Miami Book Fair Panelists Put Focus on Indie Booksellers

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A well-attended panel at the Miami Book Fair International (MBFI) earlier this month underscored two of the most important roles of independent bookstores: connecting writers and readers, and offering a safe place for community members with different viewpoints.

Jennifer Haigh
Jennifer Haigh

Held a week before Indies First on Small Business Saturday, the November 19 session “Indies First: The Central Role of the Indie Bookstore in Lit Culture,” moderated by ABA CEO Oren Teicher, featured New Yorker cartoonist Bob Eckstein, author and illustrator of Footnotes From the World’s Greatest Bookstores (Clarkson Potter); Jennifer Haigh, author of Heat and Light (Ecco), a May 2016 Indie Next List pick; and Amy Stewart, co-owner of California’s Eureka Books and author of Girl Waits With Gun and its follow-up, Lady Cop Makes Trouble (both Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

On the panel, Eckstein, who spoke to Bookselling This Week prior to the Miami Book Fair, discussed what he learned while researching his new book, a collection of anecdotes and evocative illustrations of 75 bookstores from around the world. Eckstein’s journey which grew out of an illustrated piece commissioned by the New Yorker about the most beautiful bookstores in New York took him deep into the indie bookselling world. Eckstein told fair attendees that visiting bookstores and talking with booksellers face-to-face taught him the importance of the independent bookstore in the community, specifically, their function of providing central meeting places for social activities and like-minded people.

Amy Stewart
Amy Stewart

For her part, Haigh told panel attendees how when her first novel, Mrs. Kimble (William Morrow), was released in 2003, it was met with silence until independent bookstores got behind the book and made it their number one pick for the March/April 2003 Book Sense List (the precursor to the Indie Next List). The book later went on to receive the PEN/Hemingway Award for outstanding debut fiction.

Haigh, who has since published five other titles, told BTW following the fair: “Independent booksellers are particularly important for literary books, for serious books. You can sell The Da Vinci Code anywhere, but for a book like Mrs. Kimble it takes more than that. Independent booksellers were so important for my first book. It’s very hard to publish a debut literary novel, and when mine came out, it was a very slow start to say the least. It was hard to get it reviewed despite all efforts of my publisher, but indie booksellers were what turned it around for me. It’s something I heard again and again from readers, that they heard about the book at their local indie bookstore.”

Haigh, who also took part in a fair panel with authors Jane Hamilton and Joyce Maynard, said that through recommendations from indie booksellers, her book eventually found a very large readership.

“My publisher ended up adding more stops to my tour after the book came out because booksellers were actively interested in hosting me,” she said.  “When I tour, I end up going to many of the same stores again and again and meeting some of the same readers again and again. What I love about indies is their ability to gather a community of readers. A lot of these stores have very loyal followings. There is no substitute from a writer’s perspective — you can’t get that from an online bookseller; it’s something that only happens at the indies.”

As both a bookseller and author, Stewart told the MBFI audience that the myth of the dying bookstore is just that — a myth. Sales are up at Eureka Books and at other bookstores around the country, Stewart said, but it is often on the shoulders of the bookseller to disabuse customers of the notion that independent bookstores are in crisis.

During the panel, Stewart talked about being with customers and staff at Eureka Books following the recent presidential election, an experience that made her appreciate more than ever bookstores’ ability to create community.

“It was a [next] hard morning, but as the week went on I realized the talk of bookstores as community spaces and places where people can meet was truer than ever. At some point, I had kind of gotten over that. It had started sounding self-congratulatory, like, come on, move on, let’s talk about what else there is,” said Stewart. “But after the election, seeing and hearing from a lot of people who were feeling isolated and alone, who couldn’t find other people who shared their point of view, I realized that bookstores still very much have that role to play.”

Since the election, a lot of people have been talking about how everyone lives in bubbles, said Stewart, how we all live in our own silos of information and how that effect is exaggerated by social media. But, she said, bookstores can be a remedy to this by creating spaces where people of all different viewpoints and all different backgrounds can read broadly and interact with one another.

“At Eureka, if you are Muslim-American and walk in, you will be welcomed heartily. If you speak limited English and come to Eureka, we’ll be falling all over ourselves to help you,” said Stewart.

This extends to people with conservative viewpoints as well, she said. Eureka is a fairly liberal community, but last year the store hosted former Reagan speechwriter, the late Peter Hannaford, who spent what was to be the last night of his life signing his book, Washington Merry-Go-Round: The Drew Pearson Diaries, 1960–1969 (Potomac Books), at the store. The community’s response to the event was so gracious and so enthusiastic, said Stewart, adding that she was so happy her store could provide Hannaford with that last great experience connecting with readers.

“One of the amazing things about indie bookstores is that we embrace such a diversity of viewpoints. With an algorithm online there are so many books you don’t see,” said Stewart. “Every time I go into a bookstore I see a book I didn’t know was coming in. Even though I think about books all the time, I get every news source, I still see things I’ve never heard of each time.”