies” awards, and a closing keynote on October 1.