“I’m just happy to see everyone” was a frequently voiced comment at the first New England Independent Booksellers Association fall trade show since 2019, which took place September 21–23 at the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence. It was a sentiment that outgoing NEIBA president Beth Wagner of Phoenix Books in Essex Junction, Vt., underscored in her report at the annual end-of-show meeting: “It feels like a miracle to be here with you eating ice cream. Here we are, tired yet hopeful, because we, the New England bookselling community, have decided we’re better together.”
Although NEIBA executive director Beth Ineson said that she had to relearn how to put on a conference after 1,000 days without an in-person show, the fall conference’s high energy and strong programming belied her self-deprecation. Attendance peaked at 484—down 24% since 2019, but still good given the ongoing pandemic.
The opening keynote saw children's author Kwame Alexander (author of The Door of No Return) in conversation with bookstore owner Jeff Kinney, author of the Wimpy Kid series. Other programming that got high marks from attendees included an afternoon keynote with Tracy Kidder on his latest book, Rough Sleepers: Dr. Jim O’Connell’s Urgent Mission to Bring Healing to Homeless People, as well as author breakfasts with adult authors, including Laurie Lico Albanese (Hester) and Joseph Earl Thomas (Sink), and children’s authors and illustrators including Tami Charles and Bryan Collier (We Are Here) and Gale Galligan (Freestyle). The closing keynote featured Grady Hendrix (How to Sell a Haunted House) in conversation with Isabel Cañas (The Hacienda).
One well-attended panel at the start of the show was intended to help new booksellers navigate the industry. Panelists included Ineson; Megan Hayden, who opened River Bend Bookshop in Glastonbury, Ct., in 2017, and is about to close on a second store; and ABA CEO Allison Hill. A number of the topics raised are of equal concern to seasoned booksellers, from what to do about carrying books by local authors to whether buying non-returnable inventory made sense for stores that want to be green. There were also sessions on understanding a profit-and-loss statement, led by American Booksellers Association CEO Allison Hill, as well as ones on succession planning, human resources, and shipping and receiving. In addition, the day-long exhibit hall drew lots of attendees, both new booksellers and publishers.
But it wasn’t only the programming or being in-person that contributed to an upbeat show: booksellers were coming off of a strong year and looking forward to a good fourth quarter. “Last year was our 50th, and it was our best year ever,” said Lily Bartels, book buyer at Open Door Bookstore in Schenectady, N.Y. She attributed strong sales to a supportive customer base that helped her store through the worst months of the pandemic and a newly renovated downtown in Schenectady; she anticipates that 2022 will also be good.
Meg Wasmer said that she is looking forward to sales climbing to $1 million in 2022, which represents more than a quadrupling of sales at Copper Dog Books in Beverly, Mass., since she and Julie Karaganis purchased the store (previously named Cabot Street Books) in 2019. They also expanded the store at the height of the pandemic in 2020.
Big increases in online sales have buoyed the numbers for Wendy Hudson, owner of Nantucket Bookworks and Mitchell’s Book Corner in Nantucket, Mass., which together form Nantucket Book Partners. Her web sales have gone from $40,000 to $400,000 thanks largely, she said, to “leaning in” to preorders for Elin Hilderbrand books and products. This online increase is in keeping with online sales jumps at Bookshop.org, which, CEO and cofounder Andy Hunter said, are now six times greater than in 2019. Bookshop also continues to add stores, and has gone from 1,000 stores in May 2020 to 1,627 as of mid-September.
Also adding to the energetic feel were the sheer number of new bookstores and first-time attendees at this year’s show, no doubt driven by what Ineson called at the panel for new booksellers, a “boomlet.” In the past 18 months, she said, nearly 30 new bookstores have joined NEIBA—more than at any other time during her five-year tenure or her predecessor’s 13 years. Some first-timers like Kira Wizner, who purchased Merritt Bookstore in late 2015, hadn’t had a chance to attend NEIBA previously, but had gone to other bookseller gatherings; others like Huck Truesdell were newer to the business. He and Jo Truesdell opened TidePool Bookshop in April in Worcester, Mass., but had planned to open the store significantly earlier, in March 2020.
Looking ahead, there is much to continue to be excited about. As Ineson noted at the annual meeting, 2023 is NEIBA’s 50th anniversary, and there will be many ways to celebrate, including an additional day at next year’s fall conference. She plans to use much of the association’s more than $70,000 net income (as opposed to the originally projected $6,000 net loss) on the 50th, including such in-person programming as state-by-state shop talk meetings. Other possibilities for the surplus include upgrading office laptops and hiring back office staff. Ineson would also like to create a new strategic plan in the coming year, and she is reviewing other options that will enable NEIBA to invest in its bookstores, given that NEIBA can’t start a separate 501(c)3 to fund booksellers as she had originally proposed.
At the annual meeting, it was also announced that the board will change for the first time since the start of the pandemic. Emily Russo of Print: A Bookstore in Portland, Maine, will take over as president of NEIBA; Kelsey April of Savoy Bookshop & Café in Westerly, R.I., Bank Square Books in Mystic, Ct., and Title IX: A Bookstore in New London, Ct., as vice president; and River Bend’s Hayden as secretary/treasurer. While Read Davidson of Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass., will stay on as New England Children’s Booksellers Advisory Council co-chair, Tildy Lutts at Belmont Books in Belmont, Mass., will step down. Kinsey Foreman of High Five Books in Florence, Mass., will work with Davidson as NECBA’s incoming co-chair.