Twenty years ago, five independent booksellers in northeastern Ohio brainstormed on ways to honor those unsung heroes of the industry—publishers' reps. The five booksellers had all relied heavily upon their reps to guide them through the maze of selecting titles during that crucial first year in business.
"They were our lifeblood, our only contact with the bookselling world. We wanted to do something to show our appreciation for everything they had done for us," recalled Liz Murphy, owner of the Learned Owl Bookshop in Hudson, Ohio, one of the five booksellers. "So we decided to invite our favorite reps to a picnic."
Nearly 25 booksellers and publishers' reps gathered in a park in Aurora, Ohio, for the first annual "Party Time for Northeast Ohio Book People" picnic in June 1984.
"It should have been warm, but it was freezing," Murphy told PW. "So we built a fire and huddled around it, talking, eating, drinking and playing cards. One lady lived close by. She went home and got every coat and blanket she could find. It was grand fun."
The following year, the publishers' reps asked the booksellers to host another picnic. This time, the reps offered to pick up the tab. Once again, the picnic was held in an area park. Every northeastern Ohio bookseller and every rep serving that region was invited to the gathering.
Over the years, "Party Time for Northeast Ohio Book People" has become a summer tradition for the region's booksellers and publishers' reps. The last Thursday of June, the booksellers meet to talk shop for a few hours. The reps then join the booksellers to chat, dish the latest industry gossip and munch on picnic fare.
"We had 100 people coming for a few years, until the bookstores started closing," Murphy said, as she ticked off on her fingers a few of the northern Ohio independents that have shut their doors over the past decade: Book Merchant in Cleveland; Book Hound in Quaker Square; Chagrin Book Barn in Chagrin Falls; and three locations of Little Professor Book Company stores in the Cleveland area.
This year's picnic lured some 20 Ohio booksellers from all over the state, 20 Midwest publishers' reps (ranging from first-year reps to seasoned veterans and even a retired rep) and even a few publishers. They all gathered in the spacious outdoor courtyard of a hotel in Hudson, Ohio, near Cleveland, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of this annual event. There was plenty of food, stimulating conversation and, of course, liquid refreshments.
Charlie Boswell, a commission rep with Heinecken & Associates, has attended six of these picnics. Asked why he drove five hours from his home in southwestern Ohio to attend what is primarily a social gathering, he responded, "I go for the camaraderie, for suggestions on what to read next, for discussions of common issues, for sharing ideas which work for others and will, perhaps, work for those present. Mostly, I go because I love the people whom I know will come, and I know I'll meet new friends—some accounts and/or some reps each time."
Murphy, a driving force behind the event from the beginning, echoed Boswell's sentiments: "I remember when bookselling was a much more personal business than it is now. I remember when ABA was small enough to be held in the basement of a hotel in Washington, D.C. Everyone knew each other. This picnic gives us contact and a point of reference—it isn't just some rep who comes by once or twice a season. We're all in this business because of our love of books. It's important to get together and get to know each other.
"My favorite part of BEA and GLBA is talking to other booksellers, discussing common issues and problems, as well as exchanging ideas that work. I want to re-create that on a more personal level with this picnic," she added. "I've been in this business for 20 years, and I still get great ideas from other booksellers I talk to at these kinds of gatherings."