Robert Gray: 'Our Shared Language' at NEIBA's Fall Conference

"It's really wonderful to look out and see many familiar faces, but even better, new faces, the next generation coming up," said Steve Fischer, executive director of the New England Independent Booksellers Association, in his opening remarks at this year's Fall Conference. Some 42 booksellers attended the show for the first time this year.

Words are our business, so it’s not surprising that a couple of words struck me during the conference--conversation and neighborliness. Both came up early, in the opening keynote, which featured "bookseller emeritus" Linda Ramsdell, former owner of the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, Vt., in conversation with Bill McKibben about his upcoming book, Radio Free Vermont (Blue Rider Press, November 7).

"It's very good to be here, and very good to see lots of old friends," McKibben said. "I wrote a book 10 or 11 years ago called Deep Economy about localism and smallness..... A Pollyanna I'm not, but two things that consistently cheer me up are 1) you can now get delicious bottled beer from almost every town in New England; and 2) somehow a lot of independent booksellers survived, in spite of everything that came at them."

McKibben noted that he and his wife, author Sue Halpern, "go to the Vermont Bookshop in Middlebury, and we know what a center of life it is.... It's abundantly clear that independent booksellers don't really do it for the money. So thank you guys, for providing extraordinary help for all the communities that I know of."

He also talked about "neighborliness," a word that initially sounded a little old-fashioned and then, quite unexpectedly, appropriate and timely. (I'll write more about that next week.) "Conversation," however, is ubiquitous at an event like NEIBA's Fall Conference, as you know. Booksellers, reps, writers and publishers gather in small groups for events like the Publisher's Pick-Nic Lunch and the Author Cocktail Reception; share meals at author breakfasts or the awards dinner; and congregate "after hours" for post-show gatherings. Not to mention the buzz of animated conversations about books that echoed throughout the exhibit hall on Tuesday. 

"Secrets and Best Practices of Events" panelists: Lara Phan of Penguin Random House; Pamela Jaffee of Avon/Harper Voyager;  Deb Seager of Grove Atlantic; and Annie Philbrick of Bank Square Books and Savoy Bookshop & Café (moderator)

We are in the conversation trade, and the importance of communicating was a recurring theme. For example, at an education session called "Unlocking the Grid: Secrets and Best Practices of Events," Pamela Jaffee, senior director of publicity for Avon/Harper Voyager, said she continues to learn from booksellers every day: "The conversation is evolving.... The communication should be going both ways, and I think that's something we'd like to strive to improve upon.... That's why my name is on the galleys. E-mail me and we'll have a conversation.... You have to create the connection. I chase the media; you chase me."

"Reps Who Were Buyers" panelists: Mike Katz of PGW/Perseus/ Ingram Content Group; Megan Sullivan of Penguin Random House; Liza Bernard of the Norwich Bookstore (moderator); Stacie Williams of Ingram Content Group; and Jill Cadogan of Chesapeake & Hudson

During the panel "View from the Other Side: Reps Who Were Buyers," Stacie Williams of Ingram Content Group noted: "Being a bookseller informs almost everything I do as a rep.... I do leverage my bookseller experience a lot in order to earn a little bit of trust as far as what I would sell, [which] allows us to talk about books and find our shared language so that we know how to interpret needs and sales."

And Jill Cadogan, who reps for Chesapeake & Hudson, considered what she would have done differently as a buyer now that she has seen the process from a sales rep's perspective. Opening additional avenues of conversation was a central theme: "When I was a buyer, I really would have benefited from more interaction with other buyers.... I've learned so much from other people.... I definitely would have involved my other booksellers in the store more in the buying process because I've seen stores that do that and it seems to be really effective."

During the Author Awards banquet, New England Book Awards fiction category winner Jessica Shattuck (The Women in the Castle) said: "This was a fantastic experience, to have so much support from independent booksellers.... It's been an amazing thing to be out there with this book and having the conversations that it's inspired.... I met so many independent booksellers... and felt that you were doing this really important work fostering these conversations and fueling the life of the mind."

I particular loved something Michael Finkel, who won in the nonfiction category for his book The Stranger in the Woods, recalled from his youth. "Even in elementary school, I took my mom's money and often went to a bookstore," he said, noting that the owners were "the first people to treat me like an adult. I remember them saying, 'well, what book did you read that you liked; and what didn't you like?' They respected me and they introduced me to new books, with which of course I traveled around the world. I was enlightened. I was informed. I was entertained. And because of this I've been a reader all my life and I wanted to become a writer."

The conversation, in our "shared language," continues.

Shortly after the NEIBA Fall Conference, Fischer told me: "From my point of view, it was everything we had hoped for in our planning: great education, lively rep picks, a very busy show floor from opening to closing and wonderful authors." Noting that all of the meal events sold out, he observed: "The New England Book Awards banquet really stood out, and having John Irving there in person to accept his President's Award was really the icing on the cake!"

Accepting the honor, Irving said, "I am extremely grateful for this award because you guys are more important than you ever were, and you always were." Now there's a conversation starter.

--Robert Gray, contributing editor (Column archives at Fresh Eyes Now)
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