Wi15 Education: Innovation Arena

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The 15th annual Winter Institute in Baltimore celebrated innovations within the bookselling industry as three booksellers gave individual presentations on a range of topics that highlighted the impact stores can make on their communities and the larger world. Danny Caine, owner of The Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kansas, spoke about how he turned social media activism into increased sales. Ramunda Young, owner of MahoganyBooks in Washington, D.C., gave a stirring talk about why black books matter. And Lisa Swayze, general manager of Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca, New York, discussed her co-operative, community-owned bookstore and its implementation of store ambassadors. Logged-in booksellers can view the video from the Innovation Arena session on BookWeb now.

April 27, 2019, was a fateful day for Caine. Prior to then, he didn’t have much of a social media strategy. On that day, however, there was an incident with a customer. She was buying a pile of books but noted to the sales clerk that she was not buying one hardcover in particular because she could purchase it cheaper on Amazon. Caine’s office was in earshot of the conversation. “I decided I didn’t really feel like staying quiet about it. So I dusted off the Twitter login,” he said. Several tweets later, Caine had covered issues about pricing, what the extra cost of these books could bring to the world, and the store’s mission. “I woke up the next morning and saw it had really exploded,” he said.

Caine spent the next day engaging with people on Twitter. Things developed from there. The Chicago Tribune called and then published the column “Sure, you could buy that book online for $15. But here’s what that book really costs us.”  He gained 4,000 new followers that month, with a total today of more than 10,000. “All of a sudden, I have a platform,” he noted.

He then looked at everything he did with social media and advocacy as having two purposes, he said: “Creating change and also making sure the change drawer was healthy.” One thing he really wanted to do was drive sales to the website. Any time he tweeted about a book, he posted a link to the website. Through deliberate effort, his online sales tripled from 2018 to 2019.

“For the first time in our store’s history, a pretty significant percentage of our sales were coming from online,” he said. Encouraged, he wrote on open letter to Jeff Bezos, a thesis statement of about 800 words, which he developed into the zine How to Resist Amazon and Why. Within two weeks, he had made 1,000 copies. Having quickly outgrown his ability to publish at such a high demand, Microcosm Publishing eventually made its own edition. “I think there’s something amazingly attractive and powerful with a small business that has a strong voice — and a platform to get that voice to many people,” he said.

The purpose of MahoganyBooks was to answer the question: How do we make black books accessible? “We specialize in books that are written for, by, and about people of the African diaspora. That’s it. No more,” said Young. Formerly a community relations manager at Barnes & Noble, Young noticed author events rarely featured people that looked like her. Customers would ask for books by African-American authors, and the store wouldn’t have the inventory. Growing up in Oklahoma, Young never saw herself reflected in the textbooks she read in school. “For kids to walk into a bookstore and see themselves as Superman or as Black Panther, or as Cinderella, or as any character that reflects them — there are studies after studies after studies that show the power of books that have characters and faces that look like you and your ethnic group, how it impacts your self-esteem, and how it impacts your self-confidence,” she said.

Young encouraged booksellers to sell books reflective of the community they serve and beyond. “Reading is a revolutionary act,” she said, noting that slaves were hanged because they wanted to read and that today, two-thirds of those incarcerated are illiterate. Young is trying to shake the narrative that black people are only represented as slaves, people of struggle, dangerous, stupid, or uneducated. I’m A Brilliant Little Black Boy!, for example, is an important alternative to expose children to, she said, and Assata by Assata Shakur and Nile Valley Contributions to Civilization by Anthony T. Browder are books from college that changed how Young saw herself and history. “As bookstore owners and booksellers, you all are on the frontline of making these types of books accessible,” she said.

In fact, MahoganyBooks is located in Anacostia, a neighborhood in D.C. previously without a bookstore for more than 20 years. “I want to impress upon you how important it is that you all carry some of the titles that can help change how kids see themselves, how adults see themselves,” she said.

In 2011, after 30 years and many incarnations, Buffalo Street Books almost shut its doors until community members came together to keep the store running. In 2017, they nearly went out of business. To invigorate the store and connect more with the community, they came up with a campaign called Ithaca is Books, a play off the well-known slogan “Ithaca is Gorges.”

“The basic, initial idea is just we are going to ask people in our community to become ambassadors for the bookstore,” said Swayze. For the last two years, six ambassadors have been selected each year — community leaders, teachers, librarians, and writers — to represent the store. One of their commitments is to participate in an interview. During his interview, bookstore ambassador and Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick commented, “I read my way out of poverty long before I worked my way out of poverty.” Ambassadors also recommend books that are displayed in the store. “We are deliberately reflecting the interests and expertise of our community members,” said Swayze.

Ambassadors can also participate in ways personal to them. Dr. Nia Nunn, an associate professor at Ithaca College of Education helped facilitate a Well-Read Black Girl book club. National columnist and Ithaca local Amy Dickinson came in every Saturday during the holiday season to recommend books and promote the A Book on Every Bed program. This year, the store took it a step further and asked customers to purchase an extra book to be donated to a nearby food pantry for families to give to their children for the holidays. As a result of these initiatives, things are improving, noted Swayze. “For the first time since the store became a co-op, we made a profit in 2019. And it’s also important because the philosophy, the goals we had for Ithaca is Books are now just part of our ethos — part of how we want to be seen in the community, how we are seen, who we are. So it’s very powerful to see that happening,” Swayze said.