Given the highly charged atmosphere following Donald Trump’s election as president, it came as little surprise that Winter Institute 12, which began on the same day that Trump issued a temporary executive order banning travel from seven countries with Muslim-majority populations, turned into the most political bookseller gathering in recent memory.
Trump’s actions created a sense of urgency that extended to issues that have roiled the bookseller community for years, particularly its lack of diversity. “America’s a different place,” ABA CEO Oren Teicher said. “We’re part of that. This was more political [than previous years’ Winter Institutes]. But it’s about how stores respond to that and the changing [climate in] America.”
Two talks early in the conference, which was held at the Hyatt Regency Minneapolis from January 27 to 30, captured booksellers’ and publishers’ attention and helped move it away from focusing solely on bookselling basics. On the afternoon before Winter Institute’s official opening, Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation, addressed the inaugural meeting of the Independent Publisher Caucus, founded by Tom Hallock, associate publisher of Beacon Press, and Dan Simon, publisher of Seven Stories Press. She told indie publishers that it is time to get beyond merely talking about diversity. “I think we’re leaving writers and readers on the table,” Lucas said. “How do you get a diverse staff? You have to do the work. Not by starting a committee. This is embarrassing. It’s actually shameful how homogeneous this community is.”
Many of her words were echoed the next morning by Bad Feminist author Roxane Gay in her opening keynote. Rather than speak about her new story collection, Difficult Women, Gay addressed diversity and making bookstores sanctuaries. “This is the state of most industries, and particularly contemporary publishing. People of color are not asked about our areas of expertise, as if the only thing we are allowed to be experts on is our marginalization. We are asked about how white people can do better and feel better about diversity or the lack thereof.” Rather than offering absolution, Gay called on booksellers to do the work to make the publishing industry inclusive and to make brown, black, and disabled readers feel welcome in their stores, particularly at this political juncture.
“You’re smart, passionate book people,” Gay said. “You can forego the distance of needing to be taught what you can learn through trial and error. You can figure out how to be more inclusive in all ways. You can get political. You can get uncomfortable. You can remember that you are not just selling books. You are providing sanctuary. You are the stewards of sacred spaces. Rise to the occasion. Rise.”
Much of the passion that both Gay and Lucas put into their talks was channeled by booksellers at the ABA Town Hall, which drew roughly 350–400 booksellers, or more than half of the 654 attending the conference (overall attendance was up 30% from previous years, when it was capped at 500). Many came with prepared remarks or calls for action: to make the ABA more inclusive and to make Winter Institute more reflective of the outside world.
“It’s been a disconcerting juxtaposition, to contrast the updates in my Facebook and Twitter feeds with the largely business-as-usual panel topics and programming we’ve been engaged in here,” said Christin Evans, co-owner of the Booksmith in San Francisco and a director of Kepler’s in Menlo Park. “The Bay Area is erupting in almost daily protests. My request is that ABA open up [a] discussion of what stores are doing and thinking about doing now.” She also took exception to ABA’s stance to defend, on free speech grounds, Simon & Schuster’s decision to publish Milo Yiannopoulos’s book Dangerous.
Denise Chavez, co-owner of Casa Camino Real in Las Cruces, N.Mex., offered to serve on an advisory committee for the ABA so that it can diversify. “I deal with racism daily,” said Chavez, who gets at least one call a day from people who tell her that it’s un-American to have an answering machine message in Spanish.
Hannah Oliver Depp of Word in Jersey City and Angela Spring, who is opening a bookstore in Washington, D.C., spoke in alternating sentences on diversity. “As the independent bookstore community grows, we need more diversity for owners and staff. We challenge you [the board] to make diversity not just symbolic, but systemic,” they said. The two are founding members of Indies Forward, an organization formed to help booksellers share resources and information.
Other booksellers such as Noëlle Santos, who is looking to open the Lit Bar in the Bronx, N.Y., encouraged more booksellers to participate in the ABA’s Abacus study. According to Santos, realtors and lenders don’t want to just see a report that only reflects how the best stores are doing, they want a picture of bookstores across the spectrum. Single mother Maria Stasolla, manager of Ye Olde Book Shoppe in Warwick, N.Y., wanted to know why the ABA couldn’t provide health insurance, a topic that also came up at the Independent Publisher Caucus.
The morning after the town hall, ABA president Betsy Burton, co-owner of the King’s English in Salt Lake City, thanked booksellers for an “amazing” meeting. As a result of the questions raised there, the board will create a task force on diversity and increase the diversity of the Booksellers Advisory Council. “We are one organization and want to be inclusive,” Burton said.
While Burton was making her announcement, a second meeting took place in another part of the hotel of a loosely organized group of about 50 people calling themselves Booksellers Resist. Led by Depp and Spring, along with Anna Thorn, general manager of Upshur Books in Washington, D.C., and Lacy Simons, owner of Hello, Hello Books in Rockland, Maine, their goal was to talk about how to work together in Trump’s America and how to be inclusive. “One of the most important things,” Thorn said later, describing the meeting, “was [to end up with] action items and not just discussion.” She encouraged those who want continue the conversation in Indies Forward’s Slack group to request an invitation by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Despite the fact that the convention programming focused on best practices for increasing margins, selling used books, and managing store brands, and included numerous opportunities to meet authors, the overwhelming theme was running a bookstore during changing times.
“There is more political energy at this Winter Institute than I’ve ever seen,” said Jessica Stockton-Bagnulo, co-owner of Greenlight Books, which has two stores in Brooklyn, N.Y. “I’ve never been to a town hall that’s so exciting. It’s partly the reaction to Trump’s America. It feels so urgent to people, even the stores that have never been political.”
While many found the conference “energizing,” Ruth Liebmann, v-p of account marketing at Penguin Random House, found “galvanizing” to be more accurate. “If I had to pick one adjective to describe this Winter Institute, it would be galvanizing for booksellers, publishers, and writers,” she said. “From the town hall to the editorial sessions to the ad hoc sessions in the bar, it seems like everyone is leaving with mission and excitement.”