A Peek into Winter Institute

Cynthia Compton - January 24, 2018

I’m joining fellow ShelfTalker bloggers Kenny and Elizabeth (and 600 or so of our closest friends) in Memphis this week for Wi13, the annual family reunion of ABA booksellers, along with our kissing cousins from all the publishers and imprints that one could name, as well as speakers, consultants, and experts in subjects both literary and commercial. There will be sessions on topics ranging from social media to sidelines, romance to return strategies, indie commerce to indecision… and all manner of festive occasions as booksellers gather to celebrate, commiserate, strategize and socialize. It is a highlight of the year in our role as store owners, buyers, and booksellers, and comes for many of us in the bleak winter days of emptier stores, holiday invoices now due, and a ubiquitous layer of sidewalk salt crunching underfoot with every opened door of the shop. Just the right time, then, for a little inspiration and barbecue, with some galleys stacked on the floor beside our chair in the hotel lobby bar, where we gather for group therapy and sage advice.

This is my 11th Winter Institute (not in a row, of course… see 4 kids in my bio, and I’m sure there was a birthday or a case of everyone-has-the-flu in there somewhere) and I think that over the years ABA has refined the model of a three-day meeting into an almost perfect balance of education and time to connect with fellow bookish folk. There’s a sense of community that develops very quickly in these events, and a democratic feeling of “we’re all in this together” emerges almost immediately. This morning we gathered in randomly assigned* bookseller discussion groups, each facilitated by an ABA Board member, with the assignment to generate a list of the challenges and opportunities facing our businesses (and the profession of bookselling) in 2018. While I only attended my own assigned group, I was struck by how this one list hastily jotted in magic marker on a flip chart so aptly represented the challenges of our entire industry. In that spirit of camaraderie, I’m inviting you into that room, too. Here are some of the issues keeping booksellers up at night, as identified by the group in Room L-6 of the Memphis Convention Center on January 23rd:
2017 Was Quite a Year
There were floods, and fires, and all manner of natural disasters that preyed upon our colleagues’ businesses last year. Bookstores were not only beset by physical damage from these events, but the after-effects which put  their neighboring businesses out of operation completely and their communities reeling. Repairs and reconstruction for roads, parking lots, and even (in the case of fires and floods) loss of entire neighborhoods of customer homes were daunting challenges for booksellers to overcome.
Can You Find Help, and Can You Keep It?
Recruitment, staffing, and retention… it’s always the people that make the business work, and the work of the owner to find them and keep them. From diversifying the staff to motivating future leaders, many store owners spoke about the challenge of both attracting folks to delegate and manage, and then the classic entrepreneurial struggle to let go of tasks and let leadership rise. Those blessed with an abundance of good help wondered aloud how they could keep an all-star team challenged and motivated, and those who had successfully delegated store functions fretted about cross-training personnel to cover absences. (If a school order falls in the woods during a manager’s vacation, will ANYONE know how to process it?)
And We All (want to) Live Happily Ever After
While there has been greater emphasis on attracting and rewarding younger professionals in the retail side of our businesses, succession planning is still a hot topic in our membership. Business owners looking to retire but pass on their stores face huge challenges in locating financially qualified buyers. Selling a bookstore, with its myriad of community relationships and carefully built reputation, is complicated and more individualized than anyone realizes until they are ready to do it.
Space, the Final Frontier
We’re too small… or we’re too big, so we’re converting footage into event space, a cafe, sidelines sales, or a bed and breakfast. Our space is too old (and leaks or creaks) or too new (and no one knows we’re here yet) or needs to be rezoned or re-signed or just accessed from behind the road closures. We’ve gentrified the neighborhood and made our own space too expensive to rent, or we’ve lost our downtown retail neighbors and we’re struggling to bring customers back. First and foremost, indie bookselling is about the physical place we create, and where we do business is who we are. Maintaining that space is so much more than hanging an OPEN sign, and where, oh where, do we fit that new display unit? Can we afford to stay where we are, and can we afford not to?
If You Fill It, Will They Come?
Oh, the endless quest for the perfect merchandise mix, and the exact equation that tells the store owner how many titles, how many sidelines, and just how long to keep it is the buyer’s quest. Do we maximize returns, or simply rearrange and clearance? At every discussion, some store owner admits sheepishly that they “just can’t bring themselves to return those titles, because they’re so good” and the rest of the room shifts just slightly in their chairs as they think about that stack of books that they personally rescued from the return cart just last week.
Flight of the Bumblebee, or the Social Media Waltz
Are we insta-tweeting our every move, or is our face stuck in a book? Is there a link in the newsletter to the trailer of the book by the author signing at the event which is sent via text message before our customer googles our location and yelps because the store hours listed are wrong? Do we spend our time on keyboards and screens, or DO WE EVEN EXIST if there’s not an social media campaign for every box we open from the wholesaler? Ahhh… maybe we should hire someone for that, too.
All of these challenges and more kept the list growing on the easel pad, as pages were flipped over to record the conundrums and opportunities of the year ahead. While this first session was not about solutions, the first and most valuable step in tackling these issues was clearly achieved. As the timer sounded signaling the end of the session, a flurry of business cards were passed, contact information exchanged, and handshakes offered across tables as attendees reached out to connect with someone facing the very obstacle that they had recently overcome, and offered to meet to talk and share ideas. And there, I believe, is the strength of our association and of gatherings like this one. More important than any sample organization chart or return form or event checklist is the knowledge that someone here has faced the very challenge that lies ahead for your business. And in this community of booksellers, that person will be not only willing to help, but feels privileged to do so.
*Groups may be randomly assigned, or there may be some algorithm at work – no matter, for the chairs are full, the smiles are understanding,  and the coffee is plentiful.

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About Cynthia Compton

Cynthia is the owner of 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Indiana, a 2600 sq. ft. childrens store founded in 2003. She serves on the board of the American Booksellers Association, is a past president of the Great Lakes Bookseller Association, and is a former member of the American Specialty Toy Retail Association board of directors. 4 Kids was honored with the Pannell Award in 2013 and has received numerous "best of" awards in the Indianapolis area. The opinions expressed in her posts are her own, and sometimes those of her english bulldogs.

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