Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Chronicle: The Unofficial Winter Institute Report

So this Thursday in Bookselling This Week you should be able to read my official report from the Winter Institute, though written in the same rambling, overlong style you've come to expect from this particular loggorheiac blogger. But only here on The Written Nerd can you read about what you really want to know about:

The partying.

Somehow I found myself drinking later and more often at this event than even at BEA with its host of publisher parties. One theory is that when one isn't exhausted by a day on the show floor there's more energy for going out. But the day sessions were plenty rigorous and intense (and in case any of my coworkers are reading, I DID learn enough useful stuff to justify you covering my shifts last week). My theory is that Portlanders are secretly way hipper than anyone in the world, and have a higher alcohol tolerance, which they inflict on folks like us hapless Easterners.

Or maybe there were just a lot of awesome people there that I don't see too often, and it was irresistible to hang out with them when I could.

I blame much of the merriness on Dave Weich, a young bigwig at the Powell's online operation with a particular devious grin. Seems like every day around 11 pm he was there asking "So you coming out?" The first evening, Wednesday, we convened on his home turf, the big Powell's City of Books in downtown Portland. (I had met Good Yarns manager Amanda in La Guardia Airport, and Breathe Books owner Susan in front of the hotel, so the posse was already beginning to gather.) I greeted with joy Len, Dan, and Avin from the ABA, Lance Fensterman of BEA, the fabulous Georgie of Tin House (whom I'd only known via email before), Megan of Harvard Books (and Bookdwarf fame), Henry of my hometown Book Court, and Sylla, Julia and Alison of the Emerging Leaders crew. We mingled among coffee and snacks, and were treated to a tour of Powell's back office; holy cow, those people buy a lot of used books. The sheer scale of the operation was astounding (over 200 employees work just at that one location), and it became a bit frustrating as I never did have time to explore the bookstore the way I'd like. Just have to go back again, I guess.

So as the reception wound down there was Dave, and he dragged the lot of us to Tugboat, one of an apparently infinite number of amazing local brewpubs in Portland. Megan and I promised each other "one drink and we're going home" (another common refrain), but those Powell's folks, and the authors they brought along, are just too much fun, and we imbibed and chattered about booky stuff until the wee hours.

Ah yes, then the Institute itself began. The Doubletree's sausage-and-egg breakfast menu (it was a week of hotel and airport food – how do business travelers do this?) helped the revival process, and Daniel Pink's presentation on the right-brain revolution was a good way to wake up. Amazingly, I was able to comprehend the numbers at the ABACUS lunch on indie bookstore financial health (and I feel yes, there's room for cautious optimism). ABA CEO Avin Domnitz's educational session on financial documents put the fear of God (or accountants) into me, though I came out speaking that language far better than when I went in. It's generally conceded that the Design session wasn't as good as was hoped – I was expecting a session on bookstore interior design, that most powerful tool of brick-and-mortar stores, and ended up getting a primer on graphic design, but it did get my brainstorming started for potential logos.

I lingered by the door of the Sales Rep Picks session, taking in the biggest buzz (GOD OF ANIMALS, check it out in galley) and sneaking off to my room for phone calls and a nap. The big author reception in the evening was great, and I found Toby of Three Lives, NYC prospective bookseller David del Vecchio, and Amanda and Lance again, while getting books signed by Nathan Englander, Frank DeFord (whom I listen to on WNYC as the only person who could ever make me care about sports), and other luminaries. There was, I kid you not, a chocolate fountain on hand at the reception; I'm not sure who sprang for that. I dipped a strawberry, but I gotta say it was not the coolest thing I saw all weekend.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to a dinner by MacAdam/Cage, along with my store's owner Sarah McNally; we taxied to a lovely restaurant, the name of which I've forgotten (there was a lot of money spent on taxis last week by out-of-towners doubting their skills at navigating the light rail). We had a great time talking with a woman from the supercool Book People in Austin, about how her store uses Above the Treeline, as well as the tabloid-worthy events involving a BookPeople employee and a deadly love triangle a few years ago. (It was all in the papers; you can Google it.) But I had to leave after the appetizers (and before any of the MacAdam/Cage authors had arrived – sorry!) to make it for the beginning of the Emerging Leaders reception at 9:30.

I should mention that I'd managed to hobnob earlier with EL founders Julia and Allison, and new Emerging Leaders Council appointees Sylla, Megan, Sweet Pea, and John (you'll have to forgive me that I can't tell you what stores each of them belong to; I don't have all their info in writing yet, the Council is that new). We've got almost all of the regional organizations represented on the Council, and as it's a very loose organization at this point we'll be soliciting lots of opinions about what we should do, who should be involved, etc.

In fact, that was the point of the EL Reception (aside from the free drinks, of course, graciously provided by Donna Paz & Associates, the booksellers school). There were of course more mingles and then a call to order and introductions (when I outed myself to the room as The Written Nerd, there was a small cheer – aw, thanks, guys!). Then we busted up into groups to brainstorm 1) how can we disperse information and reach potential ELs most effectively and 2) what does everyone want from Emerging Leaders, from the ABA, etc.? Many notes were taken, and will be compiled and acted upon; we've already got a listserve/forum going that will continue to grow. You'll hear more about this, I suspect; it could take up several posts on its own.

Anyway, at the end of that event (11 pm), there were Dave and Megan again, asking if we didn't all want to go out for "one drink" with the folks. Exhausted but willing, Amanda and I went along with Lance to another local joint, Doug Fir, a place with an atmosphere as lounge-y as Tug Boat was pub-ish. Amanda and I got into some deep girl talk over glasses of wine, and it took Megan mentioning that it was after 1 to kick in the self-preservation mode and send us back to the hotel. (Okay, you hipsters, so that's not that late by some standards, but keep in mind in my time zone it was actually after 4 a.m.)

So I missed breakfast the next morning: a first for me. (I'm sorry, ABA! But I'm planning on participating in the Strategic Planning Survey online instead.) I made it to the first ed session, Meg Smith's "How to Be the Story" about bookstore PR, which was awesome – I'm going to be looking at my notes for that and hopefully putting something together for both my current and future bookstores. More rep picks followed, which a few of us New Yorkers felt we could justify skipping; we're lucky enough to see our reps fairly often, so we get the new book scoop from them. Toby, Amanda, David and I went out in search of coffee, and found ourselves in a great diner ordering brunch; the waitress irresistibly pitched the salmon eggs benedict as "the world's perfect food" and she wasn't wrong. Over brunch I got to hear David's brilliant plan for a New York bookstore; you'll have to ask him for the details as I don't want to steal his thunder, but it made me excited about my hometown's bookselling scene, and the general level of brilliance of the prospective booksellers at the Institute.

We returned in time to catch the New Media Lunch, which was eye-opening in some ways and reinforced everything I thought in others. Reps from RH audiobooks,, Google Book Search, and O'Reilly media started their panel discussion by unanimously agreeing that print books aren't going away; the "digital revolution" will be more about "added value" and new means of reaching customers than about the replacement of paper with electrons. Wish I had taken better notes, but I suspect John from Shelf Awareness did; check out all this week's issues of the e-newsletter for his excellent reporting on the events of the WI.

My state of exhaustion may have had something to do with my failure to comprehend anything about the Advanced Above the Treeline session I went to next, but I think that has more to do with the amount of actually advanced users there were in the room, asking questions about the inventory tracking system that were way over my head. I need to poke around in AtT a lot more before I can even ask those kinds of questions. I headed up to my room for a nap, but found myself coming down again an hour later, sitting in the hotel bar with Toby, Amanda, David, Avin and some other booksellers, rehashing the Institute and the world of books in general. Realizing I needed to pack, I returned again to the room, as Susan of Breathe and John of Shelf Awareness had arranged for a bunch of us to meet for an informal dinner that evening.

The lot of us, along with Jenn of Shelf Awareness and the owner (whose name I forget) of Creekside Books, ventured out in search of a good meal. Susan, who proudly claims the phrase New Age to describe her store, had a good vibe from a Thai place we initially rejected, and I gotta say her higher self made a good choice. Shelf Awareness treated us to a good spicy meal (no hotel food this!) and good conversation flowed, as always.

Around 9 I was already late for my date with Bookseller Chick, who was going to meet me at Powell's. I reflected on the weirdness of being a chain bookstore employee in a city dominated by an indie – a little role reversal? Turns out BS Chick knows her way around the City of Books, and let me explore a little before we headed out (I even bought a book on her rec, which I'm currently devouring). We then found ourselves at a pub called Rogue (whose microbrew I've had here in Brooklyn), talking a mile a minute about her store's closing, the Institute (which she longed to attend), her future plans, my future plans, and life in Portland and Brooklyn. We left to check out a coffee shop with an innovative design she thought I should see (it was worth seeing!), and the walking tour of nighttime Portland was almost the best part. I can see how a bookish girl could find a home there, though it's no Brooklyn.

We had hoped to meet up with Bookdwarf and make it a book-blogger-chick summit, but cell phone malfunctions scuttled those plans. We ended up at BS Chick's apartment (oh, the glory of non-NY real estate!), then back in my hotel room, because we kept having more to talk about. You know how it is when you get booksellers talking, and it was great to hear about the joys and frustrations on the "other side" of the indie/chain divide, and the vast amount of commonalities in our experience and ideas. I reluctantly kicked the lady out around 2, so I could get an hour or two of sleep before I had to get up to catch my flight.

I got a cab to the airport at 4:30 with fellow NAIBA board member Rob of Colgate Books, and then found myself on the same flight with the inimitable Lance Fensterman. I'll only mention because he said it would make good blogging fodder that the first leg of the flight I was seated in the midst of a group of 8th graders on their school trip to Washington, D.C., which didn't do much for my great desire for sleep (and revived my suppressed horror of the movie Final Destination). The stopover in Minneapolis reminded me that there are places colder than New York right now (13 is bad, but -10 is worse), and I was home in the arms of the ALP in another couple of hours.

(Did you read this far? Jeez, you must be bored at work today! Writing without editing actually takes less time for me, so you get the result of my unchecked wordiness. )

As with all meetings of booksellers, I came out of the Winter Institute reinvigorated (if spirit if not in body), and grateful for the community to which I belong. Any group of conventioneers can party; not all of them have the kind of conversations, both official and unofficial, that we had last week. As Avin said in the hotel bar, the ABA just provides the space -- the booksellers create the vibe, and create it they did. Thanks to everyone who was there and made it happen – and feel free to share your stories too!