The Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association concluded its Fall Tradeshow in Portland, Ore., with an author breakfast and bookseller education programming. According to PNBA's Larry West, 96 member stores—17 of them new bookstores—sent a total of 235 people, and the 79 exhibitors included publishers and sales groups.
Attendees, running on empty on the third day, rallied to meet a quartet of indie favorite Pacific Northwest creators, whose ARCs vanished swiftly from tables afterward. Coast Salish author Sasha LaPointe’s new collection of autobiographical essays, Thunder Song (Counterpoint, March 2024), picks up where her memoir Red Paint left off; LaPointe is also the author of a Milkweed Editions poetry collection, Rose Quartz. E.J. Koh, author of the memoir The Magical Language of Others and the poetry collection A Lesser Love, is branching into fiction with a debut novel, The Liberators (Tin House/Norton, Nov.), a four-generation Korean family saga spanning 1980 to the present day.
Fantasy writer Seanan McGuire talked about the ninth installment in her Hugo and Nebula Award–winning Wayward Children series, Mislaid in Parts Unknown (Tordotcom/Macmillan, Jan. 2024), which she proclaims is “a defense of the weird kids. Right now the weird kids of the world, and especially America, are under attack” despite the “nine million portal fantasies” available for cisgender and white readers. Katee Robert, whose romances are becoming synonymous with the word “spicy,” has penned the sixth installment in the Dark Olympus series, Midnight Ruin (Sourcebooks Casablanca, Jan. 2024), based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Roberts said her books are deliberately inclusive: “Everyone is queer—that’s the default,” and plus-size characters are represented positively. Her “queer-normative world has been revolutionary,” Roberts said, and “my silly little spice books have actually changed people’s lives.”
Moderator James Crossley of Madison Books in Seattle, a former PNBA board member who has spent more than 20 years in Pacific Northwest bookselling, wrapped up the event with his own surprising news. Crossley will be moving to St. Louis, Mo., and although he hasn’t opened a bookstore yet, he’s exploring the possibilities. Madison Books, the sister store of Tom Nissley’s Seattle shop Phinney Books, will remain in place. Look for Crossley at Heartland Fall Forum—he’s already a member of the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association.
Compensation and Creative Benefits
PNBA members chose from six education sessions, and an American Booksellers Association presentation on disaster and risk management closed out the Tradeshow. The same talk will be delivered at each of the regional gatherings this year.
Relationships between owner-managers and staff were up for frank discussion at “Creative Approaches to Fostering a Committed Team and Bookseller Wellness,” a presentation by Kim Bissell of Broadway Books (Portland, Ore.) and Lane Jacobson of Paulina Springs Books (Sisters, Ore.). Bissell described how the pandemic forced a recognition that Broadway Books, which for its 30-year history has been structured as a store led by co-owners, needed to be a more collaborative venture among a trusted team balancing the weight. Bissell said conversations with staff were transforming the business hierarchy.
At Paulina Springs, a 4,500-square foot general interest bookstore, Jacobson strives to create “an employee-centered business.” Contrary to service industry clichés, he said, “my employees come before my customers, always. I can always get new customers if I have great staff.”
Jacobson was transparent about his baseline employee compensation and benefits, explaining that at the present time, the store pays staffers $19 or more per hour, subsidizes employee HRAs (Health Reimbursement Accounts), gives bonuses and “surprise raises if we’re pacing above” projected earnings, and allows the equivalent of five weeks’ paid time off annually. This is “not a five-week sabbatical,” he said. “The intention is a three- or four-day weekend every other week throughout the year, which is a way to get the four-day week they are experimenting with in businesses that does not work in retail.”
If these approaches seem unusually generous, “labor is not where I am interested in cutting costs for the store,” said Jacobson, who called his approach “experimental and somewhat radical.” When talking with staffers about P&Ls, rationales for compensation, and job requirements, he advocates a philosophy of “caring personally and challenging directly,” borrowed from Kim Scott’s business management book Radical Candor: How to Get What You Want by Saying What You Mean.
The audience, some persuaded and some not quite ready to open the books, began talking about “creative benefits” to build teamwork. Ideas included offering pet insurance as a benefit, to guard against unexpected expenses; opening a small monthly tab at a local food cart lot, for after work; hosting game meetups; or even (as one store volunteered) an hourlong, paid weekly meeting at a coffee shop before the store opens, with breakfast included.
Building Networks, Locally and Online
At a session on “Bookish Events: Outside the Box Thinking,” moderator Ali Shaw of Indigo: Editing (Portland) shared ideas for increasing traffic with poet and memoirist Nastashia Minto (Naked: The Rhythm and Groove of It), freelance editor Deborah Jayne, and Christine Longmuir of Two Rivers Books (Portland). Shaw favors a “grassroots approach” that starts with bringing locals to low stakes experiential activities and building word-of-mouth. No one felt paid advertising was necessary.
Shaw conducts a “36-hour writing contest” that sends writers on a scavenger hunt to neighborhood businesses to locate a series of writing prompts, and she and Minto met this way. “I came in second place at one of those events,” said Minto, a poet, who in turn has organized popup events with authors, musicians, and vendors. Jayne added: “It’s our job now to do something dynamic to bring folks in. People want to participate, to be recognized, and to community build, and the personalized outreach is the most effective way to get them out there.” Longmuir suggested promoting via the social media that feels best (“I don’t have time for the Tok or the Twitter”) and asking to post events on town marquees if available.
Next door, a panel talked about building a virtual network at “Stop Surviving, Start Thriving: Social Media.” Panelists Jenny Cohen, Waucoma Bookstore (Hood River, Ore.), Rosa Hernandez of Third Place Books (Seattle), Briana Ryan of Wicked Words (online, based in Poulsbo, Wa.), and Lily Taliaferro of Eagle Harbor Book Co. (Bainbridge, Wa.) talked about their favorite media tools including Canva and VN Video Editor, noted that publishers including Macmillan and Sourcebooks supply banners and graphics that make posting easier, and urged booksellers to meet local authors.
“A lot of authors are totally happy to link to your store on their site,” Taliaferro said, and the panelists agreed that booksellers shouldn’t be shy about requesting a link. Taliaferro continued that authors “like being treated like celebrities, so take their picture. And tag everyone! Tag your reps, your publisher, your sidelines people, your author.” At this, an audience member commented that reps share tagged posts to publishers, which generates goodwill and opportunities for co-op.
Other education topics included the “Seasonal Buying and Displays” on everyone’s minds in August; an “Edelweiss for Everyone” session of technical tips; and “The Recipe for Great Read-Alouds,” a picture book overview with Queen Anne Book Co. children’s buyer Tegan Tigani and Scholastic district sales manager Chris Satturlund. Tigani and Satturlund showcased titles including Shar Tuiasoa’s Punky Aloha, Derrick Barnes’s The King of Kindergarten, Gianni Rodari’s Telling Stories Wrong, and Suba Subramaniam’s Gingerbread Man reboot, The Runaway Dosa, illustrated by Parvati Pillai (little bee/S&S, out now).
An Ounce of Prevention
PNBA’s education day finished with “This Is a Fire Drill: Preparing for and Avoiding Crises,” delivered by ABA director of education Kim Hooyboer. ABA is sharing this presentation at every 2023 regional gathering in order to prepare booksellers to “weather the literal and the proverbial storm,” Hooyboer said. The talk addresses risks to property, danger to employees and customers, and technology concerns from outages to digital harassment to fraud.
Hooyboer advised booksellers to review their insurance, write an emergency action plan for disaster or other danger, and create a “business continuity plan” that includes documents and essential information for restoring essential store functions after a crisis. BINC and ABA offer links and instruction on their sites, including a business continuity plan template.
ABA advised extreme caution in contacting police or emergency services for situations involving in-person conflict or perceived danger, due to the threat of deadly force. Hooyboer urged booksellers to develop store guidance on security procedures and invest in de-escalation training. On the most basic level, a password manager, regular system updates to equipment, and antiviral software are basic tools to avert digital calamities from phishing and malware. Uncomfortable laughter among attendees suggested password protection would be a good first step.
Based on a show of hands at PNBA, no one in attendance had experienced a store fire, and not many had used a fire extinguisher. At least three said a car had damaged their stores, and more than 10 reported flooding or water damage. Some reported break-ins or vandalism, and others had dealt with disruptive behavior from customers, protestors, or credit-card fraud. Even minor inconveniences can set stores back a day, and sobering anecdotes from the floor underscored the ABA fire drill’s preventative measures.