Linda-Marie Barrett, the new executive director of the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, wasn’t born a Southerner. Originally from the Boston area, she remained in the North for college, attending Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., and then Cornell University in Ithaca for a masters in Russian language and Slavic linguistics. Her life took a turn south when she visited Asheville, N.C., and took a job as a bookseller at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe. She stayed at the bookstore for almost 30 years, progressing through the ranks to become general manager and co-owner.
“I became a member of the SIBA board in the early 2000s and enjoyed the work and got to know Wanda [Jewell], the former director, really well,” Barrett says. “There came a time a few years ago when the opportunity arose to work at SIBA. And while I really love bookselling, I wanted to try something different.”
Barrett became assistant executive director of SIBA in June 2017 and was named executive director in March. She still lives in Asheville. Though she is no longer part of the Malaprop’s team, she hosts a long-running book club there called WILD (women in lively discussion). She has written the Barrett Sisters blog for many years with her younger sister, Diane Barrett, and is writing a YA novel, The Queening. She describes it as featuring a “contemporary protagonist coming into her power as she time travels to 15th-century Ireland and encounters the sensual world of faerie.”
As to SIBA’s immediate objectives, Barrett says, “The priority is making sure that all of the booksellers in the region get the information they need to make it through the pandemic as best as they can. We are trying to figure out how to tie book sales to virtual events, for example. These are very practical matters.”
SIBA is also looking at ways it can be even more responsive to and reflective of the times by increasing the diversity of its board, membership, and programming. “The recent civil unrest prompted [SIBA staff and the board] to research Black-owned stores in our territory and reach out with phone calls and emails to offer free membership,” Barrett says. At the same time, the board released a statement asserting its need to be “active allies to Black people,” a commitment reflected in the programming for this year’s trade show and in its Reader Meet Writer virtual author tour program.
In addition, SIBA is looking at rebranding its Lady Banks newsletter and Okra Picks program. “These two very successful bookseller-engaged, consumer-facing programs will get even better,” Barrett says, “and will reflect a more contemporary and inclusive Southern bookseller perspective on the best books of the season.” The changes will take place in November.
Barrett notes that over the course of her book career, respect for Southern booksellers, authors, and publishers has grown. “I’ve witnessed a huge positive change and ever increasing engagement in how publishers view our region,” she says. “Their support for SIBA bookstores is obvious in their regional outreach through special events—editor buzz panels, regional dinners, and now virtual cocktail hours—with the authors they tour through our stores and their support of SIBA programming at our shows and throughout the year.”
Barrett underscores SIBA’s growing national impact. “If you look with an open gaze at what’s happening in the South, you’ll see a rich and vibrant literary tradition that often transcends geography,” she says, adding, “Our influence is mighty.”