Wi3: A Bookseller's Perspective

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By Tova Beiser, Trade Book & Promotions Manager, Brown University Bookstore

I was thrilled this year to have the opportunity to attend ABA's Winter Institute, now in it's third glorious year. It provides a wonderful venue to meet new friends, reconnect with old ones, glean new ideas, and recharge our batteries. The manageable size (roughly 500 booksellers) and pace (not frantic) make this an excellent place to learn as well as network. The format is perfect for taking advantage of education with plenty of less structured time included for socializing.

This year for me it all started on the Louisville Downtown Marriott's 17th floor in a king-bedded room. The city is easily navigable, public transportation runs regularly, and the residents are friendly and courteous. If I didn't have to feed my children, I might be there still.

The theme this year was "green," and all of the program materials, including the binders and the invaluable handouts contained therein, the list of attendees (a brilliant inclusion), the badge holders, and welcome bags were all made from recycled materials. Moreover, instead of printing and collating and shipping everything from New York, the printing was done locally with the help of Carmichael's Bookstore!

The opening night reception at the Muhammad Ali Center was only a short walk from the hotel. It was considerably more interesting and inspiring than I had expected, and the food and company were a wonderful way to begin the two and a half days' events.

The first day of programming began with Danny Meyer, the author of Setting the Table, who brought his theory of the power of hospitality to us in a keynote speech at breakfast on Friday morning. Meyer takes the catchall that we often refer to as customer service and separates it into its component parts, which he calls service and hospitality. Service being the checklist of what we do, and hospitality being how people feel when they are receiving service. He used the inspired analogy of a swan -- in which service was the 49 percent beneath the water that was doing all the hard work and hospitality (51 percent) was the beautiful, graceful part above the water that we see and love.

I segued right from Meyer's keynote to "Handselling: Customer Service With Results," presented by ABA's Len Vlahos and Chester County Book Co.'s Joe Drabyak, which focused on increasing sales by maximizing our most important customer service tool. Particularly fun and refreshing were the handselling vignettes, which outlined best and worst practices in several common bookselling situations and which can be viewed on BookWeb.org.

Customers come to your store for what you can offer them, and adding value to their experience is, in fact, invaluable. From suggestions like loyalty programs, to shelf-talkers written by customers (especially in the children's section, where peer reviews are particularly germane), to involving sales reps in a publisher's picks night, the session was packed with valuable ideas from both panelists and audience members.

I also found "Authorless Events: Enhancing Experiential Shopping" (led by Valerie Koehler of Blue Willow Books, Collette Morgan of Wild Rumpus, and Dave Weich of Powell's) to be incredibly helpful. Creating events that can be geared towards a variety of audiences helps to establish your store as a focal point of your community. From trivia nights to Powell's-supported Out of the Book events, to inviting a local band or a veterinarian, these events are limited only by our imaginations. Dozens of suggestions were offered and the seminar culminated with a brainstorming session.

At Friday's lunch, Gary Hirshberg the author of Stirring it Up stressed what he called "the ecological consequences of unconscious behavior" and eloquently argued that the fate of the planet is in our hands. He underlined the ability (and responsibility) of each of us to make a difference and to make a change, by quoting his friend Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, who said, "Anyone who thinks that they're too small to make a difference, has never been in bed with a mosquito." Hirshberg also used examples of businesses that demonstrate that maximizing our environmental commitment is not just the right thing to do -- it is profitable as well. It was a delicious (at least the vegetarian option was) and inspiring lunch.

"Green Retailing" presented by Congressman Jay Inslee, representative from Washington's 1st congressional district; Scott Sklar, the president of The Stella Group; and Sue Lynn of Confluence Bookstore, Bistro, and Business Center, focused on what Rep. Inslee called "the most pressing issue facing the planet." This valuable session gave an overview of what is being done (and what must be done) on a large scale as well as practical advice for making big and small changes in our operations. Sue Lynn even shared how she built what she calls "an eco-sensitive bookstore."

While some of the more interesting suggestions offered would be difficult to implement for those who do not own their buildings, there were plenty of practical suggestions, including switching to compact fluorescents, using programmable thermostats, and wrapping water heaters to help conserve energy.

"Consumer Behavior Revealed," presented by Len Vlahos, one of 12 new sessions this year, was an absolute delight! Discussed in this seminar were consumer's motivations and resultant behaviors. The highlight of this session was a re-enactment of TV's The Dating Game, which creatively and humorously emphasized that our customers behave differently at different times and we must provide service that meets their needs at any given time.

The sessions "What a Great Bookstore" and "Designed to Sell," presented by Donna Paz Kaufman and Mark Kaufman were chock full of tips to lead customers into, and through our stores, focusing on traffic patterns and eye-catching displays. They discussed the importance of reducing clutter, simplifying sight lines, creating key displays in focal areas of the store, providing clear signage, vertical displays, and a host of other suggestions.

It was often difficult to decide between sessions, all of which I found to be lively, entertaining and informative, and populated with booksellers who were articulate, thoughtful, and enthusiastic.

Lunch on Saturday featured a discussion among three leading "local first" advocates -- Bill McKibben, Stacy Mitchell, and Michael Shuman -- and it was extremely encouraging. They emphasized that the pendulum is swinging towards independents and localism, and they discussed the need to change our identities from simply autonomous consumers to members of a community that can re-imagine the world!

During unstructured times, the galley room, stocked with several dozen ARCs and finished books, was open. Featured were many of the books described in the wonderful and illuminating Reps Picks sessions. New this year was the shipping service provided by PartnerShip/FedEx (which offers ABA members a significant discount), making the transportation of those titles we could not do without, remarkably easy and unexpectedly pleasant.

Of course, one of the most marvelous highlights of the Winter Institute was the Author Reception, which consisted of more than 35 stellar authors. From old favorites like Leif Enger and Mary Roach to new favorites like Hillary Jordan and Kim Sunee, there was someone for everyone! What could be more rewarding than chatting with authors about the books you love and talking to colleagues about how to get those books into the hands of more people?

This is not my first Winter Institute and while nothing compares to the first time, the sessions seemed stronger, the atmosphere more positive, and the programming smoother than ever before. I can hardly wait to see what next year brings!