Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Chronicle: Book Nerd Weekend, Part 2

And now, the rest of the NAIBA trade show.

Friday

Okay, first the omissions. I neglected to mention that as we drifted into the dinner on Friday night, we were greeted warmly by members of the NAIBA board of directors: past president Sheilah Egan (who directs children's literacy programs now), executive director Eileen Dengler (who is not a bookseller but an incredible organizer – one of her previous jobs was putting together BEA practically single-handedly), Rob Stahl of Colgate University Bookstore (whom I apparently usurped as the youngest member of the board, and who is a great conversationalist and reader as well as fierce competitor… but more of that later), incoming past president Lynn Gonsher of Tudor Bookshop & Cafe in Kingston, and incoming president Joe Drabyak of Chester County Books & Music (who took me aside and told me that I'd made a mistake weeks earlier on this blog: I am most definitely NOT the only non-owner on the board, as Joe and Rob are both mere employees as well. Joe said so many other nice things about the blog and our community, though, that I felt only momentarily dumb, and I apologize here for that mistake). I also asked around about alternate means of transportation home on Sunday (since some bus issues meant I was looking at getting home at 1 AM), and got a wonderfully kind offer of a lift from John and Betty Bennett of Bennett Books; Betty's on the board so would be staying late on Sunday as well. (The Bennett family featured largely in the weekend, as I had a long conversation with their daughter Carolyn Bennett in her capacity as Bookstream employee and Emerging Leader, and I met daughter Whitney Bennett at the HarperCollins booth and sat next to her at Saturday dinner. What an amazing book industry family, huh?)


Saturday

Continental breakfast was offered at 8:30, and Joyce and I groaned our way downstairs shortly after that (we did NOT make it, sadly, to the tour of Valley Forge at 8 AM). After filling up on eggs and danishes and scrounging for coffee, all the booksellers made our way to an adjacent conference room for an amazing keynote presentation with Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade, the two powerful women who founded Politics & Prose, Washington D.C.'s pre-eminent bookstore, in 1982. The conversation was moderated by Parson Weems sales rep Chris Kerr, who did a great job of drawing out the story of their meeting, their struggles and triumphs, and the very different but complimentary personalities that make Politics & Prose the place it is today. Carla was the one with the idea, and the force of her idealism, will and decisiveness is evident in almost everything she says; Barbara was the one with the experience, and her wry practicality is an element just as necessary to a crazy venture like an indie bookstore. Starting with just the two of them, the bookstore has grown to a store with 60 full time employees, 15 store book clubs, class and trips, hundreds of off-site events per year, and one of the most outstanding lineup of (especially nonfiction and political) author events of any store I can think of. Obviously, it was an inspiration to listen to them tell the story of their success despite the naysayers, and from what I hear the question-and-answer session they offered later in the day was even more informative. I hope we can feature other long-standing indies in future trade shows, if only to give the rest of us a sense of the community and traditions that we belong to, and as a way to envision the different recipes for success.

Then it was time for the Pick of the Lists, where publisher sales reps get to tell us the books they're excited about for the current season. This sounds like the same thing they do when they visit our stores, but not every store actually sees these reps, and this time they're not trying to sell us on anything but their favorites, and as one bookseller noted, we ordered these books a season or two ago and it's good to be reminded of what's coming out now. Eric from Random House, apparently recovered from Thursday night, pitched some great ones, as did reps from Simon & Schuster, Hyperion, Harper, and others. I have the full list of books they recommended back at the store, but a few I remember are THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS by John Connolly (young adult fantasy, my weakness), THE BOOK OF LOST WONDERS (strange and wonderful book already on our staff picks), a book (whose title I forget) that's sure to be a hit about smuggling a puppy out of Baghdad (there seemed to be a glut of dog books recommended for this season), and several books combining essays and reminiscence with recipes, a new genre for which I'm sure there will soon be a name and an anthology.

And then it was on to the educational sessions. As I kept my ear to the ground of public opinion, the main complaint I heard about those was that there wasn't enough time to attend them all (click here for an idea of the options). I agonized before finally deciding to go to a tutorial session on Above the Treeline, a brilliant data analysis system that's being used in lots of indie stores to see what's selling section by section and compare stats anonymously with other stores. We use it at my store and I know it's got a lot of potential, but so far I'd only poked around in it; Rob Steele showed us all how to look at bestseller lists from indies, pre-order lists, and lists in different categories to see what you're missing or have too much of, and create order and return lists accordingly. It was very wonky bookseller stuff, but probably one of the most practical things I did over the weekend.

Then, I gotta admit, I returned to my hotel room for a nap (have I mentioned it had been a long week?) and some phone calls before attending a 4:30 session on "New Books for New Audiences." Jack Buckley of 9th Street Books in Wilmington, DE gave an eye-opening tutorial on urban lit/street lit/ghetto lit, which he describes as "escapist fiction" whose audience is mostly African-American women and young people. There are logistical issues in getting these books (which can do wonders to bring in new readers), since many are not distributed through traditional channels, and Jack gave us some tips on where to find the hot sellers (though he left the ethical issues of carrying books often focused on crime, drugs, guns, jail, and sex up to us – as he should). Then the amazing Mark Siegal, publisher of First Second Books, gave a presentation on the history and current state of the graphic novel, pulling together the development of the genre in the U.S., Europe, and Japan, and even handing out a list of the truly great graphic literature currently available for help in stocking our sections. He was preaching to the choir for me, the big ol' comic book geek, but there was plenty of new info in there, and it was good to be reminded of the exploding potential of graphic novels from someone who's actually putting their money where their mouth is and creating beautifully produced volumes from the top artists and writers currently at work.

By 6:00 the sessions were mostly over, and the trade show floor opened up for a brief preview of tomorrow's longer floor time. I grabbed a glass of wine and wandered among the tables, trying to resist the exciting books and giveaways on display, at least until tomorrow. (While I didn't observe it myself, apparently the most persistent problem at book trade shows is unscrupulous folks grabbing books off the publishers' tables on the assumption that they are all to be given away, when sometimes there are only enough copies for display and this, well, theft has ruined the table for the remainder of the show. People can get a little crazy where "free" books are concerned.) I met up briefly with some other booksellers and said hi to some reps before it was time to adjourn to the Moveable Feast.

The Moveable Feast is a brilliant invention. Booksellers sit and eat, while with each new course a new author comes to the table and talks about the book they're currently promoting. (The authors get to eat beforehand; c'mon, we're not sadists.) Then periodically the authors at each table stand up and (supposedly briefly) introduce themselves to the room at large with a microphone. This gives us a chance to "meet" about 50 authors we might otherwise never encounter, and spend some time talking to four or five of them. Some were witty, some dragged on, some were my taste and some not, but it was a great tool for potential handselling to all manner of readers. I got to sit with a couple of romance novelists, a first-time published writer(Asali Solomon with what sounds like a great collection of short stories, GET DOWN, ), and Aviel David Rubin, author of BRAVE NEW BALLOT, who despite his protests of being a computer programmer unaccustomed to public speaking, was mesmerizing on the subject of electronic voting machines and their dangers. I also snuck away to give a hug to Chris Bram, author most recently of EXILES IN AMERICA, and long time regular customer (and friend) at Three Lives; it was great to see him in this context of other writers and booksellers.

As dessert was consumed (the cake was the best part of the meal), the inimitable Joe Drabyak (who hosts scads of wacky events at Chester County) announced he'd be hosting the Quiz Bowl in the adjoining room. Trivial pursuit is taken very seriously in my house, so I was all about the literary trivia challenge. I corralled Amanda Lydon into joining my team (though I think her inner geek was just waiting for the invitation) and we were joined by a bookseller who turned out to be a mystery expert whose name I cannot for the life of me remember (if you're out there, remind me!)

Rob Stahl, however, had the luck to snag for his team Arthur Phillips, author of PRAGUE, THE EGYPTOLOGIST, and a new book, ANGELICA, coming out in the spring, which he described (in one of the wittiest author speeches of the evening) "Turn of the Screw meets The Usual Suspects" – and then begged us to use the phrase for handselling but not let it get back to him, since he would lose all of his pretentious author cred (sorry, Art, but payback hurts). He is also, apparently a trivia buff.

While our team pulled ahead in the early stages (prompting hamming-it-up Joe to tell me I really am a book nerd, and John and Betty on another team to remind me not to upstage my ride home), the later rounds were a close race between our two teams, until Rob & Arthur's team pulled away decisively in the round on author initials. (Anyone know what E.E. Cummings stands for? P.G. Wodehouse? G.K. Chesterton? Neither does anyone else, except apparently Arthur Phillips.) Though Rob had nearly killed himself falling out of his chair trying to answer "Make Way for Ducklings" in an earlier round (fierce competitor, I told you), he survived to see his team win the day. By that time we were so tired from laughing and shouting and trash talking (Joe says we should see it when they hold the quiz in a bar) that we were happy to shake hands, and head up to bed. A seriously good time had been had, I think, by all.

Sunday

(This one isn't as long, don't worry.)

Sunday morning is the traditional Breakfast of Champions, though certain of us hardly felt champion-y at 7:30 in the morning. Over our coffee and bagels, various booksellers announced the winners of NAIBA's regional book of the year awards. BEASTS OF NO NATION by Uzodinma Iweala won for best adult fiction, TEAM OF RIVALS: THE POLITICAL GENIUS OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN by Doris Kearns Goodwin for best adult nonfiction, FANCY NANCY by Jane O'Connor and Robin Preiss Glasser for best children's book, and REBEL ANGELS by Libba Bray for best young adult book. There were numerous charming moments during the proceedings (Jack Buckley's wife and partner Gemma Buckley donned gloves and a tiara to present FANCY NANCY), but my favorite of all was Libba Bray's "Ode to Independent Booksellers", which I hope to publish here soon. She worked in an indie bookstore in Texas as a teenager and has a serious soft spot for the craft.

The rest of the breakfast was taken up with the NAIBA public members meeting, which I won't bore you with at all, except for the part about new board members/positions: Joe Drabyak stepped up as new president, Lucy Kogler of Talking Leaves in Buffalo as Vice President, and Pat Kutz of Lift Bridge Books in Brockport as secretary/treasurer. New board members were yours truly, sales rep Tim Hepp of Simon & Schuster, and Harvey Finkel of Clinton Bookshop – all of us eager to get more involved in our community.

Sunday's big attraction, of course, was the trade show floor. From 9:00 to 3:30 booksellers ran wild among the publisher tables, placing orders, talking about new lines and titles, and just trying to remember that they had to lug every luscious freebie back home with them. I managed to make it home with just one suitcase, one shoulder bag, and a gigantic sombrero given out by Jet Lag Travel Guides, the publishers of Moldovia, Phaic Tan, and now San Sombrero (disclaimer: NOT REAL PLACES).

Around 11:00, Amanda, Tim and I slipped out for a talked-about visit to Chester County Books and Music, which was within driving distance in Tim's car. Tim has called on the store as a rep for years and knew his way around, and Joe had sent instructions to the booksellers left behind to treat us right; they were recovering from a trying event with Dr. Phil and his wife the night before, but were unfailingly kind.

I honestly had no idea how BIG an indie store could get! Chester County is around 50,000 square feet, including music store and restaurant, as well as whole rooms for travel and events. Amanda and I wondered around with our mouths open, commenting on the brilliance of Joe's staff picks displays and themed tables, the amazing abundance of back office storage space, and how neat everything seemed to be despite its size. We had lunch in the New Orleans-themed restaurant (thank you, Simon & Schuster), and I bought a giant paper street map of Brooklyn, which I hadn't been able to find at home. I wish we'd had more time to witness the inner workings of the store, but I quizzed Joe some about it afterwards (80 or so employees, started out in a space about one-tenth the size, owners are amicably divorced, devoted full-timers make up the core of the staff, events can pull crowds into the thousands, etc.). Once again, inspiration for the accomplishments and tenacity of indie bookstore owners overwhelmed me; I'm grateful to Tim for the idea of visiting and for chauffeuring and tour-guiding, Amanda for giving me another bookseller to bounce things off of, and Joe for keeping an eye out for us young folks in general and passing along his knowledge.

We returned to the convention center, and I got a signed copy of my current read, THE SUBWAY CHRONICLES, but I found myself pretty much done with the show around 3, and sat at a table with Sheilah Egan and a couple of other booksellers, including one woman who's about to open up a store in the Ridgewood session of Queens, NY. We decompressed and ate delicious chocolate-toffee cookies from the new cookbook BON APPETIT while we discussed the show, our stores, how to get foreign language books, and other topics only a bookseller could love. It was kind of a lovely ending to the event. And then the exhibitors began to pack up and it was time for the board meeting.

Being a director has its perks: namely, free coffee, fruit, and juice during the meeting. Seriously, I was thrilled to be a part of the debriefing, which I'll spare you the details of, again; the consensus was that while the venue was less than ideal, the show itself went quite well, though there are lots of ideas brewing to make it even better next year, and to supplement our offerings to members with additional events like the Trunk Show and April's Emerging Leaders event. We'll talk more about all these things in our board retreat in October. Tim, Harvey and I were welcomed and our input encouraged; someone even complimented me on "good participation" afterwards.

Then nothing left but the ride home in the Bennett's van, which was kind of like Carla and Barbara's presentation all over again, but even nicer: I got to hear about how the Bennetts started up in the business (he was a lawyer, she worked in education before they started their New Jersey store about 17 years ago, if I remember, and have expanded and thrived since then), and get their invaluable advice for my own startup dreams. And we talked about weddings (mine and others), and the traffic to New York on the weekend (Yankees game means no point in attempting the George Washington Bridge), and Betty's birthday (for which I hope she got a lovely reception when she got home). They dropped me off in lower Manhattan (after I promised I'd treat Betty to a rice pudding at Rice to Riches someday soon), and I took the 3 train home to Park Slope and the ALP, getting some funny looks for that sombrero along the way.

We came, we heard, we ate, we learned, we quizzed, we bought, we stocked up, and most importantly, we talked. The one-on-one interactions of a regional show are really the most valuable thing this kind of meeting has to offer, in my opinion, and I got my fill this weekend. There's no way I could write about everything that happened, but everything that happened made me grateful to be part of this community of booksellers. Thanks so much to Eileen and everyone else who helped to put the NAIBA trade show together; see you next year!