Third Annual Winter Institute a Rousing Success

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By the time Saturday's closing reception at the American Booksellers Association's Third Annual Winter Institute (Wi3) was winding down, it was clear that booksellers and publishers attending the two-day educational event in Louisville, Kentucky, were very pleased.

Beginning with a festive welcoming reception at the Muhammad Ali Center on Thursday, January 24, Wi3 featured 24 education sessions over the following two days, as well as 12 Rep Picks presentations of notable upcoming titles, and three keynote author events. All of this was made possible by the support of Wi3's three Event Partners -- Baker & Taylor, BookExpo America, and Ingram Book Company/Ingram Publisher Services, as well as 24 Publisher Partners and a number of Supporting Partners.

Coming into Wi3, both firsthand experience and word of mouth regarding the previous two institutes had raised booksellers' expectations, but, according to attendees, this year's event more than delivered. Karl Pohrt of Shaman Drum Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, was attending his first Winter Institute because store staff members had told him how great the previous events had been. "And they're right," he told BTW.

Lori Underwood of HearthFire Books of Evergreen, Colorado, said, "I can't say enough. I'm overwhelmed by [ABA's] support for us. This is the best thing that you guys do for us."

Tom Lowenburg of New Orleans' Octavia Books, the recipient of a Wi3 scholarship awarded by Hyperion and a Winter Institute first-timer, said that he was impressed with the "great quality of the presentations. Of course," he added, "it's also great to be around other booksellers. It's been terrific." Lowenburg plans to attend next year's Winter Institute in Salt Lake City, and "hopes to send more people from the shop next year." In all, 29 booksellers received scholarships covering transportation and accommodation costs to the Institute from Publisher Partners, BEA, and ABA.

Joe Drabyak of Pennsylvania's Chester County Book Company said, "The show is great ... it's always great." Pointing to the collegiality of the 500 independent booksellers in attendance, he added, "It's this camaraderie and support that keeps us viable."

The educational sessions focused on everything from store financials (for example, "The 2% Solution for 2008," which examined key factors in store profitability), to "Getting the Most Out of Your Children's Section," to a panel of experts on how booksellers can become "greener" retailers. While there was no shortage of PowerPoint presentations, this year there were also innovations, including a session on better understanding consumer behavior offered a la "The Dating Game." ABA Program Director Len Vlahos and volunteer-contestant Jenn Northington of The King's English (in the guise of TV show host and contestant, respectively) helped show booksellers how to better identify and understand customers. And once again, bookseller attendees received a Winter Institute education binder with copies of all related materials from every session, and, in the spirit of one of the show's themes -- "green retailing" -- the '08 binder and its handouts were produced from entirely recycled materials (as were this year's badge holders).

Wi3 also garnered high marks for its author events, beginning with Friday's opening keynote speech by Danny Meyer, author of Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business (HarperCollins) and president of the Union Square Hospitality Group. Meyer enjoined booksellers to think beyond merely delivering service and, instead, to offer customers "hospitality," so that their stores would become "favorite places" where customers might experience "this incredible combination of going out and coming home."

The Friday keynote luncheon was delivered by Gary Hirshberg, author of Stirring It Up: How to Make Money and Save the World (Hyperion) and president and CE-Yo of Stonyfield Farms, who passionately argued that it was possible for bookstores to be "green" and to increase profiles and profits.

And Saturday's luncheon offered an articulate and engaging discussion on the growing power of the localism movement from Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (Holt Paperbacks); Stacy Mitchell, author of Big Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for American's Independent Businesses (Beacon) and senior researcher for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance; and Michael Shuman, author of The Small-Mart Revolution: How Local Businesses Are Beating the Global Competition (Berrett-Koehler), vice president of enterprise development for the Training & Development Corporation, and co-founder of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies. The topics covered ranged from the unique role booksellers play in their communities as key leaders in Shop Local and related initiatives to the growing consumer awareness of the importance of locally owned independent businesses. (Read more on the keynotes in ABA's blog, Omnibus.)

New this year were both a closing reception Saturday evening and Booksellers Cafes on Sunday morning, where booksellers joined colleagues for informal, roundtable discussions organized by job function, moderated by a fellow bookseller.

Amidst all of the note taking and networking there was, of course, a steady dialogue about new titles. On Friday and Saturday representatives of the 24 Wi3 Publishing Partners spoke about key titles at Rep Picks sessions, and, throughout Wi3, booksellers kibitzed in the institute's Galley Room -- where each store could take one of the scores of available titles -- and pretty much everywhere else, as they decompressed after a day of education. The touchstone question of "so, what are you reading?" could be heard anywhere there were booksellers. And, in answering, they began handselling to colleagues all the Wi3 titles that they had begun reading on late Louisville nights, the first step in helping find the readership for a new season of titles.

As booksellers packed bags, and books, for the trip home, many were already making plans for next year's event, scheduled for Salt Lake City, Utah, from January 29 - 31.

Here's an overview of Wi3 in pictures. --Dan Cullen