By Robyn Kamimura, Assistant Promotional Director, Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena, California
I've learned that the independent bookselling community is basically one big family, so when I landed in the Louisville Airport by myself that Thursday evening, I wasn't really "by myself." I wound up waiting with a group of booksellers at baggage claim -- some I knew by face and only one by name, Terry Gilman of Mysterious Galaxy Books in San Diego -- but Kristin Bowers of HarperCollins soon introduced herself and the three of us proceeded to share a cab to our respective hotels.
After checking in at both the Marriott and ABA welcome desks, I headed upstairs for some much-needed rest before the opening reception that night. (It's amazing how exhausting sitting on planes can be!) I finally hopped the courtesy shuttle to the Muhammad Ali Center at 7:30 p.m. that night, arriving with a busload of booksellers all bundled up in their heavy winter coats. Luckily, I'd gone shopping the night before and had scored a lovely, appropriately over-padded coat, so I was comfortably warm the entire trip over, even during the brief periods I was outside in Louisville's 15-degree weather. (It's almost embarrassing to admit that the Southern Californian in me was shivering at the very thought of weather below 50 degrees!)
The opening reception was a lovely way to begin the Winter Institute: a charming buffet, an open bar staffed by amicable bartenders, and a room filled with booksellers looking for friendly banter. Tyson Cornell (Book Soup in West Hollywood, California) had escorted me from the museum area to the actual reception upstairs, and it was there that we relaxed and enjoyed some casual conversation.
Though I didn't instantly recognize too many other people, I still managed to run into friendly acquaintances like Jennifer Bigelow (Southern California Independent Booksellers Association) and Paul Hanson of Eagle Harbor Books in Bainbridge Island, Washington (someone I'd had an interesting conversation with at the very first Winter Institute), while many more floated around whom I knew via e-mail correspondences only; all the while, I was able to meet still others for the first time, including Jill Owens of Powell's Books -- someone I seemed to click with right off the bat -- and her cohort, Out of the Book creator, Dave Weich. A group of us were to end the night hours later in the hotel bar after enjoying lots of animated conversation, a lively bluegrass band, and countless more introductions of booksellers I'd be happy to meet again.
At 7:30 a.m., the alarm went off, and I rolled out of bed bright and early. Though I'm not a "morning person," having kept my room heated to a toasty 80 degrees throughout the night helped alleviate the early morning struggle. Breakfast began at 8:00 a.m. that Friday morning, and though I'd walked in only a few minutes late, it seemed as if the entire Wi3 attendance list had beaten me to the punch. Not to worry! I was in time for breakfast (scrambled eggs and home-fried potatoes ... mmm!), and the sleep would soon be swept away with a refreshing talk from our morning speaker. It was easy to see how the handsome and charming Danny Meyer, restaurateur and author of Setting the Table, was so successful. He gave us the perfect send-out for the day's activities, and I felt energized enough to meet them.
My first session kicked off with Avin's "Growing Your Business" educational seminar, and, being the ever-engaging speaker that he is, he made the session fly by. It seemed that food was again the next thing on my itinerary! (I'd spent a good amount of time agonizing over sessions, and it'd been a toss-up between this one and "Handselling: Customer Service With Results," presented by ABA's Len Vlahos and Chester County Book Co.'s Joe Drabyak, since I'd spent years as a frontline bookseller before my current events coordinator position.)
The keynote speaker was definitely memorable! Gary Hirshberg, a man I'd indirectly "done business with" in that I'd eaten Stonyfield yogurt, was one of the most winning, charismatic, and endearing speakers I'd ever heard -- though not necessarily due to a commanding and powerful "presence" per se, but because of the sheer force of his passion for the environment. Hirshberg briefed us on the sometimes rocky history of Stonyfield (with delightful anecdotes of campaigns offering free yogurt to the public), and the various ways he'd implemented green production methods, including investing millions in a manure digester that captured and transformed the methane from his farm's cows back into electricity and heat energies. It was fascinating and positively uplifting! To hear such a prosperous businessman talk candidly about plausible green methods that actually increased productivity (and the bottom line) sent a welcome rush of hope flooding through me. As a result, his book, Stirring It Up, which I'd noticed before but hadn't really given much thought to, shot to the top of my reading and "must-write-a-shelftalker-for" list.
The rest of the day seemed to soar by in a haze. I couldn't miss the "Digital Revolution" led by ABA Chief Programming Officer Len Vlahos, and at "Authorless Events: Enhancing Experiential Shopping" (led by Valerie Koehler of Blue Willow Books, Collette Morgan of Wild Rumpus, and Dave Weich of Powell's), I enjoyed hearing about authorless children's events -- especially Morgan's often wild and whimsical event-related ideas.
However, I was really looking forward to that evening's Author Reception. Since I had an author dinner with Leif Enger (whose So Brave, Young and Handsome [Atlantic Monthly Press] I loved!) and Sasa Stanisic immediately following the reception, I dressed for the occasion and floated happily between the bar and hors d'oeuvres to the author table and back again -- consciously avoiding spending time with Vroman's cronies in favor of meeting other booksellers. I was rewarded with enriching conversations with a variety of people, including Emily Pullen of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, California, someone I'd already forged an acquaintanceship with), and two very friendly booksellers standing next to me in the Andre Dubus line. Later at dinner, I struck "bookseller gold" again and found myself engrossed in conversations with Tracey Filar Atwood, the new general manager of Politics and Prose, in Washington, D.C., and Kelly Wells of The King's English in Salt Lake City, then it was back to bed at the late hour of 1:45 a.m.
Saturday morning -- repeated my 7:30 a.m. wake-up call and headed back to the ballroom where everyone seemed to have beaten me again. Though I didn't necessarily end up talking about current books I was reading, I did enjoy chatting with Tony Ellis (National Association of College Stores, NACS) before heading into the day's first session, "Understanding the Business of Publishing," presented by Richard Hunt of Clerisy Press in Cincinnati, Ohio. Hunt explained the business of publishing using a P&L statement (something I knew little of until then, so thank you, Richard).
Despite feeling a bit sluggish that morning, things drastically picked up by midday when our lunchtime "dream team" panel of speakers spoke on the power of local business, sending the adrenaline pumping straight through my veins. At that point, I was completely geared up for my last panel of the day: "Consumer Behavior Revealed: The Dating Game." ABA's Len Vlahos was leading this session, and if I thought I was prepared for your "average" industry session, I was completely -- and hilariously -- thrown off. Midway through, Len asked for a volunteer ... no hands went up, but what he unveiled sent waves of laughter ripping through the audience. Donning a spunky orange wig, he turned himself and the stage into a modern version of The Dating Game, proceeding to cleverly tie consumer behavior in with an uproarious skit. Afterwards, his sole volunteer learned that for her efforts, she would be sent to this year's BEA on ABA, making the lesson of this session clear: volunteer!
But in all honesty, it was the perfect ending to another great conference. Joking aside, I'd truly enjoyed the educational seminars, and treasured the human connections I made even more. In reflecting on the trip that seemed to have flown by much too quickly, I came to several important conclusions: how lucky it is that I've been able to be a part of the independent bookselling experience, even luckier still that we have ABA as our parent association to bring everyone I'd met -- and will meet -- together, and how strong the bond is between bookseller and book. Happy bookselling ... from one bookseller to the next!