For some booksellers attending Winter Institute, the fist pumps began before their planes even touched down in Asheville, N.C. Those on American Airlines found flight magazines in the seat pocket in front of them with a story titled “Return of the Great American Indie Bookstore.” The story underscored the reason that the American Booksellers Association’s 10th-anniversary conference, held at the historic Grove Park Inn in Asheville, N.C., from February 8 to 11, sold out just days after registration opened—and the reason is that independent bookstores are experiencing a resurgence.
That independents are bouncing back was woven into the conversation and the programming of the conference. The event drew a number of first-timers, including 27 new and potential bookstore owners, who arrived early to take the workshop Introduction to Retail Bookselling, from Paz & Associates. This was the largest group of bookselling students in the past four years, according to bookselling consultant Donna Paz Kaufman, and it speaks to the increasing number of indie stores opening around the country—59 in 2014.
As ABA CEO Oren Teicher said at the opening-night party of WI 10, “We’re celebrating the enormous success of independent bookstores.” Many booksellers at WI 10 are part of that revival, including Gayle Shanks, owner of Changing Hands in Tempe, Ariz., who opened a second store in Phoenix seven months ago. “People started pouring in the day we opened the doors, and they haven’t stopped,” she said. Others, with established stores, such as P.K. Sindwani, owner of Towne Book Center and Cafe in Collegeville, Pa., were coming off a strong year. He overcame a difficult winter, in which sales dipped 30% compared to the previous winter, to finish 2014 up 10% over 2013, and he looks forward to doing even better in 2015.
All three keynote speakers—Steven Johnson, author of How We Got to Now; John Green, author of the 10th-anniversary edition of Looking for Alaska; and Azar Nafisi, author of The Republic of Imagination—paid tribute to the vitality of independents. Johnson credited Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe in Washington, D.C., where he and his friends hung out during high school, with helping him figure out how to become the science and technology writer he is today. His talk (and his books) examine how new ideas come into physical spaces such as independent bookstores, which serve as the “third place” in their communities. Johnson encouraged booksellers to embrace technology. “You all are engines of curiosity. This should be an opportunity for you,” he said.
Green explained why authors care about indie booksellers: “We will suck without you.” Describing his biggest fear, he said, “Imagine a world where books are only available in two places: Amazon and Walmart/Target/Sam’s club. How do we assure the breadth and diversity of books? We need you to exist.” Nafisi argued that the creative knowledge that is found in books is essential to survival. Paraphrasing Flaubert, she said, “Reading is living.”
Despite the upbeat mood of the show, booksellers still face challenges and some of those were addressed at the Town Hall Forum with the full ABA board and a session with ABA Past Presidents. First and foremost among the hot issues was the increase in minimum wage. “It’s the new existential crisis for us,” said Michael Tucker, owner of Books Inc., headquartered in San Francisco. Emoke B’Racz, owner of Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe in Asheville, N.C., challenged her colleagues to “go home and be creative. I’d be totally ashamed of exploiting my staff.”
That creativity spilled over into a conversation on net pricing, something that Doug Robinson, general manager of Eagle Eye Book Shop, Decatur, Ga., noted textbook publishers had adopted years ago. ABA president Steve Bercu—owner of BookPeople in Austin and longtime proponent of net pricing—also suggested that states could lower the sales tax on bookstores.
Education, much of it focused on ways to grow margin, from sidelines to buying back textbooks (even for stores that don’t sell or rent them), was a key element of WI 10. The American Booksellers for Free Expression, which has long had a strong presence at Winter Institute, was back for the first time since its merger with ABA. PW used the occasion to hand deliver a check for $13,400 to ABA’s Teicher, for ABA’s share of the donations that were raised through the magazine’s Je Suis Charlie campaign in the wake of the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris last month.
Other programming highlights included the introduction of the LitHub (lithub.com), the so-called Huffington Post of literature, with Grove/Atlantic publisher and president Morgan Entrekin, Electric Literature founder Andy Hunter, and L magazine founder Jonny Diamond. LitHub was originally intended to launch at the institute, but will instead debut on April 8 at AWP. The organizers believe that LitHub can succeed despite the failure of Bookish, which, Entrekin said, tried to cast its net too wide and be all things to all people. Because the founders plan to fund the project for two years, Entrekin said there is time to get the business model right, noting that his “revenue budge line” for the first year “is zero.” By the time of the launch, he anticipates having more than 100 partners, including booksellers. LitHub will work to drive sales of featured books to indie booksellers. John Evans, co-owner of Diesel, a bookstore in Oakland, Larkspur, and Brentwood, Calif., said, “I’m really excited about it.”
Authors were also a draw at WI 10. Some traveled for days to be at the conference. Reif Larsen came from Scotland to sign his second novel, I Am Radar; Linus Larson and Daniel Goldberg came from Sweden for State of Play. Though there was a lot of excitement for dozens of authors, such as Wendell Berry (Our Only World), Aline Chanesian (Orhan’s Inheritance), Sally Mann (Hold Still), and Garth Risk Hallberg (City on Fire), the writer with the most fans, judging by line length, was picture book author and illustrator Carson Ellis (Home).
Despite the abundance of education, writers, and booze, in the end, what mattered most were the opportunities to make connections. As first-timer Emily Hall, who last year purchased Main Street Books in St. Charles, Mo., with her family, commented, “For a rookie bookseller to be surrounded by people who’ve been in the business for years is such an invaluable experience. This is the melding of the great minds of the industry. To be able to be a part of it is a very formative experience for a young bookseller like me.”