Authors, Readers Connect at Indie Bookstores Nationwide on Indies First

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After months of promoting Indies First on Small Business Saturday on social media, author and Indies First spokesperson Jason Reynolds spent the day, November 25, at three of his local independent bookstores. The best-selling author of YA and middle-grade novels was greeted by throngs of youthful fans and their families at East City Bookshop and Politics and Prose at The Wharf in Washington, D.C., and One More Page Books in Arlington, Virginia.

“We had so much fun,” said Laurie Gillman, owner of East City Bookshop, which welcomed Reynolds to the store for Indies First. “There was a crowd of people who wanted to meet him. By the time we finally cut off the questions, he had talked for more than an hour. And people would have sat there all day listening to him, he’s such a great speaker.”

These scenes of authors interacting with readers and fans repeated across the country as hundreds of authors volunteered at hundreds of their favorite independent bookstores in support of Indies First on Small Business Saturday. Since American Booksellers Association announced Reynolds as the 2017 spokesperson in August, he has been encouraging his followers on social media to turn out for the day using the hashtags #indiesfirst, #localstacks, and #shopsmall.

Donna Wells, director of the children’s and teen department at Politics and Prose, said the message was received by the fans waiting for Reynolds to arrive at the store. “There were a lot of teens that came. There were a lot of educators and librarians that came,” Wells said. “He’s just a joy to spend time with and to talk to. It was great.”

Perched on a director’s chair beside a display of eight of his books, Reynolds spent an hour and a half answering questions and talking about how he wasn’t much of a reader as a child but grew up to write books that tell the stories of young people, including the newly published Long Way Down (Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books), the story of a boy who must decide in the space of an elevator ride whether to avenge his brother’s death.

“He’s really easy to talk to and really appreciative of what kids bring to the table. He tells adults to spend time with them and get to know them, and that’s what he tries to do as well,” Wells said. “We had kids as young as seven there with a parent or an aunt, who said, ‘I know they aren’t old enough for his books, but I want to get one for when they are ready.’”

Eileen McGervey, owner of One More Page, said her store was packed with fans who came for a chance to give Reynolds a hug, take a selfie with him, and ask questions about his writing.

“I know it was the end of a very long day for him, but you wouldn’t have known that,” she said. “He took pictures and selfies with people. He was answering everything people asked. He’s so authentic. That’s what speaks to people.”

Reynolds called the experience of volunteering at the three bookstores “a blast” in a post on Instagram. “Got to spend time at @eastcitybookshop @pandpwharf and @onemorepagebooks with a bunch of great people. A day well spent. But like I said at every bookstore, this can’t be the only day we gather. It can’t be a hashtag that we use to make us feel better one day a year. Our locals and indies (in this case, bookstores) need us all year. And furthermore, we need THEM,” he wrote in the post, which received more than 1,000 likes.

Reynolds is the fifth spokesperson for Indies First, which was started by the American Booksellers Association in 2013 after author Sherman Alexie volunteered as a bookseller for a day at Queen Anne Book Company in Seattle, Washington.

Janis Segress, Queen Anne’s co-owner and manager, said that authors connecting with fans of their work remains the heart of Indies First, as it was in the beginning.

“[Alexie] showed up for four hours on a Saturday in 2013, and our sales were up 30 percent in those four hours,” she said. “It’s a huge help for our bottom line. It was pretty amazing. Of course, he’s so gregarious, people just love him. He’s a great role model for all authors.”

That experience led Alexie, the author of the award-winning The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers) and a recent memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me (Little, Brown and Company), among other titles, to propose the idea to ABA for a special day when authors would become booksellers in stores across the country.

“We do support our authors so much,” Segress said. “It’s so great to see them give up an hour of their time to support their store.”

Indies First also remains a day when booksellers often report a boost in sales from shoppers excited by the magic of meeting their favorite writers.

Open for a year and a half, East City Bookshop observed sales rising for its second Indies First. “We were up 25 percent over last year’s revenues on Small Business Saturday,” owner Gillman said. “We had about triple our average normal Saturday sales. It was a good crowd all day. People were just happy to be there. Our neighborhood didn’t have a bookstore for a number of years. Every day, we hear, ‘We’re so glad you’re here,’ and there was more of that.”

Amanda Sutton, marketing and events director at Bookworks in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said that it was a “very busy day” with customers coming out to interact with authors and listen to local music.

Sarah Bamford Seidelmann, author of Swimming with Elephants: My Unexpected Pilgrimage From Physician to Healer (Conari Press), and Daniel Gibson, author of Skiing New Mexico (University of New Mexico Press), were on hand at Bookworks in the afternoon. Later on, local indie folk musicians Lara Manzanares and Eileen & the In-Betweens played.

“A lot of our customers say they don’t do Black Friday at all. They wait until Small Business Saturday because it’s important for them to support local business,” Sutton said.

This year, Small Business Saturday sponsor American Express reported that 43 percent of American adults — 108 million consumers — shopped or dined at a local independent business on November 25.

Seven in 10 U.S. consumers are aware of the campaign to encourage shopping at Main Street merchants on the Saturday following Thanksgiving, according to the 2017 Small Business Saturday Consumer Insights Survey, released Monday by the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) and American Express.

Among those who opted to shop and dine at an independent business, 64 percent cited their desire to support their community as the reason for spending money locally.

“We have a lot of locals, and our regulars came out,” Bookworks’ Sutton said. “We also had some new customers who had seen our promotions. Sales-wise, we were on track with what we did last year. Small Business Saturday is about four times our daily sales, and that kicks off our holiday shopping season.”

Michael Barnard, owner of Rakestraw Books in Danville, California, said his store was packed for Indies First in part because of the popularity of the store’s visiting author, naturalist Obi Kaufmann, who wrote The California Field Atlas (HeyDay). “We blitzed through 50 copies of his book,” Barnard said. “He grew up here, shopping at the bookstore, so it was kind of a different spin on it.”

The 608-page book boasts 300 full-color maps and illustrations and sells for $45, boosting the total sales. “Having Obi here made the difference for the day,” he said. “Selling 50 copies of a $45 book, there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Having a popular author — especially one who dramatically opens his shrink-wrapped book with a bowie knife at book signings — brings a spark to Indies First. “It adds extra energy,” Barnard said. “Customers are super aware of Small Business Saturday. It inspires me to plan extra programming. It makes for a really fun day.”

The cash register was busy as well. “We were up over last year,” Barnard said, with the number of transactions up 10 percent and sales up 20 percent.

Taking advantage of special discounts offered by publishers for Indies First has been a boon, he said, as have the signed copies of popular works that publishers are making available.

Signed copies of George Saunders’Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House), Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow (Viking), and Jeffrey Eugenides’ Fresh Complaint: Stories (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) have been selling briskly, Barnard said.

“This is the time of year that you’re running the race you train for all year, so it’s nice to have it pay off,” he said.

Bookseller Katie Garcia of Star Line Books in Chattanooga, Tennessee, said customers turned out to meet Brooks Benjamin, author of My Seventh-Grade Life in Tights (Delacorte Books for Young Readers), and Hannah E. Rials, author of Ascension (Aletha Press).

“We had a great day gearing up for the holiday season. It was our busiest day in a very long time,” Garcia said. “Sales were probably up about 20 percent from last year, which was a nice surprise for us.”

Benjamin and Rials worked behind the counter and helped customers find books. “People were excited to come into a space and have someone curate suggestions,” Garcia said.

Rials is also a part-time bookseller at Star Line when she’s not attending college at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. “The two of them hosted a roundtable conversation with a nice crowd of folks in our YA area downstairs,” Garcia said. “We had snacks and treats and lots of shoppers that day.”

Maureen Palacios, owner of Once Upon a Time in Montrose, California, got a boost in sales when a local TV newscast featured her store in a report on Small Business Saturday.

“While I was still on the news, the phones were ringing and people were calling in to buy some of the items mentioned — even calling our Southern California store from Vancouver, British Columbia, as apparently the TV feed is broadly disseminated,” she said. “That was the best three minutes of free ‘local’ advertising we could ever had imagined.”

Five authors were in attendance at the store, and Palacios said sales of their books hit records. “Our sales were up a whopping 32 percent, and our receipts grew 53 percent over the previous year,” she said.

Customers were invited to enter raffles and give a wheel a spin for a chance at gift cards, bookmarks, and advance reading copies of books.

She sold 20 copies of Ann Whitford Paul’s If Animals Kissed Good Night (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) after mentioning it makes a great baby shower gift. “Ann was pleased as punch,” Palacios said.

Author Gwen C. Katz brought WWII-era goggles to show off while she signed copies of her YA novel set in that time period, Among the Red Stars (HarperTeen).

Chocolate treats were also a hit with shoppers. “I always say you have to keep your strength up as you’re shopping,” Palacios said. “It’s just a festive atmosphere. You can’t get that online.”

Sunday was also “pleasantly busy,” which gave Palacios a good feeling about the rest of the holiday shopping season. “I haven’t been this optimistic in a long time,” she said.

Neighborhood Reads in Washington, Missouri, had a double mission on Indies First. Owner Dawn Kitchell, who opened the store just five months ago, had planned a roster of events with authors published by Reedy Press, a St. Louis press specializing in local interest books.

After a five-alarm warehouse fire destroyed Reedy Press’ inventory of 200,000 books, Kitchell turned the day into an opportunity to encourage her customers to support the business. She had already ordered a supply of books anticipating the holiday and so had volumes on hand for the authors to sign.

The Reedy Press authors who turned out were Cameron Collins, Lost Treasures of St. Louis; Amanda Doyle, Missouri Almanac; Bill Hart, Historic Missouri Roadsides; Brendon Steenbergen, Mizzou Sports Through the Ages; and Jo Ann Kargus, Route 66 Splendor.

Customers interested in titles that sold out could buy a gift card featuring the book’s cover and information about how their purchase is helping a small business get back on its feet after a disaster.

“Customers came out and bought their books,” she said. “I got a lot of positive feedback. People are still calling and asking about the books.”

Kitchell said that she’s already looking forward to next year’s Indies First based on this year’s experience. “We had a great crowd of people who were definitely out to support local businesses,” she said. “Prior to this, our busiest day was our grand opening. It was our busiest day in our five months open. That was great news.”

Source Booksellers in Detroit, an independent bookstore that specializes in nonfiction, celebrated Indies First with a selfie station honoring the “Superheroes of Small Business.”

Customers were encouraged to pose with a cutout of Stacy Mitchell, the co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and post the picture on Twitter or Instagram to enter the #shopindiesfirstsweepstakes, a special giveaway this year from the American Booksellers Association and Penguin Random House.

Between November 15 and November 26, Twitter and Instagram users who tagged a U.S. independent bookstore and used the hashtag #shopindiesfirstsweepstakes were entered to win $1,000 worth of books from Penguin Random House. There will be five winners selected in a random drawing in December. The bookstores named in the winning posts will also receive $1,000 worth of books to be donated to a local nonprofit.

“It went over really well,” said bookseller Alyson Jones Turner. “We had props that helped everyone enter the #shopindiesfirstsweepstakes. We had a little line for the selfie station midday.”

On hand for three hours in the afternoon was Jean Alicia Elster, author of The Colored Car and Who's Jim Hines?, both published by Wayne State University Press. “She was a delight to have in the store,” Turner said. “During her visit, we sold all 20 of the copies of her books that we had in the store. She even visited our selfie station.”

Turner said sales nearly doubled for this year’s Indies First compared to a year ago. “We were delighted to have a busy store that day,” she said. “We kept the selfie station up for an extra day before and after IndiesFirst/Small Business Saturday to drive more entries in the sweepstakes.”

Pam Pescosolido participated in Indies First for the first time this year after buying The Bookloft in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in 2016.

Jeffrey L. Diamond did a “meet and greet” that day with customers and signed copies of his latest book, Live to Tape (Page Publishing, Inc.).

Pescosolido said sales were as strong as a year ago. “We gave away gift bags full of goodies to customers who spent at least $100, and also had an author in the store,” Pescosolido said. “Between Black Friday and Indies First, we had a great weekend in sales.”