Downtown Seattle was chockablock with indie booksellers in late January, as hundreds of them flew in for the American Booksellers Association’s ninth annual Winter Institute, where they got to schmooze with authors, attend educational panels, meet with publishing reps, and best of all, talk to each other. Maybe it was the uncharacteristically fine weather that week, but their mood was entirely buoyant–I don’t think I heard a single word of complaint, just optimism and excitement about what the coming year would bring. And eagerness to get to Asheville for next year’s WI.
I had a great time doing all those things I mentioned above, but for me the best part was the bookstore tours. Buses full of visitors fanned out across the city and beyond to pay calls on local shops of all sizes and shapes; I rode on one as a local chaperone. Not sure why they called me that. Was I supposed to make sure there was no fooling around in the back? In any case, I didn’t see that. What I did see was an impressed bunch of out-of-towners. Our day included stops at Third Place, University Books, and Elliott Bay, and it was plain that the guests were pleasantly surprised that three such large stores could comfortably exist alongside so many thriving smaller ones.
Even better, my own employer, mid-sized Island Books, was on the itinerary too. We got to do something we don’t do often–show off. We have strong community support, but we usually keep to ourselves on suburban Mercer Island, and it was great for a change to open our doors to the whole country. Even booksellers from the hippest outposts in Brooklyn admired our selection and display, seeming honestly appreciative of what we’re doing.
An even stronger tide of bookishness washed over Seattle at the end of February, when as many as 15,000 writers, publishers, and affiliated hangers-on arrived for AWP, the conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Again, there was an extensive official agenda, but the real value (and fun) came from the extracurriculars–informal conversations with like-minded readers, ideally at cocktail parties. I was able to see some friends I’ve known only virtually and meet some new faces who’ve helped produce books I’ve loved for years.
The vibe at AWP was as exuberant as at WI, and it was most evident in the main exhibition hall. I was almost staggered by the scale of it. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that every American small press, MFA program, and literary journal was represented with a table staffed by smiling book-lovers eager to share their wares. For readers, the atmosphere was as richly spiced as at any Middle Eastern souq, intoxicated by ink and paper.
I’ve never attended these big-time industry events before and probably wouldn’t have this time if I weren’t lucky enough to have had them fall into my lap. I’m very glad they did. Independent bookstores are often isolated bookstores, so it was a treat and a revelation to see so many members of the clan gathered together. And the visitors taught me something, too.
Book people tend to be on the quiet side, and Seattle is by reputation and by evidence one of the most introverted places in the land, so it stands to reason that Seattle-area booksellers would be particularly inclined to reticence. The enthusiasm and gregariousness of my compatriots from elsewhere showed me the value of speaking up. Not only did they school us Northwesterners on the etiquette of introducing strangers to each other, their excitement about the local bookselling scene showed how important it is to share what you’re doing.
I should have known this already, of course. Am I not continually surprised when I talk to customers who still don’t realize we sell ebooks? It’s old hat to me, but not to them. Even more shocking, there are grown men and women who shop for kids’ books without ever having heard of Where the Wild Things Are. I’ve met more than one. Why would I expect those customers to know less obvious things like that we gift wrap and ship for free, or that the vast majority of books we order arrive in one day or less? I know all that so well that it used to feel tiresome when I said it, but now I’ve figured out that it’s fresh news to many. I don’t have to brag about anything, just tell people.
So if you’ve set up a beautiful display of your latest staff picks, take a picture of it and put it on your website. If you’ve concocted a cool promotion to sell some of your favorite books (and give a few away while you’re at it), say so. Tweet about it, print a flyer, or mention it over the counter. Don’t sell the idea, just put it out there. People already in the know won’t be offended, and you’ll be pleased to find out how many are happy to be clued in. There are hosts of people out there who want to know about whatever it is you’re proud of. I’m one of them. So tell me: What’s going on with you?