Allison Hill, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, welcomed Children’s Institute attendees during the June 6 breakfast keynote session. She declared this year’s conference, in Milwaukee’s convention center and the Hilton Hotel across the street to be “the largest Children’s Institute in its 11-year history.” According to the ABA, approximately 360 booksellers pre-registered for the event; 70% of them are first-time attendees. Almost 240 different bookstores are represented at CI2023, including 222 bricks-and-mortar, eight pop-up, five online only, and two mobile bookstores. There are four international booksellers present, one each from Australia, Germany, Latvia, and New Zealand.

Holding up a favorite childhood read—The Giant Jam Sandwich by John Vernon Lord with verses by Janet Barroway—as well as her first public library card, Hill described herself as someone who has loved to read her entire life. She thanked booksellers for putting books into the hands of children, saying it was “more important than ever,” due to having to struggle “against the headwinds of fear, bigotry, and ignorance" created by those wanting to restrict people's freedom to read.

“We see you, we celebrate you, and we thank you,” Hill said, before introducing Daniel Nayeri, the morning’s keynote speaker. “I’ve been a book person my entire life,” Nayeri said, as he displayed throughout his presentation photos of some of his favorite bookstores— including the Strand in New York City, where he worked for a period of time, before becoming an editor, a publisher, and a published author of middle grade books.

Noting that indie bookstores “are staffed with the most interesting people in any town,” Nayeri expressed joy that 471 indie bookstores have opened in the past two years. “The demise of the indie bookstores has been greatly exaggerated,” he said, acknowledging that one of the challenges facing bookstores these days is “how to keep people.” Addressing bookstore owners and managers, Nayeri suggested that bookstores could become more sustainable by strengthening their relationships with employees and building communities within the store.

He explained that booksellers should promote “interpersonal social networks”; consider “career building as a mindset”; and encourage “undigitizable experiences” that include face-to-face interactions—including taking opportunities for booksellers to “break bread” with each other and with authors before events so as to get to know each other. Nayeri breaks bread quite literally when he calls for rethinking traditional author events. As a child, he remembers wanting to be a pastry chef, and he shared a photo of himself creating a Persian pastry at a bookstore, flanked by an oversize poster of his book cover for Everything Sad Is Untrue.

Nayeri also emphasized that bookstore owners and managers should prioritize the well-being of staff and also invest in them. “Give people careers, not jobs,” he urged, pointing out that “too many booksellers fall into the category of over-educated and underemployed.” He made the point that booksellers have skills beyond being able to read, and those talents should be better utilized.

“Bookstores are the beating heart of the communities they inhabit,” he said, and “the people in the stores are the lifeblood. We need our bookstores desperately in this country, in every town, because a town without a bookstore is just an oversize gas station as far as I’m concerned.”

One of CI2023’s 251 first-time attendees, Keeley Malone, the 25-year-old owner of Ink Drinkers Anonymous bookstore in Muncie, Ind., said Tuesday afternoon that she “adores” CI2023, she is “so glad that I was able to come,” and she had already “met so many great people.” Malone, whose 388-square-foot retail space is dedicated to “diversity and inclusion,” says that she started out as an online store about a year ago, but moved into a historic building in downtown Muncie in March. “We’re doing really good, but we could be doing better,” she said, ascribing this to the store being on the second floor of the building and not easily visible to foot traffic.

Relating that she had been following Hannah V. Sawyerr on TikTok, Malone said she was happy to pick up a copy of the Indies Introduce debut author’s novel, All the Fighting Parts (Amulet, Sept.). “I was second in line,” she said. But, she added, the highlight of the conference is certain to be the closing keynote, featuring Ruby Bridges. “I am beyond excited,” Malone said.

Children’s Institute continues through June 7.