Monday, April 10, 2006

Chronicle: Emerging Leaders On The Rise in Phoenixville

Hoo boy! What a confab we had at the Emerging Leaders NAIBAhood meeting yesterday. About ten booksellers – new store owners, prospective owners, those new to the business, and young booksellers like me – met up in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania to ask questions, share ideas, express our hopes for the future, and just get to know our cohorts in the book biz. We sat around over sandwiches for about three hours, and talked up a storm!

To give credit where credit is due, the event was primarily organized by the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association (NAIBA), and the eats were sponsored by Bookazine, an independent book distributor.

I was lucky enough to hitch a ride to Phoenixville from NYC with Eileen Dengler, the secretary of NAIBA, who organized the trip. It's about a two-hour ride, and we chatted happily all the way. I've recently been asked to join the NAIBA board, a totally flattering offer which of course I've accepted – it will be wonderful to help with NAIBA's work of bringing booksellers in our region together, and offering them resources to help them get better at what they do. Eileen helped fill me in on the details of what that job will entail, and we compared notes about the state of our personal libraries (teetering with too many books, or course).

The booksellers gathered at Bridge Street books, located on (surprise) Bridge Street, the main drag of Phoenixville. The store is owned by Suzanne Kelly, a young alumni of (now closed) Jean's Books in a neighboring town. She opened the shop in July of 2005, and as I learned in talking to her before others arrived, she did it all without a huge nest egg or rich relative – she found loans through the Small Business Administration, ingeniously using the books in her inventory as collateral (since they're all returnable to the publisher, they count!) I told her Andrew Laties (REBEL BOOKSELLER) would be proud, and she wrote down the name of the book so she could look him up herself.

Suzanne's shop is light-filled and homey, with a great kid's section, a wonderful selection of literature, nonfiction, and gift books, intelligent sidelines, and beautiful windows. And lucky her – she lives upstairs! My favorite touch was that Suzanne displayed write-ups of recommendations from both staff and customers. Customer picks is a brilliant idea – everyone loves to know what their neighbors are reading.

Soon the booksellers and other attendees started showing up – we were joined by Ron, a wonderfully exuberant sales rep from Bookazine, and John Mutter, the force behind the indispensable Shelf Awareness newsletter. I was thrilled to talk to John – it's like talking to the New York Times or Rolling Stone of the bookselling world. He took careful notes, so he may be reporting on the event in SA in the next few days.

After everyone arrived, we relocated across the street to Steel City Coffee, a great local coffee shop (with a cool stage where Suzanne has held some of her large author events). What a great partnership – the indie bookstore and the indie coffee shop! Finally we made with the formal introductions. In attendance were Jim and Becky of the three-year-old Seeds of Wisdom Books (West Grove, PA); Angie of young art-oriented bookstore Voices and Visions (Philadelphia, PA); Harvey and Rob of Clinton Bookshop, open 28 years but under Harvey's ownership for about three (Clinton, NJ); Susan of the young and super-successful New Age bookstore Breathe Books (Baltimore, MD); Kenny, whose Manhattan shop is closing after 40 years but who plans to open a new shop in New Jersey; Steve and Shelly, who plan to open a bookstore in about two months; and Wendy, who's still in the earlier stages of planning a store.

Along with Suzanne, Eileen, me, Ron, John, and Baker & Taylor sales rep Erin (who arrived later), these book folks didn't need an agenda or list of topics to get the conversation going. We jumped from topic to topic, including initial financing, opening mistakes, author events and other events, corporate and school sales, staffing, rents, partnerships with local businesses and trade organizations, the difference between New York City stores and other stores in the region (more on that in a later post), customer reward programs, managing credit, discounting, competing (or not) with Amazon and the chains, networking and advocacy, and a hundred and one other things. I took some notes, but I took away a lot more in terms of seeds of ideas, and in new relationships with my colleagues who are passionate about the same things I am.

And in the end, I realized that so much of what we learned from each other revolved around relationships. For independent booksellers, nothing is more important in order to keep our businesses strong. We need to develop and grow and nurture relationships with teachers, corporations, authors, publicists, our towns, our credit managers, other local businesses, sales reps, trade organizations, libraries, and of course, other bookstores. This meeting helped us all to internalize that, and it was also part of making that happen. I can't wait to talk more with Angie about her great business plan, Susan about her brilliant event lineup, Harvey about his super collaboration with the Chamber of Commerce, or Suzanne about her fantastic lease arrangement. And I know I've got ideas and insights to offer them as well.

As we left the coffee shop, I thanked one of the baristas for hosting us. "Thanks for being a great crowd," he said. "So what are you guys here for?" I told him that we were a group of independent booksellers from all over the mid-Atlantic, who get together to share ideas.

"That's really cool," he said. And it was.