Thursday, December 15, 2005

Chronicle: New York Bookseller / Sales Rep Soiree

This past Monday night I attended a get-together of booksellers and publisher sales reps at Kettle of Fish in the West Village. This social event of the season was organized by the owner of Penn Concessions, the bookstore inside Pennsylvania Station -- an incredibly exuberant guy named Rusel with a talent for getting people together. He sent out an email invite, the bookselling and publishing networks started buzzing, and there was a great turnout of folks from both sides of the catalog drinking the night away and talking books, like we like to do.

Kettle of Fish is a great old divey bar on Christopher Street -- it was a frequent haunt of mine when I worked around there, and I still seek it out for the cheapest drinks and comfiest couches south of 14th Street. It's been around for ages -- there are pictures of Jack Kerouac hanging out in front of the place, next to the neon "BAR" sign (which was eventually brought indoors as the gentrifying neighbors complained about light pollution). Somehow it's also become a haven for fans of Wisconsin football and other semi-obscure sports teams -- a far cry from the posh lounges and piano bars that primarily make up the neighborhood. I was tickled that Rusel picked Kettle as the place to gather us together -- a place with a literary history, a neighborhood following, and drinks for the booksellers' budgets.

We booksellers weren't allowed to buy any drinks, though -- as is traditional, the reps (or their houses) paid for everything, and no one complained. I walked in with a rep I knew from FSG, whom I'd met up with outside. As we sat at the bar and chatted, greeting others as they arrived, a funny thing became clear: all the booksellers knew the reps, but the reps didn't know each other. And the reps knew the booksellers, but the booksellers didn't know each other. So there were a lot of introductions, and "Oh, I've heard so much about you"s, which was fun to watch. Perhaps this was the genius of Rusel's plan: it was a true mixer, with the result of booksellers getting to know each other (and reps getting to know their competition).

I met a lot of folks I'd only heard about, and had lots of good bookseller talk. Along with Rusel and his partner, I met the manager of the New York University bookstore (lamenting the students who protest "the man" by buying their books elsewhere, when NYU has one of the few remaining independent -- i.e. non B&N -- college bookstores); the husband and wife owners of Morningside Books, my neighbors on the Upper West Side (who have a great program for promoting local buying by offering discounts to customers with receipts from other neighborhood independents); the manager of Posman's in Grand Central Station (whom I felt rather awkward around, as I've considered applying for a position in that beautiful store -- aargh!); and the owner of the venerable revolutionary St. Mark's Books in the East Village, who did me the favor of introducing me to his small press and consignment buyer, Margarita.

St. Marks handles consignment books better than anyone I know -- they're open to anyone's work, yet their consignment section always looks beautiful, and people actually buy from it. Margarita and I talked about the different views of self-publishing in the U.S. and Russia, where she grew up: while we here tend to think "vanity press" when we hear "self-published" and assume it's something not worth reading, the limited opportunities for publishing in the USSR meant that most of the significant and talented authors published their own work, so for her"self-published" means "independent and revolutionary." We both got excited about the potential for small presses and self-publishing, and ideas for incorporating them into my future Brookyn indie, and she gave me her card -- I'm really looking forward to picking her brain and sharing ideas in the future.

There were also a lot of familiar faces there -- our local reps from Knopf, Doubleday, St. Martin's, Penguin, and Publishers Group West, whom we see every season around catalog time and depend on to know their lists and our stores. It was awesome to be in a room with so many other people who know what one is talking about, and have similar, though not identical passions. We shared our favorite books of the year, talked about our desires and fears about the industry, and traded inside jokes and publishing stories. A seriously good time was had by all, and I dragged myself away around ten, though I've heard since that the party went on until well after midnight.

At one point in the evening I found myself in a conversation with Ben from FSG, Carla from HarperCollins, Karen from Knopf, and Margarita from St. Mark's. My old boss happened by and joked "What's this, the kids' table?" All of us were under 35. I have to admit I felt not embarassment, but a twinge of pride -- despite the laments about the lack of a younger generation of booksellers, I was surrounded by my peers, fierce young booklovers with a passion for our industry, and the knowledge and skills to take it into the future. Today, Kettle -- tomorrow, the world!


Bookdwarf said...

I attended BEA in New York this summer and I too, found a lot of younger folks in the book business, which was refreshing. Not that the older generation is bad or anything, but the other 2 buyers at my store are old enough to be my parents. And most of our reps are older too. Sounds like you had a great time. I wish there was something like that here in Cambridge....

Andy Laties said...


In "Rebel Bookseller" I tell the story of how the Chicago shop Women & Children First started organizing groups of indie bookstores to collectively capture major author-autographing events that had been going to chain stores. While I only tell the story of one such program, in fact, there have been quite a few such collaborations let by W&CF. The formula is to identify a large enough venue for the author program, and for the collaborating shops to EQUALLY share all the books they collectively sell. Thus -- for the Hillary Clinton autographing program I described, our store, The Children's Bookstore, reaped one-fifth of all the money earned from sales of books at ALL of our participating stores. We benefitted unfairly from the much more successful sales efforts at the participating general bookstores. However -- our store participated disproportionately in actually carrying the event off. And: it was the fact that all of our stores were collaborating that made it possible for our proposal to capture the event from Borders.

This sort of collaboration is a lot easier to organize than you'd think. Because all indies share the goal not only of running great programs and acquiring additional customers, but ALSO and IMPORTANTLY, of crippling the chains! In New York City, imagine a consortium of bookstores that aggressively captures LOTS of major author events from Barnes & Noble!!

Andy Laties

Book Nerd said...

Hi Andy and Megan,

Thanks for reading and thinking about this stuff! It's great to realize that not only independent bookstores, but younger booksellers, have the potential to collaborate, innovate, and make change in our industry. I can't wait to see what we all come up with. And whenever either of you are passing through New York, I'd love to sit down over a drink or coffee and talk bookselling with ya!