The American Booksellers Association's Winter Institute in Seattle attracted a total of 1,600 people, of whom 900 were booksellers. The event drew a wide variety of new bookstores, many from the surge of booksellers who became ABA members in the past few years. "Our membership has grown by 20% in the past three years," ABA CEO Allison Hill said during a packed meet-and-greet with booksellers on Wednesday. "And we have 380 prospective new booksellers in the pipeline."
ABA's membership has been fueled, in part, by a jump in new BIPOC bookstores, and the robust DEI programming included keynotes and lots of authors to meet. This focus appealed to attendees including Aaron Akbar from Dudley's BookShop Cafe in Bend, Ore., who was heartened by the attention to DEI, mental health, and healing from the pandemic. "It feels like a broadening of the mission of bookselling," he said. "It is a kind of embodied activism." Several BIPOC store owners attended their first Winter Institute, including DJ Johnson, owner of Baldwin & Co., in New Orleans, and Terri Hamm, owner of Kindred Stories in Houston, Tex. More than 30 BIPOC booksellers gathered for a group photo at the end of the ABA's Community Forum—the rebranded ABA Town Hall gathering—on Thursday.
The Community Forum gave booksellers an opportunity to ask questions directly of Hill and the ABA board, outside of the organization's regularly scheduled virtual open houses and board office hours. Audience members wanted to rethink preorders and build community. Hill quoted Lee Francis--formerly of Red Planet Books and Comics and now founder of A Tribe Called Geek, near Chapel Hill, N.C.--as saying that booksellers sometimes fight over scarce resources "like crabs in a bucket. Why aren't we talking about the bucket?" After hearing from antitrust crusaders Stacy Mitchell and Cory Doctorow in a Tuesday keynote, this metaphor hit particularly close to home.
Christina Vega, founder of Blue Cactus Press in Tacoma, Wash., acknowledged the difficulties small presses face around discoverability and distribution. Brad Johnson, owner of East Bay Booksellers in Oakland, Calif., challenged the ABA to question Ingram's power in the industry and seek out and develop relationships with alternative wholesalers, if only to give booksellers options.
Hill had earlier acknowledged Ingram's dominant position in the market—Ingram is also the primary sponsor of Winter Institute—and said that she meets with Ingram every two weeks. The board met with them recently as well. "My greatest concern when I took this job was whether or not Ingram would continue to support this channel. Fortunately, they have," Hill said. She then encouraged booksellers to also communicate concerns or other questions directly to Ingram. "They want to hear from you," she said.
Another question concerned publishers selling direct to consumers. "One of the reasons publishers sell direct to consumer is data," Hill said. She lamented that fewer than 600 stores are reporting their sales to the ABA. "Data is what we use when we meet with Ingram and publishers," she said, emphasizing how important it is for booksellers to respond to the ABA with information, data, pictures and testimonial. "This is how you help us help you," Hill said.
Hill acknowledged that some booksellers have raised questions about the environmental impact of the conference, while pointing out the need for some booksellers--who may lack a reading device or access to digital ARCs--to acquire print galleys of books. Hill reminded listeners that QR codes for books in the galley room offer booksellers access to ARCs for those who favor digital galleys over print.
Bookseller, publisher, and vendor reactions
Ben Rybeck, manager of House of Books in Kent, Conn., remarked that while "the event always feels big, it is also somehow feels intimate as well." Old friends greeted one another and new cohorts met in the galley room or in discussion groups. Individuals checked out the quiet spaces as well as designated Affinity Group Rooms welcoming neurodiverse, BIPOC, LGBTQIA2S, and disability-affiliated ABA members.
Doug Robinson, owner of Eagle Eye Books in Decatur, Ga., spoke for many when he said that he was "happy to be together" with his fellow booksellers. He said his business was better than in 2019 and, for his store, the past few years have had a silver lining. "I think a lot of people discovered us during the pandemic," Robinson said. "They started working at home and started walking more, which meant they were looking for somewhere to go and walked into our store." Not all was good, though. "We lost our big book festival [the Decatur Book Festival] due to the pandemic and, of course, publishers cut back on book tours." Likewise, other stores reported benefiting from an increase in foot traffic, or--if they were in downtown urban areas--noticing a reduction in sales and fewer events.
Even so, all the new faces at WI2023 indicate that entrepreneurs see potential in bookstores and hybrid spaces. Donna Paz, who runs an education program for prospective booksellers, said 28 booksellers participated in her program this year, "but we could have filled up the room many times over--we just ran out of capacity." Paz noted that many new booksellers are driven by passion and personal vision, but struggled with "capitalization, getting loans, and finding investors." As a consequence, many are "experimenting with non-traditional business models, like pop-ups and mobile bookstores."
For publishers exhibiting and attending the conference the number of new booksellers was welcome. David Goldberg, sales and marketing director for Steerforth, said he was delighted "with so many new booksellers having the opportunity to discover our books." Erika Goldman, publisher and editorial director of Bellevue Literary Press in New York City, said, "It's a great opportunity to come together with colleagues and recognize the importance of and depth of our camaraderie and community."
Julie Belgrado, head of the European and International Booksellers Federation (EIBF), was among a more than two dozen overseas booksellers who attended; others included Phillip Hunzinger, owner of Sophos Bookstore in Guatemala City, Guatemala and Kyle Buckley of Type Books in Toronto. Belgrado, who came to Winter Institute 2020 in Baltimore, remarked on the nuanced conversations around DEI issues. She felt that European booksellers are still asking some questions for which U.S. booksellers already have firm answers, like where to shelve LGBTQIA+ titles (in their own sections or mixed throughout the store). "We're about two years behind the U.S. when it comes to trends," she estimated, citing the focus on mental health as a stronger trend in the U.S. than Europe, but also one likely to catch on.
Belgrado runs a program called RISE Bookselling, a collaborative project focusing on international collaboration and on bringing American booksellers to European bookselling conferences. BrocheAroe Fabian, owner of River Dog Book Company in Sullivan, Wisc., will be attending the Irish Book Trade Conference in Cork on February 27-28, while Danny Caine, owner of The Raven Bookstore in Lawrence, Kan., will be attending the RISE Bookselling Conference in Prague, March 19 and 20.
In other news, the Book Industry Charitable Foundation continues to raise money to support booksellers, and its contributions now can be requested to support small publishers and others across the book industry. Binc's programs include access to free mental health care for two months, and this opportunity has been extended to book industry professionals in Canada and Mexico as well.
WI2023 attendees need only wait until summer for another meetup. According to a panel on youth programming, Gen Z is the generation with the greatest buying power and the generation booksellers need to bring on board to sustain the industry. "These are the young people who are going to ensure the sustainability and success of the stores," said board member Diane Capriola, owner of Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, Ga. Registration for Children's Institute in Milwaukee opens on March 1 and the institute runs June 5-7. And next year's Winter Institute is set for Cincinnati.