When I arrived last night at the annual New England indie bookseller trade show in Providence, R.I., I imagined some possible blog posts I might write while I’m here: recaps of the helpful educational sessions and special events, perhaps, and tips for both new and seasoned booksellers. But it’s long past 12:30 a.m. after a long day filled with conversation, and I find it’s curling ribbon I want to talk about.
The NEIBA trade show has always been a thermometer of the book business. The number of attendees fluctuates from year to year—one indicator of the health of regional bookselling—and the seminar topics do a pretty good job of reflecting current concerns. Back when Josie and I first came to NEIBA, in 1996, everyone was in an uproar about something mysterious (to us newbies, whose store hadn’t even opened yet) called the “vendor of record” program. The vendor of record debate peaked and subsided fairly quickly, only to be replaced by concerns about chain stores, then chain store pressure shutting down independents, then online vendors, then mega-online-opolies, then e-books. There is always something pushing independent bookselling up an ever-steepening slope.
Something magical happens at the trade show. Surrounded by kindred spirits—folks who understand from the inside what it means to fight the good fight for great books and authors and artists, and for the vitality of community bookstores day after day—in each other’s company, we all light up. We are inspired by each other.
After a day filled with helpful sessions and a lovely keynote and an evening celebrating New England Book Award winner speeches, I found myself on the floor of Carol Chittenden’s hotel room unwinding and cutting and tying and curling spools of ribbon for the next morning’s author breakfast. Booksellers Jan Hall (co-chair of the New England Children’s Booksellers Association and co-owner of Partners Village Store in Westport, Ct.) and Sara Hines (Eight Cousins bookseller and NECBA member) were similarly occupied, and the four of us sat and worked and chatted about books and bookselling. (And gift wrapping. Surrounded by all that ribbon, we couldn’t help talking about it. You’d be surprised how much thought goes into bookstore gift-wrapping policies and procedures, and how useful it can be to compare notes.)
The thing is, we can’t get enough of this collegial talk. It’s like sparkling spring water, essential and delightful and necessary. What the trade shows provide us with, in addition to education and the chance to discover new titles and sidelines and services for our bookstores, is a place to sit on the porch together. We vent some, and share crazy anecdotes from our stores. We share book passions, titles from the year that blew our hair back, and we eagerly collect and share individual store “best practices” from the tribe on how other members streamline or maximize or emphasize or add value to everything that we all do, from handling consignment sales to doing school and teacher outreach to creating more effective displays to overhauling our websites. The veteran booksellers have invaluable experience and wisdom to share, and the younger ones have energy and enthusiasm and new ideas.
For the next two days, the Rhode Island Convention Center will be filled with chatter and laughter in every corner, and I will be soaking it all up. Sitting there tonight, curling ribbon after ribbon with my colleagues as we talked shop, the accumulation of years of this kind of sharing struck me as sweet and sharp as the scissors’ edge slooping along the underside of the strips. And what a bountiful curl it produces!