Winter Institute Thus Far

Josie Leavitt -- January 20th, 2011

Okay, I’ve only had one full day of Wi6 so far, but it’s been a really interesting day. Today was Legislative Day. It began with a panel discussion at breakfast-time (it struck me as odd to convene folks for a panel at 9 a.m. and not offer a stale Danish or some coffee), but the conversation was lively. The day ended with a reception at the Library of Congress;  in between I was urged to action by the head of the Small Business Administration and I got to talk to my Senator’s assistant and my actual Congressman. All in all, a pretty full day.

The panelists for the first session, Indie Retail and Activism: The Business Road to Political Change, were interesting, more for the applications of common themes of 21st century retail: working locally, how to be political without giving offense, and how to advocate for your industry in a way that gets your customers to help and do most of the work. Rick Karp, president of Cole Hardware in San Francisco, Jakob Wolf-Barnett, pperations manager of Revolution Cycles, Washington, D.C and Wendy Hudson of Nantucket Bookworks were the panelists. Oren Teicher moderated the discussion. Basically, each panelist has been an advocate for their industry. While I found their individual stories interesting, I must say, after going to five other Winter Institutes, regional shows and Book Expo America, I didn’t hear anything new.

What I did hear was passion for change and that, in and of itself can make me excited to do more. Revolution Cycle’s tag line is brilliant: more butts in bikes. Short, to the point and really says it all. Jakob runs the bike store a lot like a bookstore; great, dedicated and passionate staff all working to fight the fight about why spending more for the same bike you can buy at a toy store is a great idea. One really great idea was from Rick: spend more time working on your store, not in your store. I realize that can it be hard with the many hats we all wear at indies, but you can’t really do long term planning, advocacy, or attend Local First meetings or Chamber of Commerce meetings when you’re working behind the counter or receiving shipments.

The next panel was moderated by a very funny and very knowledgeable Jim Lehrer. He interviewed Karen Mills who’s the head of the SBA. His questions were insightful and broad: “What can the SBA do for bookstores?” It may sound silly, but there weren’t many of us who knew just what they offered for the small business. And the running joke was there should be a Tiny Business Administration (when I was meeting the Leahy staffer, he said, “it should actually be the Micro Business Administration because so many businesses are so small”). As soon as this session was done, I ran back to my room to go to the SBA’s website to see what I credits I could claim on my taxes and what loans could be available to me. I was encouraged by the degree of help available that I didn’t know about.

Lunch was boxed and uneventful. I had neglected to check the box the allowed my access to my representatives, but Penny and Liza from the Norwich Bookstore graciously allowed to tag along with them. I must confess, I’m not usually dumbstruck, but a giddiness over took me as we entered the Senate building on our way to meet with Senator Leahy’s staff. I kept thinking as I looked at the offices, many of whom were being redecorated for the incoming, newly elected Senators, these are Senator’s offices. This is where laws get made, this is a place that exudes power. I kept thinking about all the television shows I’ve seen about Washington, and here I was walking the halls of the Senate building looking for an office. It was quite awe-inspiring.

To be able to speak directly to a Senator’s assistant, or the an actual Congressman, as was the case with Peter Welch, was quite moving. To have someone in an actual position of power listen to us vent about tax fairness and credit card fees was really amazing. We were given websites and names of people we could speak with when we got home to keep the ball rolling. Then we went to the House Gallery to listen to Congressmen give testimony about the health care debate, which was quite extraordinary.

One of the best parts of the day was having coffee with Liza and Penny talking about bookselling. So often we work in isolation, and to be able to discuss the finer details of the business with fellow colleagues is a joy.

More tomorrow, about today’s educational sessions.

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