Eileen Dengler, who is best known in the book business as the executive director of the North Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association (NAIBA), first announced the launch of the Professional Booksellers School (PBS) in 2020; its inaugural classes were held in 2021. Nearly three years later, close to 1,000 people, ranging from tenderfoots to more experienced booksellers, have taken courses at the school, where the program continues to evolve.

Recently, PBS has added new self-study options and launched its most ambitious course yet: “Bookstore Year One,” a year-long program designed to provide mentorship for new bookstore owners. Registration for the program will open in May, and the course will kick off "over the summer," Dengler said.

"The magic of the Professional Booksellers School is that it is responding to the direct needs of booksellers," Dengler said. "The instructors who are building all of our content are doing so from experience, knowing this is what they wish they knew when they started. They're distilling everything they had to learn the hard way to share it with their colleagues. They're teaching each other and learning as they're doing this because everyone has figured out a different way of doing things. They talk it through, and that's what is so beautiful about it."

Dengler runs PBS alongside Kit Little, the executive administrator of NAIBA, who was the first person to complete the school's full curriculum. At the school, most courses are 16 weeks long, with classes meeting weekly via Zoom for about an hour. The average class size is approximately 50 students. One of its foundational courses is “Basic Bookselling,” wich is aimed at frontline booksellers. It is a 9-10 week course offered at a reduced price, $125, to encourage store owners to invest in training their staff, and covers such topics as basic store finances, customer service, and the role of booksellers in the larger industry.

"Our intention is that your frontline bookseller understands the profit and loss of a store," Dengler said. "We're showing them the slim margins to instruct them that if you sell one extra book in your shift, it makes a difference for the bottom line of the store. Every week, part of their homework is to write a book review, a shelf talker, and to go into Edelweiss and post it. We're instructing them on all the tools in the industry and going beyond the training that a bookstore might do."

For those who can't commit to a full course, the school has launched an independent study option using recorded course videos. The first of these is its “Bookseller-in-Training” program, which is self-paced and provides an introduction to those who are new to bookselling or considering a career in the industry. The idea, Dengler explained, is for the school to be flexible in offering booksellers many options, as most are already fully committed with their job, a family, or other obligations. Those enrolled in independent study can complete the course on their own timelines, and have access to a dean for guidance and certification if desired.

"We have reviewed all our content, found themes, and created bundles of these recordings," said Dengler. "You can, for example, say, 'I want to know about children's bookselling,' and we can deliver three classes that cover children's bookselling. Or if you say, 'I want to learn more about event management,' well, here are three event management ROI programs we’ve done." She added: "The idea is for booksellers to say, 'I'm weak in this, let me go do this.'"

Dengler emphasized that the school is committed to supporting DEI efforts, and 20% of the seats in each course are dedicated to people from the BIPOC and LGBTQ communities and people with disabilities. PBS is also serving as an education provider for the Book Industry Charitable Foundation's BincTank Underserved Markets program.

Instructors hail from a wide variety of backgrounds and include numerous big names from the independent bookselling community. Those include John Evans, co-owner of Diesel, A Book Store in Santa Monica, Calif.; Sarah Bagby, owner of Watermark Books in Wichita, Kan.; Molly Olivo, book buyer at Barston's Child's Play in Washington, D.C.; and Julie Slavinsky, director of events and community relations at Warwick's in San Diego, among some 30 others.

PBS operates as a separate 501(c) nonprofit organization, not as part of NAIBA. It relies on funding from bookseller associations, publishers, and donors to cover its approximately $200,000 annual operating costs. Sponsors include the American Booksellers Association, Bookshop.org, MVB US, and all of the regional bookseller associations—many of which offer discounts or rebates for members who take courses. "Still," Dengler said, "we want—actually, we need—more donors and supporters to sustain the school and reach more booksellers."

Dengler argued that education is a key to retaining young people and encourage them to consider bookselling as a full time profession. "The relationships that are being built in these classes are pretty special and are going to be long-term bookseller friendships," she said. Ultimately, though, she added, the goal is to educate booksellers on how to help sustain the industry as a whole: "If you think about it, everyone in publishing benefits when booksellers are better at their jobs, since it's booksellers who actually sell the books."