International literature is what my store aims to share with my customers and my community,” says Linda Alvarado-Arce, owner of People Called Women, a mobile feminist bookstore out of Toledo, Ohio. Alvarado-Arce is heading to this year’s Guadalajara International Book Fair (FIL) as one of three recipients of Books Across Borders travel fellowships. “I don’t think I would have been able to attend this fair without the fellowship. It was such a beautiful surprise.”
In 2016, I founded Books Across Borders (then called Bookselling Without Borders), a bookseller travel fund aimed at helping U.S. booksellers visit trade fairs abroad. Our idea at the program’s inception was simple: by expanding and strengthening global connections in the literary and bookselling community, it could empower booksellers to access, understand, and more effectively promote international and diverse titles. Booksellers, so our thinking went, who were better connected with their global counterparts and with the international book trade would also be in a better position to put books by international voices into the hands of their customers in the U.S.
In its inaugural year, the program sent one brave bookseller from Bozeman, Mont., on a whirlwind visit to the world’s biggest trade book fair in Frankfurt, Germany. After that, the publisher-funded initiative grew rapidly and, in the first five years, we provided travel fellowships to 45 booksellers from stores big and small, urban and rural, in more than 20 states.
In addition to funding fellowships to international book fairs, BAB also introduced weekslong bookseller residencies in Rome and India. And, by 2020, it was working with partners abroad to bring foreign booksellers to the U.S. on a sort of exchange program—a “bookseller Fulbright,” if you will. There seemed to be no limit to the opportunities for travel, learning, and exchange that BAB could profitably provide booksellers in the future.
Everything came to a halt, however, in March 2020, when Covid-19 stopped BAB in its tracks. After an initial period of adjustment, the program used the cessation of travel to do some housekeeping, first by forming a 501(c)3 nonprofit and then by relaunching.
As the pandemic and travel restrictions stretched into fall 2020, and then 2021, we scrambled to keep the network of contacts and the community of like-minded booksellers alive via online events, podcasts, newsletters, and much more. While these activities were necessary and meaningful, it was always the person-to-person contact, the travel—the experience of being lifted out of one’s routine and put down in a different country, immersed in different ways of thinking about the world of books and the cultures of reading—that made the program special. Only recently have we been able to get back to that core mission.
Now, thanks to continuing support from our publisher partners and Ingram Content Group, and in partnership with Publishers Weekly, BAB is back and supporting three travel fellowships in 2022. There are plans to grow the number of fellowships to about a dozen in 2023, with applications opening in January. A curated itinerary of events and meetings caters to individual bookseller needs and requests at each of the fairs that BAB works with.
This year, Alvarado-Arce will travel with Verlean Singletary and Luis Correa to FIL. “It’s my first-ever book fair,” Alvarado-Arce says. “I am hoping to learn things that I do not know, to gather new ideas, and to build friendships with other booksellers that will assist me in my bookselling journey.”
“I know I have quite a big blind spot when it comes to international voices,” says Correa, who is operations manager at Avid Bookshop, a curated and community-driven store in Athens, Ga. “As much as I try not to be swayed, I’m still very influenced by the marketing of American publishers. I’ve had my heart set on attending FIL ever since I first learned about this fellowship, and I’m expecting it to be a completely eye-opening experience.”
Singletary’s Da Book Joint is a BIPOC-owned store in a refurbished shipping container in the Bronzeville area of Chicago. “We specialize in Black and brown titles,” she says. “We want to show our children that people who look like them write books, and those books have characters who look like them. I want to provide the titles that are in demand in my community and learn about literature from other countries, and this fellowship will give me an opportunity to do so.”
Both Singletary and Correa believe they can learn a lot by attending FIL, with its large offerings of Spanish-language publications and over 1,000 hours of author and professional events. “International literature, particularly from Latin America, is very important to me, as it helps me explore my own heritage and a world history that I was not taught in school,” Correa says. “Avid’s customers tend to value diversity, and while we’re a general bookstore carrying a wide range of titles, our inventory is driven by our booksellers’ tastes. In my case, that means that we stock a lot of queer books and works in translation. At the fair in Guadalajara, I’d love to get in touch with anyone who is doing work with queer literature in Latin America.”
Today, BAB is supported by its industry and media partners, and by partner publishers Catapult, Counterpoint, Soft Skull, Europa Editions, Histeria Books, Other Press, Princeton University Press, Two Lines, NorthSouth Books, and the Independent Publishers Caucus. We hope to expand both the pool of supporters and the range of activities in 2023.
Michael Reynolds is the editor-in-chief of Europa Editions and the founder of Books Across Borders.