Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Chronicle: Emerging Leaders Night Out in Brooklyn (with paparazzi shots!)

I'll admit I was a little nervous yesterday about the long-awaited Emerging Leaders Night Out, as I always am before a party. Then I thought "Who am I kidding? All we have to do is turn up and drink beer! If people are there and beer is drunk, we will have a success."

And so we did.

I'm no Gawker, so forgive my shoddy photography skills and believe me that we had a great turnout and a good time was had by all. Not everyone who sent me an RSVP managed to make it out -- it was Tuesday night, it's New York, and life interferes. The upside was that in the crowd of about 25, everyone got a chance to meet everyone.

The Brazen Head, our chosen location as a Brooklyn landmark and great beer bar, came through with some drink bracelets that gave everyone in our party happy hour prices all evening long. (I got to pass out bracelets, and felt like those posh girls at the entrances of clubs... except having more fun.) The only downside to the cheap drinks was that everyone had to buy multiple rounds to make the minimum on their credit card tabs... which only meant that lots of people were buying each other drinks.

I got there a little before the official 7:30 start time, and Andy Laties of REBEL BOOKSELLER fame had already arrived -- the man made a heroic 3 1/2 hour drive each way just to join us! (and to visit his cohorts at Vox Pop, of course). I had the pleasure of introducing him to Annie Shapiro, bookselling veteran and newly ensconced in my old job at Labyrinth Booksellers. Here they are engrossed in book talk in the Brazen Head window seat.

There were lots of first-time meetings, and lots of old friends as well. Booksellers and publishers mingled freely, as well as some folks who don't fall neatly into either category. Steve Colca, until recently a bookseller, joined us after his first day at Norton, and I shot him chatting with Jessica Fjeld from Atlas Books.

I have a couple of other pictures, but Blogger and I are not seeing eye to eye on picture posting at the moment -- maybe I can get them up later somehow. In the meantime, you'll just have to imagine John Mutter of Shelf Awareness chatting with Sean from Parson Weems, Ben from FSG, and Amanda from Good Yarns bookstore in Hastings, NY; my coworker Allison smiling next to her partner, Todd Robinson of Thuglit; and the ALF himself mugging with Johnny Temple from Akashic Books. I didn't manage to get any photos of my co-mastermind, Richard Nash of Soft Skull, but he's all shellshocked from coming back from his honeymoon to the one gazillion tasks of an indie press, so he'll probably thank me.

The crowd ebbed and flowed and waxed and waned throughout the evening. I heard conversations about the Brooklyn Book Fair in the fall, about the history of Norton's relationship with B&N; about the changes in sales force structure at FSG; about the challenges of putting out a monthly or weekly or daily literary publication; about successes and problems at everyone's workplace, with suggestions and encouragements offered. Of course, there was plenty of regular bar conversation as well, and a great deal of laughing. And Sarah Pocock at Labyrinth taught me a miracle cure for hiccups.

In deference to its being a weeknight, the last of us hit the road a little after midnight. As they left, nearly everyone made a point of expressing enthusiasm for being able to meet their cohorts in this setting, and a hope that we'll do it again.

I spoke this morning to Karen Schechner, a reporter for the ABA; her piece on the event will probably appear on Bookselling This Week on Thursday. The conversation helped me clarify my thoughts about the evening a little bit. Like the national Emerging Leaders Project, our local effort has few concrete goals at the moment in terms of changing the industry. Its primary function is to create community among those who WILL be changing the industry. New York bookstores, despite their close proximity to each other and to the publishers, can cultivate a kind of isolationism. Our regional trade association, NAIBA, is always very short on New York bookstores as members, which I can't help but think is a result of that go-it-alone mindset. I'm hoping this first ELNO will be a step toward redressing that, toward helping us all to take advantage of the combined knowledge and skills of our fellow bookworkers in the trenches. Publishers are a big part of that too; our relationship with them can make our businesses succeed or fail, and they need to know what's happening with us as well. Their insights and enthusiasm about books and bookselling can be both a valuable asset, and a really interesting way to pass an evening.

Yes, this is a kind of business networking. But it's also just about making friends with people who probably have a great deal in common with you. What I (and I imagine most of us) love about bookselling is the quality of life; it's a profession with a great capacity for joy and satisfaction. Enjoying the company of like-minded others is part of that. And thinking of each other as peers and resources, not as competition, is another part.

And yes, Richard and I are already talking about having another ELNO. We're thinking maybe one a quarter would be about enough to build buzz and include those who couldn't make this one, without having it become a burden for us or those who might want to attend. We'll see where the interest is, and start thinking of the future. (After we nurse our hangovers, of course.)

In that vein, I'd love to open it up to this community and see what you think about the future of Emerging Leaders in New York. If you were there last night, what was great about it? What would you have liked to see that you didn't? If you're local and you didn't make it, how come? How can we make it more accessible to everyone? What should we be trying to do as Emerging Leaders, or is it enough for now just to make introductions and compare notes and buy each other drinks? (Thanks for those, by the way...) Feel free to complain or praise anonymously.

I hope last night's event was just the beginning of a new scene (for lack of a better word) in which we can make things happen. I'm looking forward to seeing you all again!