"When I bought Mountain Crossings, I was journaling these stories that pass through each day," said Winton Porter, author of Just Passin' Thru: A Vintage Store, the Appalachian Trail, and a Cast of Unforgettable Characters. Speaking at the "Before We were Authors" panel during the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance trade show last week, he noted that the Appalachian Trail literally runs through his supply store: "If you miss it, you are lost." His book came from listening attentively to stories told to him by the more than 2,000 hikers a year who find their way to Mountain Crossings.
Porter was just one of many fine storytellers at SIBA. Not all of them were authors. It's what we do--booksellers, writers, publishers, readers. I heard many great stories from podiums and at dining tables, on the trade show floor and in the Carolina First Center's hallways and meeting rooms.
We are, as Garrison Keillor might say, a storytelling people.
Now I'm in Cleveland for the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association trade show, where I know more stories are headed my way this weekend. In upcoming columns, I'll share tales from both shows, but I decided to start with one about social networking, since that seems to be on everyone's mind lately.
As I mentioned last week, I was on a "Social Media and the Independent Bookseller" panel at SIBA with Rich Rennicks (Unbridled Books/Malaprop's Bookstore) and the ABA's Meg Smith. I've been on similar panels over the past five years, watching the discussion evolve from bookstore blogging and websites to include options like Facebook, Goodreads and Twitter (and, briefly, MySpace).
In olden times (2005?), 75% of the audience was skeptical, engaging in these online options reluctantly or not at all. Now that percentage seems to have reversed, and many--certainly not all--of the skeptics have edged toward the "Why should I?" camp rather than a flat out "No!"
But love it or hate it, social networking is a key tool in our business. At one point during the session, while Meg displayed the blog I'm an Avid Reader as an example of how even prospective booksellers are using social media effectively, we discovered that Janet Geddis--the blog's creator, who hopes to open Avid Bookshop, Athens, Ga., in the not-so-distant future--was sitting in the front row.
Once in the discussion, she made some excellent contributions. Afterward, I asked her to tell her own social media story: "I dream of the day I can run events, handsell to curious customers, and organize Avid Bookshop's shelves--but for now I have to bide my time and wait for the stars (and dollars) to align. Though I'm usually rather impatient, this process of planning a bookstore has taught me to take my time and lay the proper groundwork before jumping in. Because I am not flush with cash and know no rich benefactor who wishes to bestow her wealth unto me, I chose instead to get in touch with my customers before the opening date is set. Through my blog and personal Facebook page, I'm attempting to engage people in dialogues about literature and reading; so far, it's working and gaining momentum every day. More people keep spreading the word on my behalf, which is humbling and exciting. I've gotten to the point where strangers recognize me and have heard about the bookstore."
Geddis praised her Twitter account for allowing her to "join a really strong network of independent booksellers, writers, readers and publishers. To start a business from scratch is a huge undertaking, but being able to harness social media outlets means that lots of the pesky questions that bog new people down aren't bugging me so much."
She cited the recent example of working on her business plan and wondering about staff discounts. "I Tweeted my question and had several answers within minutes."
"My feeling is that social media tools are indispensable to prospective booksellers," Geddis concluded. "What better way to get your feet wet and start conversations with people you might not come across in your day-to-day life? Athens has no indie that sells new books, which means I have to go on long drives to meet booksellers face to face. Through my Twitter account I've been able to befriend people all over the country who own and/or work in independent bookstores."
The story of Avid Bookshop is still being written and we'll get to watch the creation of an indie bookshop through the window of social networking. Our book community is always telling new stories.--Robert Gray (column archives available at Fresh Eyes Now)