Business sessions on day two of the inaugural European & International Booksellers Federation RISE conference in Prague (read our report on day one here) began with a breakout on Responding to Global Challenges with speakers Anne Schiøtz of the Norwegian Booksellers Association, Anne Schroën of the Dutch Booksellers Association and Veronika Michalová from the Artforum Bookshop in Bratislava, moderated by Jessica Sanger from EIBF.
“Last year has been an eye opener for many of us," said Schiøtz, "and led for the first time for many years to discussion about censoring books—should we have Russian literature in the store? Authors often write at great personal risk, so we had to keep stocking them. Art and literature should be above this.” In Slovakia, geographically rather closer to the conflict, Michalová revealed they had found a lot of new books coming in that consisted of Russian disinformation, so they made the decision not to sell those books. “We place a big value on freedom of expression after 40 years of communism," she said, “but it was nice we could even have the discussion. Selection and curation is our responsibility.”
All the panelists had examples of authors who had been threatened or cancelled because their work had offended others, and bookshops being challenged or threatened for either stocking or not stocking contentious titles. In Norway, revealed Schiøtz, every bookshop is obliged to order any book required by a customer under an agreement between the publishers association and the BA, and this can help make life less contentious for frontline staff.
In an increasingly polarized society, there are myriad threats that need to be taken seriously, both physical and verbal. No one should be expected to cope alone with a hue and cry on social media, for example, and it was agreed that bookshop staff needed more structured support and training on how to manage such situations. The existing EIBF Freedom of Expression Charter could perhaps be further developed to help provide broad guidelines and protocols on dealing with these issues, offering ways to protect and guide bookshop staff.
Innovative ideas from booksellers
In a second session, Raluca Selejan of La Doua Butnite Bookshop in Romania quizzed her fellow panelists—Aude Fares of Le Chameau Sauvage in France; Nic Bottomley of Mr. B’s Emporium in Bristol, U.K., and Tereza Parizkova from Zlata Velryba in the Czech Republic—on their innovative ideas for going that extra mile, as so many booksellers do.
Fares opened her bookshop in 2020. With a small annex that can be used for workshops, one of their first special events was a reading for children by two drag queens. This was followed by ukelele classes and comic strip workshops and they are now starting to offer themed evenings, for example a talk about the political situation in Chile between a lawyer and a Chilean author with Chilean music and books related to the theme on display. All these events are “aimed at allowing people who don’t usually go into bookshops to come and see us—and many have come back afterwards,” Fares revealed.
The shop is now experimenting with second-hand books, partnering with a national online platform to offer a buyback program, an initiative has already brought in new customers finding them online.
As many will know, Mr. B’s Emporium began by offering Reading Spas, an idea conceived after noting customers’ positive reactions to the hand selling and recommendations offered by staff. Bottomley felt this was a commercial opportunity, and devised the Spa gift voucher that allows the lucky recipient to come in and talk about books with a member of staff over tea and cake, with the bookseller then recommending 15-20 books based on their chat. The voucher includes an amount to spend on books, and customers get a goodie bag and a voucher for a future online purchase. Mr. B’s subscription service was added as an alternative to increasing the frequency of Spas. With this, customers fill out a questionnaire about their reading tastes and habits and are then paired with a bookseller bibliotherapist who, as a totally bespoke service, chooses them a book once a month for the duration of the subscription.
At Zlata Velrybe, Parizkova offers creative writing programs for children. She is a children’s book author herself, having published seven books so far, and realized that many kids are interested not just in the process of writing but also in publishing a book. She started with a five-day summer camp, teaching kids how to write their story. But five days wasn’t enough, so in 2022 she started offering evening classes in the bookshop after it closed. These filled up quickly, despite the timing being less than ideal—and the kids loved being in the shop after hours. They have just started to offer story times for kids with actors from the local theatre doing the readings.
Parizkova also organizes a book club for adults to learn more about children’s books—and discovered that everyone who signed up for it was a teacher. Each month, participants take the book of choice back to their classes and return with the children’s views on it, together with thoughts on how to use the book in the classroom. Not only does that mean 10 copies of the book of the month are sold each time, but the teachers send in their pupils as well as becoming regular visitors themselves, so the initiative works as a great customer recruitment tool.
Authors address environmentalism, trauma, inspiration
The first keynote speaker of the day was Hannah Gold, author of the award winning books The Last Bear and The Lost Whale (HarperCollins) both with a strong environmental message. “Every bookseller," she said, “has a responsibility to nurture children’s reading. Let’s take our children seriously and let’s take children’s bookselling seriously.”
Her debut novel Bear Island—the real Bear Island is no longer accessible to polar bears because of the melting of the ice cap—was published in 2021 in the middle of lockdown, but still managed to find a large and enthusiastic audience, thanks to the support from indie booksellers. When she set out to write the book, she wanted to produce one that made a difference. “The most important things I can offer are hope, agency and empowerment”, she said, finishing her session by urging delegates to discover the power of their own voices, channel their inner 8 year old and roar collectively like a polar bear.
Lana Bastašić, author of Catch the Rabbit (Pan Macmillan), winner of the 2020 European Union Prize for Literature, took the stage to talk about her experience of writing about a past conflict. Born in Yugoslavia, her book about childhood friends who reunite to drive from Mosta to Vienna is, said her interviewer journalist Maarten Dessing, a “funny, hilarious, road trip."
The book was written in Serbo-Croat and translated into English by the author herself. “I wanted,” Bastasic said, “to write about what it was to be a girl in a war zone and what it means to be human now. A lot of people don’t consider us to be European, or remember a genocide that happened in the heart of Europe. We have to keep telling the story, we have a responsibility because when we stop, people forget.
There were no female writers in her textbooks when she was growing up, and at 24 she left Bosnia to get a job. Bastasic now lives in Berlin and wrote the book—set in an Alice in Wonderland world where it’s ok not to understand everything going on—while living in Barcelona. Her hometown is now predominantly Serbo-Croat, and the 1995 genocide is still something denied by most Bosnian Serbs. “I’m in a small minority and have been called a witch, a traitor”, she revealed, continuing “most of my favorite writers were writers in exile. A liminal position gives you a point of view—but what do we share, rather than a constant othering of people? Translated fiction is being pushed aside, and this is where booksellers can help—by supporting not just the grand old men of literature, but the female writers, the LGBTQ writers, from other cultures.”
The event was rounded off by idiosyncratic U.K. bookseller Shaun Bythell, author of four books including The Diary of a Bookseller and, most recently, the brilliantly titled Remainders of the Day (Profile), in discussion with German bookseller Iris Hunscheidt from Buchhandlung Hoffmann.
While being an author was, like bookselling, “a short cut to poverty," there was a cathartic element to getting down his life on paper, said Bythell. The books are now available in 32 different languages, most recently Hebrew, and according to his royalty statements the books are very popular in both China and Russia; an author tour to Moscow and St. Petersburg had to be cancelled in lockdown and looks unlikely to be reinstated any time soon.
Bythell revealed he had got into bookselling—he owns a second hand and antiquarian shop in Wigtown, Scotland’s answer to Hay on Wye—by accident, buying the shop from a friend almost on a whim and with no business experience or knowledge of the book trade. In addition to Bythell’s own shop there are now five other second-hand bookshops in Wigtown, and a number of cafes selling second hand books, as well as a Festival bookshop selling new books. Together, these retailers put on the Wigtown Literary Festival, which now offers 300-400 events each year.
“Being surrounded by books every day—that was my dream,” he said. The main difference between running a second-hand and a general bookshop was, he felt, having absolutely no control over what was in stock— with most of the books derived from house clearances—and with no ability to return anything, while in a town that’s mainly a tourist destination there is no Christmas sales season either. The boom or bust nature of the business is eased by online sales, now done via the shop’s own website after a parting of the ways with established internet retailers: “I just got sick of Amazon Marketplace—I’d rather be poor than deal with that company” he said, to a round of enthusiastic applause from the audience.
Jo Henry is managing director of the U.K. newsletter BookBrunch.