Connection to community is at the heart of what we do and who we are in independent bookstores — every one of us. In times of trouble we provide safe haven, yes, and also infinite resources in terms of wisdom, escape, and therapy in the books on our shelves. But it is community itself that is our beating heart — the friends and the unknown but like-minded (or differently minded) people we all encounter on the floors of our stores, the interchanges among and between us, usually but not always based on books.
Just as we did after 9/11, we are again witnessing the extraordinary importance of our bookstores, the key role we can and do play when people NEED to come together — whether to heal, to understand, or simply to be with one another. There is no better way to underline our connection to our communities than by emphasizing the celebration other retailers label Small Business Saturday but we call Indies First. By using Indies First as a way to reach out to the community and to remind them why we are important to them and they to us — especially in times of trouble. How inextricably conjoined we are, and how our mutual connections heal fractures and bind up wounds, bring us together when we’re falling apart. As one person in this recently finished and infinitely painful (whatever your politics) election said, “We’re stronger together.” And we are.
Our community extends beyond our borders, of course, as my recent attendance at the Frankfurt Book Fair forcibly reminded me. Booksellers and publishers worldwide meet, confer, exchange ideas and best practices, whether about how to best display books or how to create new municipal policy initiatives or what new programs might benefit not just booksellers but publishers and authors as well, just as they do at the Winter Institute, BookExpo, or our regional trade shows, bettering us individually and as a whole, enhancing the future of books themselves as we jointly foster one another.
Ironically, despite all that I learned from my fellow booksellers from across oceans and around the world, nowhere in the giant meeting of booksellers that was the Frankfurt Book Fair was the possibility of enhancing the future of books more evident, at least to me, than when we sat down individually with some U.S. publishers (although since most of them are owned internationally, this is a misnomer anyway). Not just because two parts of the industry were attempting to draw together in the interest of books, but because that interest spread to ALL books. Because we were regarding books themselves as a community. Not as the all-important “what’s new and exciting” and “all the rest,” but as frontlist and backlist together, all worthy of fresh marketing and good shelf-placement, all capable of generating interest — and income. Seems to me that this last idea of community, a community of books, old and new, strengthening one another as they make (or re-make) their way out into the world, could forge the crucial link to what we all long for: a cohesive and connected universe of books.
In the perhaps prosaic but sound advice of my mother when our dreams became nightmares or our plans were trumped (forgive the pun) by the plans of others and we found ourselves unmoored, ready to withdraw or even to give up: “Just put one foot in front of the other.” And we always have. That’s exactly what we independent booksellers did in the ’90s, when it seemed our dreams were turning to ash. What we did during the recession. What we’ll keep doing: moving forward in our own communities one step at a time individually and nationwide as a group; moving forward with publishers, coming together nationally and internationally; moving forward in the community of authors and of readers, building an industry-wide web of connection to one another and to the books we all love, new and backlist alike. A way to not only survive but also thrive — moving forward one step at a time, like we always have.