Buoyed by a strong finish to 2011, indie booksellers celebrated their independence at this year’s seventh annual American Booksellers Association Winter Institute held at the Astor Crowne Plaza in New Orleans, January 18–20. Some who recently opened second stores, like Peter Makin at Brilliant Books, in Suttons Bay, Mich., are already looking to expand again. Others like Linda Bubon and Ann Christophersen, cofounders of Women and Children First in Chicago, are simply happy to see sales turn around, up more than 30% for the holidays.

“I was glad I went,” said first-timer Betsy Detwiler, owner of Buttonwood Books & Toys, in Cohasset, Mass. “It was great to see colleagues, and I especially enjoyed the rep picks and hearing the small presses present. I’ve done 23 years of BEAs and NEIBAs, but I took that Moleskin notebook [given out at registration] and definitely filled it.” Not a blogger or Tweeter, Detwiler said that she was particularly drawn to writer Ann Patchett’s opening day talk, which was partly the story of how she came to start an independent bookstore, Parnassus Books, in Nashville, and partly rousing speech on why independents matter.

Patchett, who not only doesn’t blog but refuses to read blogs, hypothesized that the reason her intention to open a bookstore made the front page of the New York Times is that “[journalists] are as sick as we are of this constant barrage that books are dead.” One of the unexpected perks of being a bookseller she’s found is “the thrill of forcing people to read the books I like.” Patchett has willingly assumed the mantle of indie evangelist, a role she filled at the show. “I want to tell people we’re not dead, and we’re not going anywhere,” she said. “This is the new trend, local independent bookselling. If you keep saying it’s true, it will be true.”

If Patchett provided the inspiration, a series of back-to-back workshops and presentations were designed to give booksellers hands-on tools to continue to thrive. The programming peaked on the final day with sessions devoted to creating a model store. Twenty-two groups of booksellers were given data about an imaginary store and tasked with running it. As Ingram Content Group v-p and general manager Dan Sheehan observed, each group’s process was different, but their results were similar, including that no one contemplated closing.

Although many of the 500 booksellers at the show were like Steve Bercu, owner of BookPeople, in Austin, Tex., coming off their best year ever—in BookPeople’s case for the second year in a row—the ABA geared programming to help booksellers continue on that path. Not all have much post-Christmas business. Kathleen Pohlig, owner of four-year-old Cherry Street Books, in the resort community of Alexandria, Minn., said that “now it’s pretty dead.” Others, like Dale Szczeblowski at Porter Square Books, in Cambridge, Mass., were relieved that the pace has slowed some.

Maureen Palacios, owner of Once Upon a Time, in Montrose, Calif., speculated that because booksellers had a strong year, they were more receptive to a show that involved planning for the future. And she acknowledged that she might not have been willing to do so last year. “This is a great thing this year, because people are in a happier mood. How often do we get to see someone else’s business. It’s great to keep thinking about your own business,” she said.

For many booksellers a high point was meeting authors and picking up galleys. A number admitted that they didn’t read the “one conference, one book” selection, Robert Penn Warren’s political classic, All the King’s Men. But many had perused ARCs for forthcoming titles, like Carol Anshaw’s Carry the One (Simon & Schuster) and Stephen Graham Jones’s Growing Up Dead in Texas (MP Publishing) before the authors’ Winter Institute appearances. One backlist title stood out at the show. Booksellers snapped up copies of Douglas Brinkley’s 2007 look at Katrina, The Great Deluge (Harper), after his interview with USA Today book critic Bob Minzesheimer. Most wanted to at least be a fly on the wall at Brinkley’s book group, which includes President Obama, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Michael Beschloss.

“There’s so much good writing out there,” said Paul Yamazaki, head buyer for City Lights in San Francisco, who called this “one of the best periods of literature since 1948 to 1960.” Geoffrey Jennings, corporate counsel and bookseller at Rainy Day Books, in Fairway, Kans., said that his two favorite nonfiction picks at the show were Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? (Grove) and Leslie Maitlin’s Crossing the Borders of Time (Other Press). “They ran away from the pack,” he added, predicting that women over 40 will love Maitland’s story of a love lost and found. Men will read it for the history. As for the Winterson, Jennings compared it to bestselling memoirs by Mary Karr and Jeanette Walls. On the adult fiction side, Jess Norcross of McLean & Eakin singled out Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child (Hachette) as the book of 2012.

ABA CEO Oren Teicher places the value of Winter Institute less in the books, authors, and educational sessions, and more in “booksellers connecting to each other. You put 500 independent booksellers together, who are passionately trying to make this work, it’s a sharing,” he said. “We’re still here. I don’t want to be naïve about the difficulties. We can make this work.”

Next year Winter Institute will focus on nonbook items and will be held at the same time and in the same city, Kansas City, Mo., as the National Association of College Stores’ winter meeting and expo, February 23–25.

Programming Highlights

Carl Lennertz, head of the U.S. WBN, asked booksellers to go to www.worldbooknight.org by February 1 to become book pickup centers and to promote WBN, set for April 23, in their communities. “Regular customers will love you more and you’ll have new customers coming in the door,” he said. “It’s one night, but it’s year round. We’ll keep the momentum going.”

Author John Green (The Fault in Our Stars, Dutton), who boasts 4,400 Facebook friends, 42,705 Facebook subscribers, and more than a million Twitter followers, typically draws hundreds of fans to his events because of social media. Green told booksellers to consider their online community as much as their physical community when they plan promotions. “Engage people in [online] conversation,” he urged.

“Innovation [and] adaptation are the lingua franca of independent booksellers,” said moderator Len Vlahos, former ABA COO and now head of the Book Industry Study Group. Robert Sindelar, managing partner of Third Place Books, in Lake Forest, Wash., spoke about how he turned around a second store that just wasn’t working by talking to area restaurateurs. He replaced the cafe and took their advice on a redesign to make the store more visible. Peter Makin, owner of Brilliant Books, in Suttons Bay, Mich., described how he stockpiled fixtures from two closing stores and knocked on doors in downtown Traverse City to scout out a second location.

“Everything is determined by the demographics of an area,” said Paula Wright, with the Dallas regional office of the U.S. Census Bureau, and Vicki Mack, with the Atlanta office. They demonstrated how booksellers can use the data at www.census.gov to better understand who their customers are and how they live. Matt Norcross of McLean & Eakin Booksellers, in Petoskey, Mich., told PW that he plans to use census data to promote audiobooks on Facebook to zip codes with commuters.

According to ABA CEO Oren Teicher, stores using the annual ABACUS data are more profitable. Panelists Peter Schertz, co-owner of Maria’s Books, in Durango, Colo., and Amy Thomas, owner of Pegasus Books, in Berkeley, Calif., agreed. They use the information to control payroll costs and other expenses. One audience member said that he successfully negotiated a better lease thanks to ABACUS.

Using WORD in Brooklyn as an example, Google Analytics program manager Jesse Nichols demonstrated how booksellers can drill into the data presented by consumer clicks on store Web sites to find out what books people are looking at and which marketing efforts work. If a book is receiving a lot of clicks online, he suggested that it also be displayed prominently in the store.

“Every study that has been done shows that independent bookstores do better in communities with vibrant libraries,” said moderator Ruth Liebmann, v-p, director of account marketing at Random House. For Sue Boucher, owner of Lake Forest Book Store, in Lake Forest, Ill., who works with dozens of district libraries, the “aha! moment” came when she learned that she could get demographic information from the libraries to choose the best authors for her patrons and use library newsletters and other publicity to promote joint author events. Beth Elder, director of the Salt Lake City Library, encouraged all booksellers to reach out to their librarians: “Bookstores and libraries share values and missions.”