Friday morning I boarded the Amtrak train (such a blissful way to travel!) for Providence, RI, to join the New England Independent Booksellers Association for their fall trade show. I was sorry to miss Thursday, which judging by the trade show schedule had a ton of excellent educational programming, but since my panel on bookstores and digital tools was on Friday, I was only there for Friday and Saturday morning. But as usual at the fall shows, a lot got packed in!
I stepped out of the cab and into the Providence convention center, made a beeline for the show floor. NEIBA is operating under a similar strategy to NAIBA's show this year, with a smaller, more streamlined trade show floor focused on "pick of the lists" and helping booksellers sell more books, rather than trying to showcase every title from every publisher. The show floor was therefore smallish and felt very manageable, even in the few hours I had to spare, but I still found myself coming away with a bag of super-useful materials (and, um, free books). Penguin had a great handout on top children's books for fall and the holidays -- very necessary to those of us who are children's book-impaired, though I love the ones I know. And indie distributor Bookstream had a whole slew of handouts with top-20 lists in major categories -- cookbooks, children's books, literature -- AND a mega-list of holiday gift ideas based on gift-recipient-reading-type, so you can answer all those tough customer questions (i.e. what should I get for a movie lover, my sports-obsessed uncle, my nephew who loves comics, etc.) I'm posting it in our back room so we can bone up on what's coming up. I bet if you email Carolyn Bennett she'd even send you one.
Carolyn and I made a date for lunch in the convention center cafe and talked about life in Brooklyn and Poughkeepsie. Then I had a working date with another expert, Heather Gain of Harvard Bookstore, who handles the store's incredible event series and was kind enough to give me some tips on creating partnerships with outside venues for major author events. Then it was off to our panel for the two of us.
Oh yeah, the reason I was there: "Doing Digital Right," moderated by the inimitable Len Vlahos and starring Robert Gray, Heather Gain, and yours truly. Len gave some background on Web 2.0 and the reasons booksellers should be thinking about not only e-commerce, but blogging, social networking, and other digital tools as well. He asked each of us panelists to talk a little about what we do, then let things flow into conversation and Q&A. Heather's been using Facebook with great success to publicize textbook buybacks and events at Harvard; Bob has seen the gamut of bookstore sites through his Shelf Awareness research; and you know me. The whole thing went by in something of a blur, but since I got a lot of lovely compliments afterward, apparently it went well. It felt like there was so much that we barely touched on, and so many additional things I wanted to say, but maybe that's a good sign -- it felt like the beginning of a conversation, not a complete picture, and I hope it inspires some folks to use the tools at their disposal to extend the mission of indie bookstores into the blogosphere.
After that I finally checked into my hotel room, took a breath, and came back to the convention center for the author reception. I got introduced to Geraldine Brooks (by the wonderful Steve Fischer, NEIBA's executive secretary and the one responsible for getting me there), and when I gushed how much I had loved her last book March and that I wrote the Publishers Weekly review, she actually gushed back about how much it means to a writer to see that first positive review in PW -- there was a metaphor about going down for the third time and then seeing the lights of the Coast Guard coming your way. I also met Rudolph Delson (Maynard & Jennica), Samantha Hunt (The Invention of Everything Else), both of whom I'll be hosting at the bookstore for events in the coming months; and Jennifer Boylan (I'm Looking Through You), who sadly is already booked for Halloween, though I thought her haunted house memoir would be a great addition to our Halloween party lineup. Chatted some more with Carolyn, her boss Jack Kerr of Bookstream, Megan Sullivan of Harvard Bookstore, and some other great booksellers, before leaving to have dinner with Bob Gray.
It had been a long time since Bob and I sat down and jawed a bit, and much has happened in both of our lives -- despite the difference in our ages, we seem to have very similar outlooks and experiences, and it was great to trade notes about our life and work in bookstores and blogs, and the unexpected turns things have taken and could yet take. We ate at Local 121 (Carolyn's recommendation), which focuses on locally produced foods -- delicious!
I then made my way to the official unofficial after-party at Trinity Pub, and caught up with Sean Concannon of Parson Weems and the lovely Wendy Hudson of Nantucket Bookworks. But either I'm getting old or the virus I've been fighting for a week and a half is still not vanquished, because I tired out pretty early and headed back for a bath and bed.
In the morning was the author breakfast, with three illustrious speakers: Ha Jin (A Free Life), Geraldine Brooks (People of the Book), and Paul Krugman (The Conscience of a Liberal). It was illuminating to hear them speak on writing in a second language, the challenges of voice in historical fiction, and the economic and political arcs of the 20th century, respectively. But I got just as much out of my breakfast conversation with my tablemate Lori Kaufmann, who works at Brookline Booksmith and blogs at Brookline Blogsmith, about everything from baseball to bookselling careers to bacon. I'm delighted to have another bookseller blog to read, and another bookseller friend to look out for at conferences!
All too soon, it was time to head back to the train, though it was nice to get home in the afternoon to the ALP. The trip sped by as I was totally engrossed one of the books I'd picked up, a YA fantasy from Dutton called Gods of Manhattan by Scott Mebus. I think the book owes a lot to Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, about the world of myth and legend that lives just under the surface of London, but its premise of a parallel Manhattan where Walt Whitman, Babe Ruth, Alexander Hamilton and other legends reign as gods was irresistible and I gobbled it up. My favorite god was Peter Stuyvesant; while Whitman is the God of Optimism, Dorothy Parker is the Goddess of Wit, John Jacob Astor is the God of Excess, etc., stodgy old Stuyvesant is the God of Things Were Better In The Old Days -- a concept dear to the heart of New Yorkers, and indeed sometimes of booksellers. Here's a typical rant from Stuyvesant:
"...things have gone downhill every since. Nothing is as good as it was in my day. The water, it tastes horrible! The cheese, inedible. The books, written by imbeciles. We had books in my day, real books, books with words in Latin! How can it be a book it if has no Latin in it? It just makes no sense!"
While Stuyvesant may be a vital part of the makeup of New York, I'm glad the independent booksellers of NEIBA don't agree with him. There are plenty of "real books" getting written, published, and put in readers' hands every day, and I'm grateful to have been a part of that process at the NEIBA trade show. Thanks to everyone -- publishers, distributors, administrators, booksellers -- who make it all happen.