More than 130 booksellers answered an early wake-up call for the American Booksellers Association Winter Institute's 7:15 a.m. "What Are You Reading?" Breakfast. Patterned after the popular ABA lunchtime event at BookExpo America, the breakfast was an opportunity for many of the approximately 360 booksellers gathered in Long Beach for ABA's two-day education program to network and to share with colleagues some of the titles they are excited about. ABA Vice President Russ Lawrence of Chapter One Book Store in Hamilton, Montana, joked about the starting time when he welcomed booksellers to "the first-ever 'What Were They Thinking?' -- I mean 'What Are You Reading?' Breakfast." He recalled how "we used to ask authors who came to our store different questions, including 'Are you a morning person or an evening person?' -- and we finally just stopped because no one in this industry is a morning person!"
After the hour-long breakfast, the second day of the Winter Institute began in earnest, with 11 different sessions running throughout the day. Two of the pre-lunch sessions, both presented by ABA CEO Avin Mark Domnitz, were new educational offerings: "Know Your Customers: Increase Sales," which was followed by "Improving Efficiency to Achieve Success."
Jillian Rael of Tome on the Range in Las Vegas, New Mexico, said, "As someone who doesn't know much about marketing, I found ["Know Your Customers"] very helpful and insightful. I thought it was great." At the session on improving efficiency, Domnitz told the approximately 140 booksellers attending that recognizing how they are currently using time "is perhaps one of the most sobering things you can do. But if you are honest with yourself, you will realize the massive amount of time [during which] you are not engaged in your highest and best use."
The morning sessions were designed to extend bookseller understanding of key topics. Two looked at the issue of co-op, "Understanding Co-op 101," moderated Len Vlahos, director of BookSense.com, and "Understanding Co-op 201," moderated by Mark Nichols, director of Book Sense Marketing, which included panelists Lisa Baudoin of Main Street Books in Pella, Iowa, and Willard Williams of Toadstools Bookshops in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Key issues involved in broadening bookstore product mix were covered in "Selling Non-Book Product 101, presented by ABA Board member Gayle Shanks of Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Arizona, and "Selling Non-Book Product 201," moderated by Lance Fensterman of R.J. Julia at Elm Street Books in New Canaan, Connecticut, who was joined by panelists Allison Hill of Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena, California, and Valerie Koehler of Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, Texas.
Booksellers at all of the panels offered raves for the programming. Theresa Grossman of Tuesday Books in Williamston, Michigan, said, "All the sessions were absolutely worthwhile," and added that, after attending sessions on Thursday, "I was so excited I called up my partner, and, now we don't even know where to start [executing] some of the ideas."
In addition, in the morning a number of ABA staff presented a session moderated by ABA COO Oren Teicher on "Getting the Most Out of ABA," which discussed the Book Sense program, a wide range of association resources online, the LIBRIS insurance program, and other business-related services.
At midday, more than 300 booksellers attended a luncheon that presented a panel on "Independent Retailing in the U.S. Today." Moderated by Teicher, the panel featured four successful retailers, all from outside the world of books -- Jeff Leopold of Standard 5 & 10 Ace, a one-stop variety store in San Francisco, which has been in business for over 50 years; Randy Kemner of The Wine Country, an acclaimed fine wine store in Long Beach; Dora Herrera of Yuca's, a small, award-winning Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles; and Dave Hanson of Jax Bicycles, a leading bike retailer with five locations in California.
At the lunch, the panelists each described a number of strategies they have employed to respond to business challenges, industry trends, and retail opportunities.
A key theme that emerged was how many similar business challenges the panelists faced. All spoke of increasing competition, the need to respond to changing customer needs and preferences, and the importance of retaining a passion for your business. Booksellers at the lunch nodded in recognition when Kemner noted, "You can buy fine wine at Costco, which is now the leading seller of Bordeaux and champagne in the country. Every place that sells wine is my competitor, and they're all over the dang place."
Good customer service, and the staff training necessary to deliver it, the panelists noted, is essential. "Finding, training, and retaining quality people who can engage a customer, who can take that customer and sweep them off their feet and keep them" is the "number-one way to fight competition," Leopold said. However, all the execution may fall flat if customers don't experience something unique in the retailer's business. "We love the food we make, we love people, and customers know it," said Herrera.
Teicher told BTW after the panel, "By hearing about the threats being faced by these savvy retailers, and in learning about the ways they are responding, I think our member booksellers can begin to work more successfully on important issues with other independent retailers in their communities."
The Winter Institute programming closed this afternoon with two new educational sessions and a "Reps' Picks" session, moderated by ABA's Nichols, where sales reps from nine publishers presented a number of titles they believe will garner strong support among independents. The two afternoon sessions were "Above the Treeline" and "Know Your Customers: Increase Sales."
Above the Treeline (ATL) is an online software product designed to help bookstores improve finances by optimizing inventory selection. ATL founder John Rubin demonstrated the product to more than 150 booksellers, and ABA's Domnitz provided information about a special discount for ABA member booksellers who subscribe to ATL under a recently announced partnership arrangement between ATL and ABA.
"I've heard for some time from booksellers who use Above the Treeline just how valuable it is. It was great to have an opportunity here at the Winter Institute for more booksellers to actually see what the program offers," said Domnitz. "This is a tool that can provide essential information for booksellers who want to make more informed ordering decisions." Pat Rutledge of A Book for All Seasons in Leavenworth, Washington, said after the panel, "I'm signing up. This is what the industry needs."
As the day's events came to an end, booksellers praised the programming, presenters, and the opportunities to connect with their colleagues. "Everything came together for this. I'm really thankful. The Winter Institute was the best use of my time in the book industry in a long time. I'm coming away with a plan," said Rutledge. Myndi Hanberg, a bookseller at A Book for All Seasons, added, "This was so directed -- it was phenomenal. It really focused on what affects your store."