Booksellers make so many unique and important contributions to their communities, and to the world,” says Lanora Jennings, who worked as a bookseller for 22 years before becoming the Midwest sales representative for University Press Sales Associates in 2016. “We often talk about it amongst ourselves, but the world doesn’t know.”
For Jennings, it has become a personal mission to preserve for posterity primary sources relating to bookstores, as well as an institutional memory of contemporary bookselling in the U.S. Passionate about books and about making people beyond the publishing industry aware of the essential role that bookstores play in society, Jennings started researching the history of bookstores and bookselling in the U.S. four years ago with the intention of writing a book. But the idea has since expanded, and she is launching the Bookseller Oral History Project at WI2024.
Noting that scholars are increasingly recognizing that bookstores and booksellers “are making important contributions in various ways,” Jennings points out that a number of organizations have emerged whose purpose is to explore and preserve into the past and present of bookselling. In July 2023 she presented some of her findings at an academic conference sponsored by one such organization, the Bookselling Research Network. There, she says, she met others investigating the history of bookstores, and they discussed the difficulties of doing research in this area due to the lack of documentation.
“It’s not like booksellers think, ‘I am going to keep all these bookmarks, and flyers, and papers, and meeting notes,’ ” Jennings explains. “They just toss them. But we need to preserve this history.”
Jennings’s commitment to preserving bookselling history intensified after an October 2023 conversation with ABA CEO Allison Hill, during which Hill talked about the ABA’s physical archive housed in storage and at its headquarters in White Plains, N.Y. When Jennings requested access to the archive for her research, Hill disclosed that ABA was then about to begin digitizing evrything. The two discussed the value of the materials and who might provide a permanent home for the collection as the organization began the process of closing the office permanently. (Like many organizations in the wake of the pandemic, ABA employees began working remotely in 2020 and have continued to since then.)
That conversation prompted Jennings to contact the head archivist at a major university library, who expressed interest in the materials. In December, Jennings assisted in organizing 60 boxes of documents, photos, books, and bound volumes of ABA periodicals in anticipation of a potential move.
Talking with members of the Bookselling Research Network last summer and then talking with the ABA about its archives further motivated Jennings to establish the Bookseller Oral History Project, which is intended for preservation in Columbia University’s oral history collection. She says she plans to conduct research “wherever booksellers are gathering,” whether at Winter Institute or the regional shows, by offering a chance for people to “sit down and talk about their experiences as a bookseller, or their bookstore.”
At this year’s Winter Institute, booksellers can participate in the project by going to Room 210 in the Duke Energy Convention Center any time between the morning of February 10 and the afternoon of February 14 to record their experiences for the project.
Jennings hopes those participating will talk about things like memorable author events, or a tough decision they faced, “like whether to carry O.J. Simpson’s book If I Did It.” She adds, “I’m hoping it’s not just cute memories. I’m hoping to get some poignant stories. There will be a table, a couple of microphones, a digital recording device, prompts, and instructions. People can just go in and talk. They can interview each other. We just want to capture the story.”
For more information about the project, visit bookstorechronicles.org.