Robert Gray: Booktopia--'The Best Weekend of the Year'

Every bookseller knows that running a successful author event is challenging. On the weekend of May 4-5, the Northshire Bookstore welcomed 86 "Booktopians" and 10 writers to Manchester Center, Vt., for Booktopia 2018, a "weekend full of highly acclaimed authors, enthusiastic readers, games, food, drink, laughter, new and old friends and great conversations--what's not to love?" Organizing an event on this scale raises the stakes considerably. Twenty U.S. states, as well as Ontario, Canada, were represented among the Booktopians, with some attendees traveling from as far away as California, Washington and Florida.

Top row (l. to r.): Stephen McCauley, Jonathan Miles, Bianca Marais, Heather Abel, Ariel Lawhon; Middle row: Pamela Paul, Peter Swanson, Robin Oliveira, Stan Hynds (Northshire buyer). Front row: Chris Morrow (Northshire co-owner), Aubrey Restifo (Booktopia coordinator)

"As an event, Booktopia flowed very smoothly this year," said Aubrey Restifo, Booktopia coordinator and Northshire bookseller. "Our authors were fantastic, the Booktopians were thrilled to be there, and our staff jumped in to make sure that everything was set up or done right before anything could even consider becoming a problem. When the mechanics of the event function so well, you can focus on the best parts of Booktopia--like handselling and talking about books for days and days with some of your favorite, best customers."

This year's author lineup featured Bianca Marais (Hum If You Don't Know the Words), Ariel Lawhon (I Was Anastasia), Peter Swanson (All the Beautiful Lies), Heather Abel (The Optimistic Decade), Robin Oliveira (Winter Sisters), Stephen McCauley (My Ex-Life), Jonathan Miles (Anatomy of a Miracle: A Novel*) and Pamela Paul (My Life with Bob). Additional guest authors included Eric Rickstad (The Names of Dead Girls) (in conversation with Peter Swanson) and Steve Yarbrough (The Unmade World).

Booktopia 2018 was not without its complications, however. A last-minute staffing change for health reasons prompted Northshire Bookstore co-owner Chris Morrow to ask Restifo if she would step in to coordinate because she had prior experience running large events and had coordinated parts of four previous Booktopias. 

Now that the Booktopian dust has settled, I asked Restifo to provide a glimpse behind the scenes.

"Booktopia is always an extremely demanding undertaking," she said. "It requires the talents of nearly every person on staff, not to mention the cooperation and coordination of many authors, publicists, and venues (to name just a few). Yet no matter how complicated the planning process becomes, nobody ever loses sight of those two days in May. It's a bookseller's dream."

Booktopians eagerly anticipating the main event

Each Booktopian purchases a ticket well in advance, and most have bought (and read) the authors' books in time for the weekend. Booktopians also register for their preferred author sessions (18 options are offered across six time slots) ahead of time. "This way, attendees, authors and staff can expect that sessions will stay intimate and comfortable, allowing for readers and authors to engage in in-depth conversations about the author's featured title," Restifo noted.

It has been three years since Northshire launched Booktopia to replace the former Books on the Nightstand Retreat, which was created by Random House reps Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness. Restifo observed that "every year we relearn just how complex, expansive, and important the event is to our readers and authors. Booktopia unites readers from all around the country with a swarm of authors and booksellers--all for the purpose of talking books.... It is an event that always demands extensive preparations by the store's staff, but also one that staff and Booktopians alike regard as the best weekend of the year."

To keep the bookish deluge organized and fun for participants, Northshire's booksellers set up and maintain a special hold/shipping zone for Booktopia only, ensuring that Booktopians (who peruse and often buy a lot of books) can set aside large quantities of titles. Booksellers then ferry the stacks from the holding area to guests, who can alter or vet their selections before shipping them home.

(l. to r.) Peter Swanson (author), Chris Morrow, Aubrey Restifo, Charles Bottomley (bookseller) and Pat Friesen (Booktopian)

"Booksellers also pitch their favorite titles of the year at an hour-long presentation, an event which tends to feature bookselling veterans of diverse tastes--many of whom stick around all weekend long to handsell and chat with new and old Booktopian friends," Restifo said. "Not only does Booktopia bring together authors, book enthusiasts, and booksellers, but it highlights the magic of bookselling and publishing: the reason we work with books (or buy them), the reason we attend (or host) author events in the first place.

"Every year, we welcome new Booktopians. Whether these individuals, couples or old friends find us through our staff or via veteran Booktopians [check out the Fans of Booktopia Facebook page], we have the pleasure of connecting them with new friends, our store and staff, and new books. When Booktopians leave, we always hear how they plan to come back. And they do!"

At Booktopia's final night presentation, which is open to the public, authors can discuss anything they want to within a 10-minute window. The day after this year's closing event, Northshire co-founder Barbara Morrow observed: "Last night was the culmination of months of preparation for a weekend of books, book lovers and authors, and it ended with total triumph. Eight very different personalities, all of whom happened to have written books, entertained a full house upstairs at the Northshire Bookstore, with erudition, comic relief, moving personal stories, compassionate concern for the plight of the world, but mostly with their beautiful humanity and their dedication to what they have chosen to devote a life to.

"And guess what, there was not a mention of the swamp in Washington, not a mention of our president, but only love and devotion to the world of books and how reading has made them who they are. I frankly was overwhelmed by the end, and more than ever, I felt so grateful to be surrounded by such an incredible group of people and to have found a life grounded in books."

With the momentous weekend behind her, Restifo is already looking ahead: "We're definitely going to organize another Booktopia for May 2019. Why would we ever stop?"

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