The Canary in the Coal Mine

Kenny Brechner -- January 29th, 2020

We are familiar with the mist we encounter in Kazuo Ishigura’s Buried Giant, with the vagaries imposed on personal identity by the passage of time, and the fogging and subsuming of memory. Such mist is intrinsic to our experience of the present moment. The effort to dispel it is at the same time strenuous, imperfect, and vitally important.

Few things illustrate that importance more than the heartrending spectacle of people of good will turning against each other under the stress of competing ideals, all of which are valid. Such is the case in the the event cancellation filled outcry over American Dirt. Important concerns over inequities in publishing, the commoditization of migrant suffering, and cultural appropriation clash with core values of self determination and free speech in such a way that they harden and ignite rather than become supple and mutually informing.

Continue reading

Thoughts on the 2020 ALA Youth Media Awards Winners

Elizabeth Bluemle -- January 28th, 2020

Not even the pout or pouncing of my adorable puppy could tear me away from my computer screen on Monday morning, when the American Library Association announced the 2020 ALA Youth Media Awards. As always, I spent the announcement time as one part excited fan, cheering for my favorites, and one part frantic bookseller, making sure we had all of the books on hand or on order.

I was delighted to see that the American Indian Youth Literature Awards have been made officially part of the ALA as of this year (they’ve been awarded in even-numbered years since 2006), and the response in the awards hall to the announcement of the Asian/Pacific-American Youth Literature Awards was gratifyingly noisy and enthusiastic. While there’s still so much ground to cover, it’s heartening to see greater recognition and visibility of the multiplicity of stories and creative genius in our culture.

Continue reading

Unpacking from Winter Institute

Cynthia Compton -- January 27th, 2020

The laundry basket of clothes dumped from my suitcase is overflowing, as is my inbox, but before I begin to address the myriad of post-it reminder notes left by my staff, I wanted to take a little time and ShelfTalker space to debrief with you from Wi15 in Baltimore.

As I boarded the first of several flights home and hefted my very heavy backpack over my shoulder (I couldn’t resist that last swing through the author signing lines), I wished we could have had just one more day together with nothing scheduled at all, in order to discuss all the bookselling issues highlighted by the conference with my colleagues, perhaps with a local IPA in hand and no pesky calendar reminders on our phones urging us to yet another ballroom or meeting space for an appointment. The lofty goal of putting over 700 booksellers in one space to consider our industry from 10,000 feet up is grand, but the actualization of this event is jam-packed with distractions. Each publisher partner demands and deserves specific events to get face-to-face with booksellers, and non-book industry vendors need time and space to present their solutions. Add in a few “mandatory” social events and dinners, some committee meetings or panel responsibilities, and a couple of visits to the book room, and zoom, the week is gone. I saw a lot of people, but really only sat and talked with a few at any length. And so, while I have pages of notes to transcribe and implement, my best takeaways all occurred, as usual, in the hallways as we hurried between sessions. Unstructured time together is precious, and I could have used a little more of it.

Continue reading

Did Gene Luen Yang Make Me Love Basketball?

Meghan Dietsche Goel -- January 24th, 2020

I’ve already written about how Gene Luen Yang’s Reading Without Walls Challenge made me love comics and graphic novels. Is it possible that he could make me love basketball as well?

I have to be honest, basketball is not my game. It all happens too fast, and I’m not really a sports person to begin with. In fact, this is my second semester with a kid on a basketball team, and I pretty much watch the games without really “watching” the games. Needless to say, I didn’t expect to be completely enthralled by a 400 page basketball story. Nonetheless, I planned to at least dip into Dragon Hoops because I love Gene Luen Yang’s books, and I wanted to be able to talk about this new one. Continue reading

Some Hurried Snippets from Baltimore

Kenny Brechner -- January 23rd, 2020

So here’s my plan for writing up a bit of first-person accounting of Winter Institute up until Wednesday afternoon, when I took a minute to dash this off. The plan calls for me to briefly mention a few items in note and then discuss one important event at length. We’ll see how that goes.

I came down to Baltimore on Saturday for two days of pre-Winter Institute ABA Board meetings. The upshot of which is that I can disclose the following information. Our incoming CEO Allison Hill is terrific and going to be a sensational leader. Also, it is to be noted that she and the justly promoted Joy Dallenegra Sanger, our new COO, make for a good beyond hope executive team. Furthermore, considering that we all know how gender bias continues to haunt children’s bookselling, ABA’s new leadership augurs well for addressing that bias meaningfully on the bookselling side as we move forward.

Continue reading

Bookseller Buzz from Baltimore

Cynthia Compton -- January 22nd, 2020

Hordes of booksellers are swarming the Charm City this week, and the buzz is about more than just books. As ABA’s Winter Institute #15 got underway today, there was lots of pre-conference activity, from tours of the Penguin Random House fulfillment center in Westminster, Md., to participation in an anti-trust seminar in nearby Washington D.C., featuring leading authors and experts discussing the extraordinary dominance of Amazon in the retail and technology sectors of our economy. Pre-Winter Institute workshops also filled the day’s agenda, with sessions ranging from seminars on used book sales to small store buying (the books for small stores, that is, not the purchase of smaller retail businesses), a caucus gathering for small publishers, and an old favorite with new panelists entitled “The Life Cycle of a Book,” tracing each step in the publication process from editorial and design to marketing, distribution and promotion. Of course, entire hives of busy booksellers dipped in and out of local bookstores and literary attractions throughout the day, and gathered in hallways and hotel lobbies to greet old friends, put faces to names formerly known only on social media, and discuss current issues.

Continue reading

The Politics of Prioritization and Curation

Kenny Brechner -- January 16th, 2020

The time period from the day after Christmas until Winter Institute is probably tied for first with the holiday season itself as the most bruisingly busy period of the year for me personally. Why? It is  a combination of pressing tasks that have been put off till the holiday season is over, an array of specialized, time-sensitive year-end tasks, and finally Winter Institute prep. For example, we do some course adoptions for the local University of Maine at Farmington, and those course books all need to be put on a spreadsheet, put in purchase orders, ordered, and put up on our website course adoption pages asap. The clock is ticking on a rogue’s gallery of W-2’s, quarterly and annual taxes, frontlist buying appointments looming on the immediate horizon, the giant project of weeding through the holiday sales inventory report for replenishment. The clock, for delegation-challenged small-store owners such as myself, is ticking.

At points, something has to give. Take today, where one of my tasks is writing this blog. Something of a break in a sense but what is being displaced?

Dear Publisher Credit Representative, I know you would like to be paid today but I had to write a ShelfTalker post, which I hope you will accept as adequate compensation?
Continue reading

Sideline Refreshers

Cynthia Compton -- January 15th, 2020

If you are like me, by this time in January, you are sick to death of all your store’s sidelines. Frankly, as the midwestern winter gloom makes my store a depressing monochromatic gray at opening time, and darkness descends at 4:00 p.m. each day (thank you, Daylight Savings Time), I’m just sick to death of the whole shebang. To make matters worse, I tend to skip the January gift shows in favor of attending Winter Institute, and Toy Fair is a full month away. My impulse bins near the register look sparse, and the game samples are all missing pieces after the holidays. Inventory chores loom overhead like a pack of circling vultures, blocking out the meager Indiana winter sun….. it’s time to order some fun little stuff to cheer everyone up!

Here are a few of the best sideline items that we’ve received in the last two weeks, and perhaps you can share your finds, too, in the comments below. We ordered all of these items through, a veritable Aladdin’s cave full of interesting specialty vendors, who ship quickly and have low, low, low minimums,  allowing tentative post-holiday retailers to sample small amounts of very fun merchandise.

Continue reading

Can You Outread a Puppy?

Elizabeth Bluemle -- January 14th, 2020

My puppy, Lola, listens to the reading challenge I set for her. She is skeptical, but game.

Oh, I can’t help it; it’s January, so I can’t resist writing about — if not resolutions, then aspirations. The readerly kind. Every year, I think about what I’ve taken in over the past 12 months, how much of it was work reading, how much pleasure, how diverse in country and culture it was, and whether I managed to sneak in any re-reading of beloved books from the past (almost impossible as a bookseller).

For the past several years, I’ve done a 50-50 Read, where at least 50% of my books are #OwnVoices titles. It has gotten so much easier in just the past two years to make towering piles of possible books! The 50-50 Read is a foundation; any reading goal that tempts me has to include that criterion.

One of my customers told me she was aiming to read 20 books this year. At first, I was secretly surprised by that number, which seemed on the modest side. I always think of bookstore shoppers as reading addicts who devour a book every few days. But of course many things in life compete with reading, even for booksellers, and 20 great books? That’s a wonderful goal, and far above the national average. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2018, Americans read 12 books a year (that was the mean), and the typical American (the median) read just four. Continue reading

Return of the Jaded

Cynthia Compton -- January 13th, 2020


With a nod to George Lucas, J.J. Abrams, and Disney, this is the time of the bookselling year that I summon the inner strength of Rey, the wisdom of Yoda, and the near-constant smirk of Lando Calrissian while I face the dark side of my customer base, as they slink into my store like Admiral Piett, bags in hand, ready to return, return, return the things they purchased in December.

There is nothing quite as disturbing to the retailer force in the morning (when the register sits at zero) as to have the first three or four customers visit only to return items, shooting a hole in the day’s sales report that may not climb back into positive numbers until late afternoon. Payroll, of course, fires away with hour after hour missiles of employee time and wages during these dark days of limited sales. Even my most energetic and sales-savvy staff can rarely encourage enough exchanges vs. outright returns to make the transactions even, and the constant barrage of X-wing minivans and mom-mobile gauntlet fighters with our store bags in back make us feel like rebel forces hiding behind the sheltering moon of our front counter.

I piloted the ship at the store all weekend, and here’s a few of the return sorties that we saw: Continue reading