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A Winter Institute: The Transformation of Independent Bookselling

Tom Hallock, Beacon's Associate Publisher, spent last weekend in the company of 500 booksellers at the American Booksellers Associations' third Annual Winter Institute in Louisville, Kentucky.

Independent booksellers, like independent retailers in other industries, have long been under siege by big box and online retailers. In searching for ways to survive, they've found solutions that place them in the vanguard of Americans who are reclaiming their downtown areas, restoring the environment and creating community.

Amidst the workshops on inventory management, loss control, hand selling, and a hilarious one on consumer behavior led by Len Vlahos, were others on green retailing and presentations linking buy local campaigns to national movements on sustainability and climate change. Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (Holtzbrinck), spoke about "the special role bookstores and booksellers have to play, as they provide the place "where the community can think about itself". Gary Hirshberg, President and CEO of Stonyfield Farm, author of Stirring It Up: How to Make Money and Save the World (Hyperion), grew his business from a "7 cow start up" to a $300 million dollar a year company by incorporating environmentalism principals and practices. He found it both increased customer loyalty and reduced costs. He encouraged booksellers to think not only about how they lit and heated their stores, but also to examine the supply chain. He mentioned that UPS had saved ten million dollars a year by re-routing their trucks to minimize energy-consuming left turns. He left me thinking about not only our manufacturing practices, but also issues like returns. The ABA has embraced these messages, not only in programming, but by providing conference materials that were so green as to be almost edible. They've also developed a great list of books on community and sustainability [pdf].

Booksellers have taken the lead in developing independent business associations in their communities, educating their customers about the economic and environmental benefits of shopping locally. ABA COO Oren Teicher, a leading advocate of this approach, spoke about a study of 2007 holiday sales which showed that stores in areas that had independent business alliances averaged sales increases of 2.1%, whereas those in areas that lacked them had declines of .3%. In a business famous for its 2% profit margins, the difference is significant. Booksellers such as Steve Bercu, owner of BookPeople in Austin Texas; Betsy Burton, owner of The King's English Bookshop in Salt Lake City (and author of The King's English: Adventures of an Independent Bookseller); Carla Jimenez, co-owner of Inkwood Books in Tampa FL; and Clark Kepler, president of Kepler's Books in Menlo Park, shared their knowledge about creating these alliances. Beacon author Stacy Mitchell (Big Box Swindle) joined McKibben and Michael Shuman (The Small-Mart Revolution, Berrett-Koehler) in a wide ranging conversation about the transformative power of local economies, a talk that brought us all to our feet and which ABA hopes to broadcast on Book TV.

Other independent booksellers, such as Karl Pohrt, owner of the Shaman Drum Bookstore in Ann Arbor Michigan, have developed a program to connect their communities to the world through reading literature in translation. This program, "Reading the World", will launch its third year in June with a list of twenty-five titles from fifteen different publishers. Karl has also been blogging about his Reed Exhibition/BEA sponsored trip to speak with Beijing booksellers. He was accompanied by Allison Hill from Vromans (Pasadena), Rick Simonson from Elliott Bay (Seattle), Sarah McNally from McNally Robinson Booksellers (New York), and Paul Yamasaki from City Lights (San Francisco). Karl's blog is wonderful to read and is rich with thoughts about reading in a post literate age. His most recent post includes a list of books on what Paul Yamazaki calls "deep literacy," and may be read on the web site of the University of Rochester's new publishing house, Open Letter. Having lived and taught in Beijing in the early 90's-and written about bookselling there myself (available here in pdf), I was especially happy to see this strengthening of the international community of booksellers.

I was inspired by all this, but also by being in the company of so many good booksellers, publishers, authors and books. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention at least one title I picked up, The Pig Did It, a wonderful novel by Joseph Caldwell published by Delphinium Press. Carl Lennertz of Harper Collins presented it as one of his "rep picks" and graciously left me his copy. It's a gem of a book, with astonishing writing--one of the funniest I've read in a long time. In fact, it's the best I've ever read about a man, two women, a corpse and a pig. 

Like any good publisher I had come to Winter Institute to promote our books and authors. I came away in awe of the vision, values and commitment that are transforming this organization and its members. In finding their place in their local communities, they have also found their place in the world --and we are all the richer for it.

Tom Hallock, a former bookseller, is the Associate Publisher of Beacon Press.