Booksellers Celebrate Indie Vitality at Energetic, Enthusiastic Winter Institute

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The American Booksellers Association’s 13th annual Winter Institute will come to a close this evening after drawing a record number of booksellers, publishers, authors, and international guests to Memphis, Tennessee.

About 680 booksellers from 370 stores joined more than 130 authors, 96 publisher partners, and 60 international guests who traveled from as far as New Zealand, Denmark, and Guatemala to attend ABA’s largest educational event.

An opening reception on Monday, January 22, at The Cadre, an event venue in a 1928 historic building in downtown Memphis, kicked off the institute, which continued with three full days of programming, including keynote presentations, featured speakers, educational sessions, the ABA Town Hall, and the very popular Author Reception.

ABA CEO Oren Teicher, in welcoming the packed crowd of booksellers and publishers to The Cadre, said stores in all 50 states were represented at Wi13. Noting that one in four booksellers were attending their first Winter Institute, Teicher encouraged their colleagues to make the newcomers especially welcome.

“We think we’ve created a really special program, but we know at ABA that the real secret sauce of this meeting is all of you and your willingness to share with your colleagues, friends, and new friends what it is that makes your store succeed,” Teicher said. “And we hope that the spirit of the Winter Institute that has certainly existed in Wi1 through 12 — the willingness of everybody to share and to talk and be open with your colleagues — will continue here.”

Teicher thanked Shelf Awareness for its steadfast co-sponsorship of the opening reception again this year as it has since the first gathering a dozen years ago in Long Beach, California. He also thanked the event’s lead sponsor Ingram Content Group as well as the growing roster of large and small publishers.

“There are a few more of you this year, and we are thrilled,” he said, adding, “Our publisher sponsors have sponsored 78 of you as scholarship winners and we want to thank them and welcome those winners.”

Juchole Gaines, a bookseller at Bliss Books and Bindery in Stillwater, Oklahoma, who was sponsored by Baker & Taylor, said she was excited to be at her first Winter Institute as a new bookseller and had already enjoyed advance sessions on Monday afternoon.

“I always wanted to work with books in publishing, so I got this job and I love it so far,” she said. “I’ve been to two of the meetings, and I feel like I’ve learned a lot that I can bring back to my store.”

Ingram, which is based in the Nashville suburb of La Vergne, Tennessee, welcomed booksellers to a “mix and mingle” event on Sunday that featured White Stripes singer Jack White before offering booksellers a tour of its campus on Monday.

“It was totally fascinating,” said Tami Furlong, owner of Fundamentals Children’s Books, Toys & Games of Delaware, Ohio. “What I got out of it the most is there is no fear that the print book is going away. I can’t believe I get my books the day after I order them. We went to Lightening Source, where they do 60,000 books a day, a lot of them ones and twos that they print on demand as well as the larger orders.”

Also on Sunday, members of ABA’s Diversity Task Force gathered to discuss ways to foster inclusivity in the bookselling and publishing industries. Task force member Melanie Knight of Books Inc. in Berkeley, California, said she felt “enthusiastic” after the meeting, and was looking forward to being a panelist on Wednesday’s session on buying, marketing, and hand-selling diverse books. “I felt very hopeful after it, and I think that was how everyone else in the room felt,” Knight said.

On Monday, booksellers had a choice of two regional tours. One took booksellers to Oxford, Mississippi, to tour Rowan Oak, the home of William Faulkner, and Square Books.

Booksellers who embarked on the Mississippi Delta Tour took a two-hour trip down Highway 61, the famous “Blues Highway,” with Soil author (Simon & Schuster) and Turnrow Book Co. founder Jamie Kornegay serving as their knowledgeable native guide. Along the route from Memphis, Kornegay pointed out historic civil rights and Delta blues sites, including the store Emmett Till went to before he was murdered and the grave of famed blues guitarist Robert Johnson, where booksellers were treated to a musical performance by a local blues musician. The day came to an end in Greenwood, Mississippi, with a stop at Turnrow and a traditional Southern lunch at local restaurant Fan & Johnny’s.

The Sheraton Memphis Downtown Hotel was the site of educational sessions all day on Monday, including the IndieCommerce Institute, a Principles of Bookstore Finance seminar featuring ABA CFO Robyn DesHotel and Books Inc. Director of Operations Andy Perham, and a workshop on opening a new bookstore, offered by Donna Paz Kaufman and Mark Kaufman of Paz & Associates.

After the opening reception, the Young Professionals After Party convened a packed room of self-identified new and young professionals within the book business. The highlight of the night was the Austin-based writers group Typewriter Rodeo, with three poets creating spontaneous custom-composed poems for party-goers. The after party was co-sponsored by Andrews McMeel, which will publish the group’s new book, Typewriter Rodeo: Real People, Real Stories, Custom Poems, on April 3. Other co-sponsors included LitHub/Book Marks, the National Book Foundation (NBF), and all nine regional bookseller associations.

After a toast to the young booksellers in the room by LitHub founder and Editor-in-Chief Jonny Diamond, NBF Executive Director Lisa Lucas spoke to how heartening it was to see the next generation of booksellers in attendance at Winter Institute. Their strong presence at the event, she said, shows there is a future for bookselling as a job, which, like hers, shares an essential concern: connecting a book with a person.

Three of the founders of Indies Forward, Hannah Oliver Depp, Emma Nichols, and Kim Hooyboer, encouraged party-goers to join their Facebook group to connect with their fellow emerging booksellers. Indies Forward formed last year as a means to inspire, connect, and provide resources and support for the next generation of booksellers.

The morning of Tuesday, January 23, saw the first breakfast keynote with Sarah Jessica Parker in conversation with the New York Times’ Pamela Paul. Parker, an actor, producer, and designer best known as for her role as writer Carrie Bradshaw on HBO’s Sex and the City, spoke about her life as a reader and her new imprint at Penguin Random House, SJP for Hogarth.

ABA President Robert Sindelar, managing partner of Third Place Books in the Seattle, Washington, area, speaking to his fellow booksellers to open the event, said the annual gathering has been of value to his own business.

“Over the past 10 years, I’ve been to 11 of these institutes,” Sindelar said. “When I think of the best decisions I’ve made for my company, I can easily say a large number of them have come directly either from educational sessions I’ve been to, keynote speakers I’ve listened to, or even just a conversation in the bar afterwards.”

Following the keynote, Tuesday featured a full day of programming, including sessions on social media, operating a bookstore with a life partner, and an advanced education session led by Berkeley professor and author Morten Hansen, who coached booksellers in the strategy of focusing on their strengths to increase profits.

In between, booksellers had the chance to speak with 34 business service providers in the Consultation Station and pop into one-on-one meetings with IndieCommerce staff.

Author Daniel H. Pink was back at Winter Institute to deliver the afternoon keynote, in which he shared strategies for timing business decisions for success. His newest book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, was published by Riverhead Books on January 9.

Tuesday evening wrapped up with the Ingram Drinks & Hors d’Oeuvres Open Reception followed by the Scholastic Meet & Treat After Party later that night, featuring authors and illustrators Andrea Davis Pinkney, Brian Pinkney, Sayantani DasGupta, Jessica Verdi, Kheryn Callender, and Brian Selznick. Booksellers socialized while sampling jelly doughnuts, miniature pecan pies, cookies, and banana pudding parfaits and browsing original illustrations.

Gillette Kempf, owner of An Open Book in Wadena, Minnesota, was delighted to reunite over the dessert table with Peter Albertelli of BookTowne in Manasquan, New Jersey, whom she befriended at the same event a year ago at Wi12. “This really has been the highlight of the day,” Kempf said.

Wednesday, January 24, started off with a breakfast keynote by Pulitzer-Prize winning author Junot Díaz, who spoke about his first book for children, the picture book Islandborn, which will be published in March 2018 by Penguin Young Readers.

In his opening remarks, ABA CEO Oren Teicher shared that overall 2017 book sales for independent stores were up by not quite three percent, and that over the past five years, the channel has seen a compound annual growth rate of 5.4 percent.

“We at ABA recognize that not all communities are seeing growth, despite these national trends. And we are committed to continuing to do all that we can to assist prospective booksellers, especially in underserved communities. We also recognize the continued challenges posed by the shift of retail dollars from bricks-and-mortar to online, and our advocacy on your behalf regarding a level playing field will continue as a major priority for 2018,” Teicher said. “But I do think it is important for us to note that for more than five years now, our channel has seen sustained growth — the result of your clear focus on ongoing professional development, tireless work, and continued entrepreneurial innovation.”

The ABA Town Hall Meeting later that morning, where ABA’s Board fielded questions from member booksellers, included an update from the Diversity Task Force and a discussion of numerous topics, including profitability, preorders, and the sustainability of independent bookselling.

Booksellers who didn’t get a chance to attend the Town Hall can watch a Facebook Live video with the ABA’s Teicher speaking to Lisa Sharkey, senior vice president of creative development at HarperCollins Publishers, immediately following the event.

Sharkey was on hand at Wi13 making Facebook Live videos as part of HarperCollins’ effort to encourage booksellers to participate in the publisher’s series of videos featuring a different bookstore each week. The #HarperCollinsLovesIndies initiative is in its second year, and booksellers interested in signing up can e-mail

Sharkey also created Facebook Live videos of Teicher’s conversation with Paul and Diaz’s keynote presentation

Wednesday wrapped up with the exceptionally popular Author Reception, which saw booksellers lining up to speak with their favorite writers and get signed copies of upcoming books.

Daley Farr, bookseller and events coordinator at Milkweed Books in Minneapolis, Minnesota, took a break outside the ballroom to rest before heading back inside to meet more authors.

“Meeting the authors is great,” Farr said. “We have pretty good relationships with other publishers and booksellers, so getting early copies is great. We’re usually pretty on top of that, but meeting the people behind the books is kind of the highlight of getting everyone together like this for me.”

She was particularly thrilled to meet Hieu Minh Nguyen, who has a book of poems called Not Here coming out from Coffee House Press in April. “It’s really exceptional to bring a poet out for this sort of event,” she said.

Her Milkweed colleague Celia Mattison said that it was also exciting to meet the staff at bookstores she’s long admired, such as Avid Bookshop of Athens, Georgia; Malaprop’s of Asheville, North Carolina; and Word Up Community Bookshop/Librería Comunitaria in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City.

“The thing I like the most is meeting other booksellers and bookstore owners,” Mattison said. “When we opened the store last year, we looked at so many bookstores that we admired and followed all their social media and their newsletters, so getting to meet the people who started those stores is really cool and hearing what has made their stores so legendary, not just in their neighborhood but with people throughout the nation.”

Thursday may have been the final day, but the institute did not wind down.

Author and futurist Amy Webb, a professor of strategic foresight at the NYU Stern School of Business and the Founder of the Future Today Institute, spoke about why booksellers should think more like futurists to ensure their survival and success in coming years.

Bestselling author Gary Shteyngart, whose forthcoming novel, Lake Success, will be published by Random House in September 4, delivered the afternoon keynote.

Closing the Winter Institute, the lineup for the Thacker Mountain live radio show, broadcast from the Memphis Cook Convention Center, included singer/songwriter Dar Williams, author of What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician’s Guide to Rebuilding America’s Communities — One Coffee Shop, Dog Run, and Open-Mike Night at a Time (Basic Books); poet Elizabeth Acevedo, author of the debut novel The Poet X (HarperTeen), out March 6, 2018; and Cold Mountain author Charles Frazier, author of Varina (Ecco), out April 3, 2018. Watch for further coverage of the Thacker Mountain Radio Hour and of Gary Shteyngart’s keynote presentation in an upcoming issue of BTW.

Mary Jane Barnwell, owner of The Island Bookstore on Mackinac Island and Mackinaw City, Michigan, speaking about the value of Winter Institute to her own business, echoed the voices of many of her peers. “It’s overwhelming; you are inundated with a lot of information, but all of it is useful,” she said. “You come away with a lot of ideas that help you become a better bookseller, which is everybody’s ultimate goal.”

Stay tuned to Bookselling This Week for in-depth coverage of ABA’s numerous Winter Institute education sessions and more.

Liz Button and Sydney Jarrard contributed to this report.