Unpacking from Winter Institute

Cynthia Compton - January 27, 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.

A few sessions from Baltimore stand out in my mind, and will be the foundation of my memories of this year’s Winter Institute. Harvard Business School assistant professor Ryan Rafaelli’s opening keynote, in which he described the strength of our indie book channel in three words, are particularly helpful as I plan another year in my store. Independent bookstores have succeeded, according to Ryan, because of our ability to build community, embrace and excel in curation, and grow from each other’s strengths and collective wisdom as we convene thought leaders, both in our stores and at regular association events. Community, curation and convening: these are themes that I can use as I look at all the ways we invest energy in our business this year. If an event or activity does not support these characteristics, is it really necessary, and does it support the health of my bookshop? Ryan also carefully differentiated between business growth (which I tend to obsess over) and business health, which is much more deserving of my attention.
That theme of curation followed me throughout the week, and was never more sharply outlined than in the thoughtful conversation session between bookseller Javier Ramirez and American Dirt author Jeanine Cummins. While hallway reviews of the book were vastly disparate, and clearly the carefully worded questions to the author and her sometimes querulous tone in responses underscored the heightened tension of her appearance in the midst of a media storm, there was a confidence in the audience of booksellers, which to me came back to that theme of curation. Choices we make daily about which books and authors to promote and discuss, how we present ourselves as booksellers, and what values we espouse through every aspect of our businesses are simply curation in action. “Curation” is not a positive spin on limited size or selection — rather, it is integral to our individually branded stores, as unique as our owners and buyers, and as diverse as the communities we serve. The choices our colleagues make in which books they champion and which titles they simply shelve or only order upon request is not a reflection of our limits as indie bookstores, but rather one of our strengths, and I believe that we should become more comfortable articulating that difference to our customers.
I thought a lot about community last week, too, especially as we flooded into the ballroom Thursday evening for the gala author reception. That event is always a highlight of any conference for me, with opportunities to congratulate familiar authors on new books, but also for the excitement of my bookselling colleagues as they promote their own favorites to the rest of us. There is nothing as fun, in my opinion, as swapping title recommendations with other booksellers, and introducing an author to another store owner who we are confident will love and cherish their work as we do. There’s a feeling of a family party in that room, as we welcome new authors to our part of the bookish world, and celebrate those writers with whom we’ve partnered for events. As I stood in the middle of that giant crowded ballroom, with lines of booksellers stretching back from dozens and dozens of tables, I imagined all the signings and readings and school visits to come this year in all of those hometowns they represent. I thought about all the reading communities that would be built by those visits, and how those author tours would spark discussions and relationships between readers all over the country. So much community building, so much shared love of books and language and ideas, so much possibility is created in that room and that event that it is difficult to quantify, but oh-so-easy to feel.
I carried home a lot of books from Baltimore, of course, and many new ideas and some hopefully timesaving tech solutions for my store. But the most valuable takeaway was a renewed sense of confidence in our strengths in the bookselling community, to carry us through another year. While the challenges of this industry rapidly multiply, our ability to discuss issues within our community and build on solutions from each other may in fact be our greatest survival strategy.

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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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