I’m in!” proclaimed signs on bookstores, restaurants, and businesses throughout Seattle. Although they were intended to indicate support for the Seahawks in the playoffs and the Super Bowl, they could just as easily have served as a leitmotif for this year’s ninth annual American Booksellers Association Winter Institute, held at the Westin Hotel in downtown Seattle from January 22–24. Like the Seattle football team, independent booksellers are being acknowledged as a force to be reckoned with. “It would have been impossible to have left Seattle without concluding that the indie resurgence is alive and well,” said ABA CEO Oren Teicher, who tempered his words by adding, “At the same time, despite another successful institute and strong year for indie bookstores, we recognize that the road ahead has many challenges.”
A number of factors contributed to the institute’s generally upbeat mood, including strong educational sessions that dealt with bookselling basics. So did preconference bus tours showcasing the vitality of bookselling in Seattle—including stops at iconic bookstores like Eagle Harbor Book Co. and Queen Anne Book Company, as well as newer specialty stores like the Book Larder, which focuses on cooking. Warm, sunny weather also helped, unlike at the 2013 gathering in Kansas City, where two major snow storms kept participants constantly checking airline schedules and weather reports.
The timing of this year’s conference, closer to the holidays than in 2013, also colored booksellers’ experiences, as many reported holiday sales gains. ABA president Steve Bercu, owner of BookPeople in Austin, Tex., was one of a number of booksellers who had both a record holiday and a record year. Many booksellers from recently purchased stores, like Lisa Poole of Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh, N.C., and Chris Crawley and Yolanda Harrison of That Bookstore in Blytheville, Ark., came to Seattle and gave the conference a boost, as did attendees like Rochelle Harris, who is planning to open a new store in Aurora, Colo. There were also a number of international booksellers, including two from New Zealand who stayed on in Seattle for weeklong internships at local stores: Jenna Todd, manager of Time Out Bookstore in Mt. Eden Village, and Jared Raines, manager of Paper Plus Northlands Mall in Papanui.
Each year, booksellers look forward to Winter Institute because it offers a chance to connect with other booksellers and hone their skills at hands-on educational sessions, and this year was no exception. “I enjoyed it,” said Catherine Weller, new book buyer and co-owner of Weller Book Works in Salt Lake City. “I thought there were good seminars,” she noted, adding, “I can see why some people focus on this more than national shows like BEA.” Kenny Brechner, owner of Devaney, Doak & Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Maine, is just such a person: “I tend to go to Winter Institute rather than BEA—I took some substantive good ideas from just about everything,” he said about the most recent event. He particularly benefited from the plenary talk on decision making by Dan Heath, coauthor with Chip Heath (his brother), of Decisive (Crown Business). It gave him the impetus to delegate more responsibility to his staff.
“This was by far the best Winter Institute I have attended,” said Europa Editions executive director Michael Reynolds, who has been to three others. “I think the fact that most booksellers are coming off a very good year influenced things. At Europa, we’re coming off a similarly positive year, and I think we, too, are becoming more conscious of what our unassailable qualities as indie publishers are.” For Andrea Cascardi, managing director and publisher of Egmont USA, who has also attended three previous conferences, what stood out at this year’s event were “the opportunities afforded at Winter Institute [for] direct conversations with booksellers and executive directors.”
So just how good was 2013? ABA hasn’t released any firm data yet, but based on preliminary information, Teicher said, “I am absolutely confident that the gains we saw in 2012 over 2011 were consolidated in 2013.” He added, “You need to remember that 2012 was a very unusual year that is unlikely to be repeated. We had Borders closing and two remarkably successful book series: Fifty Shades of Grey and Hunger Games. So the fact that we held the increase this past year is, if I may say so, pretty impressive.”
Numbers from the Data Watchers Report panel—with BISG’s Len Vlahos, Jonathan Nowell of Nielsen BookScan, and Peter Hildick-Smith of the Codex Group—also provided reasons for optimism. Using data from the fourth quarter of 2013, Hildick-Smith showed how similar Amazon’s print book customers are to indie bookstore customers, and he indicated possibilities for getting Amazon patrons to buy more books at indies. Amazon tends to sell slightly more genre fiction and “utility” nonfiction, while indies have the edge on narrative nonfiction and literary fiction.
Hildick-Smith’s data also showed that customers who shop at independent bookstores bought 17% of their books there last November, and bought 60% of their books at bricks-and-mortar stores. Customers who shop at Amazon bought 39% of their books at the giant e-tailer, and only 3% of their books at independents.
Next year’s Winter Institute will be held in Asheville, N. C., at the Grove Park Inn, February 9–11.