“I see a lot of happy faces,” Brian Juenemann, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, said. “We took a risk holding the event and it paid off. Of course, the bigger risk was doing nothing. It’s just great to see so many people face-to-face, some we haven’t seen for two years.”
The October 3-5 PNBA meeting was the first in-person fall regional conference to take place since the start of the pandemic. The event attracted 180 member booksellers, plus 150 publishers and industry representatives and nearly 50 authors, to the Red Lion on the River Hotel in Portland, Ore.
Juenemann noted that one reason PNBA decided to have a in-person show was because participation in the organization’s virtual events have been falling off for some time and members were eager to meet in person.
“The health protocols made it easy for me to decide to attend,” said Amy Wang, book columnist for The Oregonian. Prior to attending, participants were asked to upload proof of vaccination and upon registering, attendees were asked to use a sticker to indicate their level of comfort with in-person interaction, ranging from green for “may consider a hug” to red for a “a bubble of one.”
Booksellers across the region have had much of the same experiences as the country has gone through over the past 18 months of pandemic, ranging from shut-downs to supply chain challenges. Portland saw violent Black Lives Matter demonstrations last year and the city has rallied around its one Black-owned bookstore, Third Eye Books, which had operated for two-years as an online store and was able to raise $25,000 to open a bricks-and-mortar location in June.
“Portland is home to nearly 40 independent bookstores,” Wang said, “so we have a vibrant bookselling culture.” The cornerstone of the scene is Powell’s Books, arguably America’s largest independent bookstore, which endured a long lock-down, which led to lay-offs and protest from unionized former employees. In August of 2020 the chain, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, hired local businessman Patrick Bassett, as CEO, replacing Emily Powell, daughter of the founder, who remains president and owner. The chain permanently closed its locations at the Portland airport and its Home & Garden store.
While Powell’s Books gets the bulk of attention from the media outside Oregon, other notable stores in Portland include women-owned Broadway Books, which many consider their top community-oriented bookstore, and tiny children’s bookstore, Green Bean Books.
The PNBA region includes bookstores in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington State. “We have had seven or eight new stores join PNBA and are new to the show this year,” Juenemann said.
Booksellers in Idaho and Montana have experienced an influx of new customers as people relocate from crowded, urban locales to more rural, outlying cities, such as Boise, Idaho and Bozeman, Mont. “The result is that our sales have been spectacular. I think we’re up 20% for the year from our previous high,” said Ariana Paliobagis, owner and manager of Country Bookshelf in Bozeman. “The down side of that is that we have experienced a real estate boom that is making housing less affordable for my booksellers.” It has also put pressure on her to raise hourly wages, which she said are at $14 or more for experienced staff, a salary that also comes with full benefits and health insurance.
Many booksellers said that sales had stabilized from dips during the pandemic. Rick Simonson, buyer at Elliot Bay Books in Seattle, said that he’d mastered shipping online orders last year and “acting like a television host on Zoom,” but was was “happy to get back to my customary job.”
Publishers too were delighted to be meeting again in person. It was an opportunity for smaller, regional presses to meet with their major client bookstores.
For the most part, the largest publishers did not have an extensive presence, though Simon & Schuster had a sizeable booth, as did Workman. Regional publishers made up the bulk of booths, ranging from startups like Will Dreamly Arts from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho to Chatwin Books and Chin Music Press, both from Seattle.
Local Portland publishers included Tin House Press, Microcosm Press and Forest Avenue Press. Generally speaking, each of the publishers said that business was surprisingly robust, though the city itself was still in the doldrums as a result from the coronavirus lockdowns and protests last year, which nearly everyone in the city said were overblown by the national media.
Joe Biel, publisher of Microcosm Press, said that one silver-lining of the pandemic and lockdowns was that the publishing house was able to pick up some very talented, trained employees from companies that had laid-off people, particularly Powell’s Books.
Microcosm opened its own distribution and warehouse outside Cleveland last year and, “since we print our books in the United States, we haven’t had any of the supply chain issues other publishers have been talking about,” said Biel. That said, the supply chain crunch was much in discussion, though publishers and reps generally agreed that booksellers were ordering books early and in as large a quantity that they could afford and that were available.
“I think the industry has done a good job of sounding the alarm early,” said Craig Popelars, publisher of Tin House Press, “so while we all know there may be some problems getting books through the holidays, booksellers are ready.” For his part, Popelars said that the pandemic “had put a renewed interest on reading” and given room for new voices to emerge, especially from small presses, which he found encouraging.
Among the 50 authors who presented books at the show were a wide variety of fresh faces and new voices, ranging from from Kim Fu, author of Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century (Tin House, Feb. 2022), to Nicole Magistro, former owner of the Bookworm in Edwards in Edwards, Colo., author of the children’s books Read Island (Read Island Books), and poet Paul Tran, author of All the Flowers Kneeling (Penguin, Feb. 2022) who wowed the audience with a slam poetry performance.
This year also saw the return of the PNBA Rural Library Project. The project collects excess stock of finished books from publishers who don’t want to ship them home and donates them to a needy library in the region. Previous beneficiaries of the program, which has been running since 1992, have covered every state in the region, including Alaska. This year’s donations are going to the Blue River Library in Blue River, Ore., which was destroyed in September of 2020 the Holiday Farm Fire that destroyed several small communities in the McKenzie River Valley. “The library was especially important to Barry Lopez, who lived in the area, and we thought it especially apt, considering Barry’s death last year [in December 2020], that this year’s donation go to rebuild help rebuild that library.”
PNBA will be running a virtual annex of the conference, with downloadable galleys and a series of streaming events, Oct. 11-22.