On February 13, the second full day of the American Booksellers Association’s 2024 Winter Institute in Cincinnati, presenters talked about their stores’ geographical locations and particular challenges, brainstormed ways to sustain connections with readers, and lined up to have ARCs signed by nearly 80 authors at a bustling evening reception.

Thanks to journalist Michele Norris’s breakfast keynote talk about her book Our Hidden Conversations, WI2024 attendees started the day thinking about identity and others’ standpoints. Norris’s powerful exercise, based on the Race Card Project, warmed up attendees for a day of sessions about creating welcoming and information-rich spaces.

Going ‘Beyond the Binary’

Diverse life experiences informed the panel “Beyond the Binary,” which pushed back against norms and artificial boundaries. Moderator Anton Bogomazov of Politics and Prose (Washington, D.C.) spoke to four contemporary novelists about their latest work.

Miranda July, in All Fours (Riverhead, May), set out to write a comic novel about women, libido, and aging. “I think perimenopause is nonbinary because it’s a transitional time,” July said. This unpredictable, potentially queer stage of life “could be really significant for someone you’re trying to become,” so All Fours takes a “funhouse mirror look at something that is biological.”

Danzy Senna, who “always identified as a Black woman with a white mother,” told the audience that her protagonist in Colored Television gives no credence to binaries: “This is not a character who’s betwixt and between, trying to figure out ‘am I Black or am I white?’ This is a character who’s trying to get rich in Hollywood”—and who might qualify as “morally nonbinary,” too.

LaDarrion Williams wrote the YA fantasy Blood at the Root (Random House Children’s/Labyrinth Road, May) to challenge predictable and narrow representations of Black youth. “When I was in high school, I didn’t see myself in Percy Jackson,” he said, referencing Rick Riordan’s Olympians series. When he looked for novels about Black teens, he wondered, “Where are the Black boys who aren’t dealing with police brutality?” As an author, he has created a magical 17-year-old character, Malik, in Blood at the Root. “We’ve got to let [Black characters] live,” Williams said. “I don’t want to see my Black boy character literally be killed to teach readers about racism.”

Maysoon Zayid, who uses comedy to instruct on disability, called her graphic narrative Shiny Misfits (Scholastic/Graphix, Apr.) “a comedic romp about a girl with cerebral palsy. The DisCo— the disability community—intersects with every single other community,” and is multifaceted rather than either/or.

Zayid also spoke bluntly to political conditions, reminding the audience that she’s “a Palestinian author writing a children’s book in a world in which thousands of Palestinian children have been killed in the past four months. As a Palestinian author, I am telling the people in this room, we are being silenced, we are being pulled off the shelves.” She called for a ceasefire in the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, a situation that some booksellers plan to discuss at an impromptu February 14 morning meetup.

Finding Community, Online and In-Person

Alternative models for doing business and forging community were much on the minds of ABA attendees, many of whom opened their stores in 2020 or even more recently. Booksellers from Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse (Baltimore, Md.), Rozzie Bound Books (Boston), and Co-Op Cincy (Cincinnati) shared advice on bypassing traditional hierarchical models and starting a worker-owned co-op. Meanwhile, social media wizards led a panel on increasing book sales while building community online, moderated by Bookshop.org founder Andy Hunter.

At the online community panel, Evisa Gallman of Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books (Philadelphia, Pa.) described how transparency—such as through an “Uncle Bobbie’s by the Numbers” feature on statistics—gets customers invested in the store’s success. Gallman also praised preorder campaigns and giveaways, not only for short-term marketing but also for building email lists.

Hunter seconded the value of good old reliable email and newsletter signups. “We get a third of the sales from Twitter that we used to—we built it, then it goes away,” he said. Email addresses and textable phone numbers may seem fusty, but they’re relatively stable ways to engage with customers. Apps can work too: Veronica Liu, of Word Up Community Bookshop/Librería Comunitaria (New York, NY), sends reminders about storytimes via a neighborhood WhatsApp group, and advertises in Spanish and English: “We all have multiple communities we’re serving,” Liu said.

Another educational panel, “Beyond Allyship,” explored how bookstores can welcome and embrace LGBTQ+ staffers and visitors. Panel moderator Kai Burner of Bookworm of Edwards (Edwards, Colo.) created an informational Allyship Checklist to help stores “adjust onboarding practices” and “create written policies to support the culture.” For LGBTQ people, “it’s rough out here right now,” Burner emphasized.

Panelists recommended that stores abolish handbook language on dress codes and request staffers’ preferred names and pronouns, starting with the hiring process. Linda Sherman-Nurick of Cellar Door Books (Riverside, Calif.), who relocated in 2023 following protests of Drag Story Hour readings, suggested a book club reading of Schuyler Bailar’s He/She/They.

Opportunities for substantial change may be hidden in plain sight. At Children's Book World (Los Angeles), Brein Lopez and his team turned what used to be “girl” or “boy” gift baskets for babies into genderless “baby baskets,” as well as the strategies behind “all our toy buying” and choices of reading material, Lopez said. “If they’re gendered, we will not order them in.” If a customer insists on, say, a “girly” gift for a child, said Gretchen Treu of A Room of One’s Own (Madison, Wisc.), a bookseller can “empower them to make a choice” that’s inclusive, such as by asking, “Who gets to be the hero of stories?” rather than reaching for binary blue or pink.