NEIBA Show Makes a Smooth Transition

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By Megan Sullivan, Head Buyer, Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Each fall, I look forward to attending the New England Independent Booksellers Association (NEIBA) trade show (this year, from Thursday, September 27, through Saturday, September 29, at the Rhode Island Convention Center). With such a stellar lineup of books this season, I was even more eager to see some of the final products, such as Alice Water's The Art of Simple Cooking (Clarkson Potter) and Andrea Barrett's The Air We Breathe (Norton). And usually, I look forward to seeing Rusty Drugan, whose death last year was a notable loss to New England booksellers. I'm honored to be the first-ever recipient of a scholarship in his name. The great thing about winning this meant that I was able to stay down at the Westin in Providence rather than having to drive back to Boston each evening. Of course, I would gladly make the drive if it meant seeing Rusty walking around the floor, something everyone mentioned missing. New Executive Director Steve Fischer did an excellent job of filling Rusty's role, however, and made sure everything went off without a hitch.

This year also saw a change in the format of the programming. NEIBA moved to a Thursday to Saturday schedule, with Thursday dedicated entirely to education, Saturday dedicated to the show floor, and some of both on Friday. The new schedule kept the show floor busier while it was open, and meant a better experience for both booksellers and publishers: fewer conflicts between education time and floor time.

Thursday saw the show open with a keynote address from Gary Hirshberg, president and "CE-yo" of Stonyfield Farm, who spoke about the forthcoming Stirring It Up: How to Make Money and Save the World (Hyperion). I had no idea that yogurt could be so fascinating. Hirshberg's basic message is that businesses need to address their environmental impact at all levels, or they'll kill their customers. He wasn't just speaking about the larger corporations, either. We all need to take stock and stop saying it can't be done. "The best way to predict the future is to invent it," Hirshberg said. That's a bold statement addressed to an industry facing consolidation and squeezed margins, especially considering that it sells a product made from dead trees. Some booksellers think that getting publishers to use recycled paper is impossible, but Hirshberg suggested that booksellers could succeed by creating more consumer demand for more environmentally sustainable books.

Later, at the Awards Luncheon, NEIBA President Allan Schmid presented Richard Russo with the President's Award for lifetime achievement, and gave the Gilman award for outstanding service as a sales representative for New England bookstores to Katie McGarry of Simon & Schuster. Russo, who has just published his seventh book, quipped that he hoped this was a mid-life achievement award. I'm pretty sure he's got at least a couple of good novels left in him. Also awarded were the 2007 New England Book Awards. All authors gave stirring speeches, but Roy Blount got me to laugh the most, when he griped that not everyone in the world is a Red Sox fan. (Just watch the away games, Roy, and you'll see how many of us there are!)

The afternoon featured programs on "Maximizing School & Library Partnerships," "Higher Above the Treeline," "Loyalty Programs," and "Career Paths for Booksellers: I Love My Job, Now What?" Perhaps the most valuable advice came from my own boss, Carole Horne, now general manager of the Harvard Book Store. She advised younger booksellers, "Every chance that you get, talk to other booksellers. At least half of what I know in the book business I learned from other booksellers." Wise advice indeed.

Perhaps one of my favorite things about NEIBA is meeting up with old friends and making new ones. It's always exciting to hear about someone opening up a new store or getting a promotion. I've been getting very involved in the Emerging Leaders Project, as I believe that in order to further the existence and growth of bookstores, we need to encourage and foster those new to the business. I don't want to sound like Whitney Houston saying "the children are the future," but meeting other people my age in the industry gave me more confidence about my career. Book retail isn't an industry that politicians discuss at high-profile summit meetings, but we still have to attract dynamic new leaders to ensure our future -- to keep bookselling alive through the 21st century. That's the Emerging Leaders goal. It seems that the more we meet, the more people attend, which is an encouraging sign.

On Friday, at the NEIBA annual meeting the new board was announced for 2007 - 2009. Friday's highlight for me was the session called "Doing Digital Right," sponsored by the American Booksellers Association. Booksellers, not always known to be on the cutting edge, are dipping their toes into the digital world. This session was offered as a swimming lesson for them, introducing new ways they could broaden their horizons with online technology. Robert Gray of Northshire Books and Shelf Awareness said it's "about taking something that's electronic and making it human."

I've also enjoyed seeing the rise of Shop Local programs. The four o'clock panel highlighted the importance of raising community awareness about these programs. NEIBA has been granting money to booksellers to form or join existing local business alliances in their regions. It's a chance to hear what works and what doesn't, as well as to show how much of a difference it makes. I know that I'm proud to shop here in Cambridge at businesses sporting "Shop Local First" stickers on their front doors. As the gatekeepers of information, bookstores in particular have the power to show how important it is to keep money in the community.

As always, the show floor hummed with energy as folks walked around the booths, looking at the fall highlights. I also used it as an opportunity to find small gems, such as MIT Press's I am a Beautiful Monster by Francis Picabia, one of Dada's leading figures. This is a beautiful volume containing some never before translated poems and prose. I also loved Transit Maps of the World by Mark Ovenden, a nice paperback coming from Penguin, which is a great find for the map geek in all of us.

Driving back to Boston, I was exhausted, but confident that independent bookstores throughout New England have the tools and the wherewithal to prosper over the coming year, especially since there were so many excellent galleys stuffed into my trunk. Of course, the Red Sox win of the AL East title may have helped as well.

Megan Sullivan is also the author of the Bookdwarf blog.

Booksellers who stopped by the ABA booth at any one of this season's trade shows are eligible to enter drawings for prizes, courtesy of ABA and BookExpo America. At NEIBA, Carol Chittenden of Eight Cousins in Falmouth, Massachusetts, won a color inkjet printer, courtesy of ABA, and Bobbi Brewer of Maine Coast Bookshop & Cafe in Damariscotta, Maine, won an iPod, courtesy of BEA.

Both winners, along with other booksellers who dropped off their business cards at the ABA booth, will be included in drawings taking place at the end of October, at the conclusion of the trade show season: for accommodations at Hotel ABA at BEA 2008 in Los Angeles, courtesy of BEA; for hotel accommodations at the Third Annual Winter Institute in Louisville in January, courtesy of BEA; and for one of 24 publisher-sponsored scholarships, including reasonable transportation costs and up to a three-night hotel stay at the Winter Institute.