Reimagining Bookstores, a two-day online gathering of booksellers and publishing industry professionals, came to a close on October 19 with a clear mandate to continue building a movement to develop strategies that will lead to a more diverse, sustainable, and equitable bookselling trade in America.
Nearly 600 people participated in the effort, which was launched by Praveen Madan, CEO of Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, Calif., and co-organized with a team from Open Space, a method of convening creative discussions without traditional hierarchies.
In opening remarks, Madan tempered the positive tone that remained from the first day’s sessions with one of urgency, offering three “provocations” for attendees to consider. The first was that indie booksellers must ask for help from their communities to back radical steps that recognize their businesses as a unique social good. The second was that bookstore owners must address glaring wage issues that Madan characterized as “institutional poverty.”
Lastly, Madan said that booksellers must lead in creating the change they want to see. “We really have to stop expecting that someone is going to come to our rescue,” he said. “There are many versions of the fantasy; publishers are going to come rescue us, God is going to come rescue us, the American Booksellers Association is going to come rescue us.”
Mendocino, Calif.-based Gallery Bookshop & Bookwinkle’s Children’s Books owner Christie Olson Day said the previous day’s sessions had rattled her thinking in positive ways. Going into the second day of sessions, she questioned whether conventional expertise was enough to create sustainability in the trade.
“We're a little bit like the Deep State of the bookselling industry,” she said of fellow veteran booksellers. “It's very hard for us to imagine something different, and we tend to hold the history and hold the norms…I woke up with this sense of how that experience can hold us back. And I'm not sure what the solution is.”
In smaller groups, a diverse gathering of attendees that included BIPOC booksellers, hybrid store owners, and non-booksellers defined their own session topics and engaged in wide-ranging conversations aimed at breaking apart the conventional wisdom Day referenced, to device new approaches to significant issues.
Some took up Madan’s first provocation, discussing ways of describing the call to action that they hope to make to their communities. Others discussed sustainable collective funding models. Still others took up the hard questions of raising wages.
It was evident that booksellers intend to continue organizing and meeting with the goal of taking significant steps to define a new business of American independent bookselling, and while existing organizations may not be the sole sources of alleviating the pressures booksellers face, representatives from those organizations said that they are eager to offer ongoing support.
“The meeting’s format generated a lot of productive energy and creativity,” said Ruth Liebmann, v-p at Penguin Random House. “In one of the sessions I attended, booksellers began sketching out concrete and achievable next steps during the session itself. I think a lot of us would like to gather again, to touch base on the great range of ideas we discussed, and to brainstorm about new ones.”
What form that discussion will take is not set in stone, but Madan told PW that he is confident in its potential to succeed because of the underlying ethic set forth during this initial gathering. “It's not so much, to me, what we are going to do as how, and the how is determined by the principles,” he said. “I think the reason the principles are so important, is because we're bringing a radically different set of them than what had been applied to this issue before.”
For the attendees, that focus resonated. As the day came to a close, Kelly Justice, owner of Fountain Bookstore in Richmond, Va. took to the chat and left a simple note. “This just makes me so hopeful for the future.”
Editor's Note: Publishers Weekly was one of approximately two dozen co-hosts of Reimagining Bookstores.