This year’s Winter Institute, an annual conference put together by the American Bookseller’s Association (ABA), was held in January in Seattle, Washington. Its purpose is to gather together independent booksellers from across the country for a series of lectures, panels, and general commingling—a way for booksellers from differing backgrounds to educate each other and reaffirm solidarity over a concentrated four-day period. Each year the conference is held in a different city with a strong independent bookselling presence, in which case Seattle proves itself as a worthy host city for Winter Institute. The conference, with an attendance capped at 500 booksellers, would be celebrating its ninth year; as I approach my sixth year in bookselling, I would be attending Winter Institute for the first time.
I consider myself a career bookseller. I’ve worked in bookstores ranging from big to small, corporate to independent, overseas to stateside, west coast to east coast. I’ve gone from the largest bookstore in Europe to a bookstore whose total square footage measures less than the former’s biography section alone. I first applied because I wanted to be paid to be around books. Somewhere around the three-year mark I decided I was still in it because I didn’t know how to do anything else. At six years, while I still may not know how to do much else, it is no longer the main reason I still work in a bookstore. Sometimes I still wonder what the main reason is, especially since there are times where the job drives me crazy. It always takes me a while to realise that those two thoughts aren’t mutually exclusive, but in fact share the same answer: I care a lot about it.
Winter Institute 9’s opening reception was held at the Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle’s most famous bookstore, an institution as well as an independent. The bookstore moved into a much bigger space in 2010, and tonight was the night when a lot of booksellers, many of whom had heard so much about Elliott Bay before, would see it for the first time. Booksellers feel most at home in bookstores, and the air, though stuffy from hundreds of travel-worn booksellers crammed into one space, was filled with a relaxed joviality. I tracked down an old colleague from my California days at DIESEL, A Bookstore. She had a few bookselling years on me, but it was her first time at Winter Institute as well. When we worked together, we were essentially just regular booksellers, responsible here and there for added tasks. Years later, I manage the sales floor of my shop and she does the children’s book buying for hers and suddenly we’re both professionals.
Also there were DIESEL’s owners, my former employers, who—I realise now that I live on the opposite coast—are quite famous in this small but not-so-small community of independent booksellers. Of course, running multiple bookstores for twenty-plus years with a high level of integrity and good humour (essential when one invests one’s livelihood in something others think is ‘dying’) will earn you something of a respectable reputation.
Hours later I would sit in the same room as the owner of Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, Illinois, as part of a discussion group about effective decision making. She shared a story that made headlines in the bookstore world in 2009, when Anderson’s was forced to cancel a scheduled event with political activist Bill Ayers—a polarising figure nationwide and even more so in Illinois—amidst a barrage of threats to the bookstore’s building and staff. After coming to the realisation that the bookstore had fallen victim to an orchestrated vocal protest, Anderson’s attempted to rectify the ugly episode by holding a townhall-style meeting to discuss freedom of speech, the likes of which Anderson’s felt suffered the most throughout the ordeal. Five years later, the owner of the shop expressed that she still wished she had gone ahead with the original event. The bookstore community that the ABA helped form is full of people like that, who simply want to do right by their communities.
Then again, you don’t necessarily need legend or longevity to earn a good reputation, which is a testament to the close-knit support system of the ABA. When I told people where I worked, many responded, ‘Everyone knows about Greenlight Bookstore,’ and we’ve only been around for about five years. Same goes, even more so, for Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, one of the newest indies, having just opened in March of last year.
In 2010, the ABA announced a growth in annual membership from the preceding year, the first time that had happened in almost two decades. The forces responsible for this twenty-year decline were tantamount on their own and catastrophe as a team: from the early 1990s onward independent bookstores did all they could to survive the emergence of big-box chain bookstores, followed by the advent of Amazon, followed by the economic recession of 2008, followed by the rising popularity of e-books. Against those odds, the ABA reported membership had again increased in 2013 with 43 new bookstores, while sales have equaled last year’s, which were up from 2012. Not only are new bookstores like Literati opening and being embraced by their communities, but established bookstores like the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont, and WORD in Brooklyn, New York, have opened second stores in other cities. DIESEL, in fact, opened their fourth store last July.
These are important statistics considering the fact that the collective public still cannot help but associate independent bookstores with the statistics that otherwise dominated the past twenty years. Those statistics—bookstore closures, drops in sales, any number in comparison with its corresponding statistic in 1990—were all nails in the coffin for the bookstore in the mind of the general public, and even, to keep the metaphor going, as we slowly rise from the grave, it is difficult to mention the word bookstore without having to discuss its plight.
The plight of the bookstore, as a topic, is now something I’ve come to admonish. It shouldn’t be a surprise that booksellers might prefer talking about something else, but the strange thing is how everyone else cannot help but talk about it. ‘Bookstores are important… Bookstores are essential to community, to neighbourhoods… We don’t have a bookstore in our neighbourhood… Bookstores are dying…’ Of course, not everyone is aware of the plight of the bookstore, and many of those people buy their books elsewhere or don’t buy books at all. But some people who do know about the plight of the bookstore are aware of it only for its negative miasma. At the till, they might ask our well-being as if we’ve just been dumped by a long-term partner, or diagnosed with a terminal illness. Some might inquire about it with morbid curiosity. ‘So what are guys doing now with all the e-books and things?’ they might ask, smiling for some reason. One person seemed to expect some sort of grovelling thanks from me because he bought a book from my shop for the ‘more expensive’ price. Years ago, as a novice bookseller, I acted rather militantly in my defence of the bookstore, trying to use its plight as a way to gain support. I no longer do that; I’ve finally come to understand that there is a certain kind of dialogue that proves little worth and makes little difference. More so, too much of that dialogue can even prove harmful. Negativity is like smog: if there is too much in the atmosphere, it’s bad for your health.
One big reason Winter Institute has proven itself effective is because everyone for the most part knows why they are there. Even I, though uninitiated and confused, knew on a general level that I was there to learn. The ABA knows which issues to address and which topics to cover because each person on the ABA Board of Directors runs his or her own bookstore. Each is aware that the landscape of bookselling continues to evolve. From what I have been hearing, there has been something of a youth movement in the last couple of years, an observation the older booksellers regard with a lot of hope. ‘A few years ago, you’d go to these things and see nothing but grey hairs,’ one of them said. ‘And now, every once in a while, purple!’ We are here to learn from each other. As a young bookseller, I would never know how to handle the situation that happened at Anderson’s, nor have I ever experienced the reality of having to open—or worse, close—a bookstore. At the same time, booksellers my age are heading the ‘Making Social Media Work for Your Store’ panel, and older booksellers are asking them for help, or simply to be so kind as to explain just what the hell Pinterest is. And still, there were booksellers older than my parents that spoke with more exuberance about a book than some of the twenty-somethings in attendance. If it is the ABA’s job to put booksellers in a room together, it is naturally the love of books that keep us there. The ABA knows the importance of keeping such enthusiasm alive, which is why sales representatives from different publishers are invited to Winter Institute to present some upcoming titles. The independent bookseller is the person of the hour (or in WI’s case, four days), and the sales reps know this. I’ve had more than one sales rep express their admiration for the way we stay together, and I’ve had more than one sales rep ask if having them around at Winter Institute was okay, if we didn’t mind it so terribly much. ‘As long as you keep buying us dinner,’ I told him.
Also invited were some 30 booksellers from other countries around the world. My experience in international bookselling was limited to a stint as a temporary clerk in large chain stores in the UK. Not only was this before I became aware of the plight of the independent bookstore, but also before I knew what an independent bookstore was. In 2012, I attended a different booksellers conference, this one not put together by the ABA. At a panel focusing on international bookselling, booksellers in Western Europe were asked questions about the state of the bookstore in their respective communities. While poor England had been suffering near takeover from online retailers and big-box sell-everything department stores, spokespeople from both France and Germany still for the most part adhered to the ideal notion that there should be a bookstore in every neighbourhood. In certain areas of France and Germany, there actually was. The audience, made up almost entirely of American booksellers, let out a collective gasp, like a child being told a fairy tale and then quickly remembering it wasn’t actually true.
The purpose of the panel wasn’t really to learn anything. None of the questions, and as a result none of the answers, were steered toward anything constructive; rather, the panel’s purpose seemed as though it was to tell us, ‘Look how bad it is here,’ which wasn’t altogether helpful. The reasons it was ‘bad over here’ and ‘still good over there’ were large, monumental reasons, ones that involved important people with lots of money and power, and they were reasons that booksellers alone knew better than to attempt to overhaul. If that panel’s purpose wasn’t to deflate us, its result definitely did.
The presence of international booksellers at Winter Institute had a much different purpose. They came to share their experiences in retail climates that were similar to ours in some ways and drastically different in others. I met one bookseller from New Zealand who seemed just happy to be there, the conference’s positivity practically reflecting off his face. ‘It’s great how you guys stick together,’ he said. ‘And I thought Kiwis were good at that sort of thing.’ Another bookseller, a bookstore owner and ABA board director, responded, ‘Well, we really don’t have a choice.’
Of course, there are worse things to discuss than the plight of the bookstore, especially since the subject, after all, initially arose from community concern, which has raised the awareness needed to keep our businesses viable. But part of the danger in the over-discussion of the bookstore’s plight is that so much talk occurs that you no longer hear any of it, the words lose all meaning, nothing actually gets done, and worse of all, the phrase ‘bookstores are dying’ now comes with a shrug and two extra words: ‘Well, bookstores are dying anyway.’
In many cases, people are more willing to support a viable independent business to be a part of some positive, driving force in the community than charitably patronise a struggling independent business where one’s good intentions may ultimately feel futile. In this case, a bookstore’s reputation is actually quite important. One key to survival is convincing people that independent bookstores are capable of survival. It is then that they can expect the strongest support.