Bookseller Summer Camp: Sara, Ülrika, and Keaton Chat Winter Institute

Sara, Keaton, and Ülrika trekked to New Mexico for Winter Institute, a booksellers' conference in late January. It's run by the American Booksellers Association, a group over a century old that acts as a not-for-profit trade organization to help independent bookstores grow and succeed. It's a time to reconnect with the industry, other booksellers, and publishers. They sat down to chat about their experience at WI and its importance in the field.

Sara: A few weeks ago, Ülrika, Keaton and I went to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to go to Winter Institute.


SB: As we learned. Which is a wintertime publishing and book conference that is specifically for indie booksellers.

Kp: It is the only national literary conference that is sponsored and run by the ABA, the American Booksellers Association, so it is our show.

SB: It’s for us!

Ülrika: Yay!

SB: Since our customers don’t really get to hear about this side of the job, I thought we could sit down and chat a little bit about it and what these things are.

UM: Keaton, you’ve been to multiple Winter Institutes. You have more of a knowledge than we did -- we were newbies.

KP; I think it is a very rejuvenating experience. It really makes you feel good about returning to the daily grind of the bookstore once you do it.

You see that there is a large group of people that are just as passionate and in love with books, and the world of bookselling, and making sure that readers throughout America and the world have access to these wonderful books -- some of which they may have heard of, some of which they haven’t. It’s a great way to become better at bookselling for us. And that will always translate to a better reading experience for our customers, I think.

SB: Ülrika, you do a lot of trade shows for our gift buying, so i’m curious to hear your take on the bookselling conference, how you felt about going at it from this other angle.

UM: I think one of the great things was -- I don’t always interact with gifts as Keaton does with books. It was really great to come face to face and meet some of the people who are publishers who I don’t have interaction with. Talking to them about what they’re excited about, what’s coming out… I know through Keaton, or Mark, or you, but that’s not my world normally.

It was a great representation, too, of the people who don’t normally work up front, to hear about their points of view and their reading choices too. So it’s not just a front-of-house thing. We in the back-of-house can feel like we’re in the shadows of things. Even when we had meetings with publishers over the week, it was interesting to see things from a rep perspective. Most of the representatives at Winter Institute are in publicity or marketing at the publishing companies, which is different from when our reps come into the store to talk about new books. It was a really interesting situation.

I also had to interact with people who didn’t have a gift buyer at their store. So to see what that looks like, and how their gifts are a part of their store… It was a really good learning experience all the way around.

SB: I agree. I’m our marketing person, so I go to BookExpo. That’s a larger conference that occurs at the end of May in New York every year. It’s the whole book world. It really is an all-encompassing experience; it takes place at a huge convention center. I love it. I think it’s deeply exciting.

But it’s a lot of different facets of the book industry, and it was a completely different experience to be able to go to Winter Institute and to be able to not just meet all these folks who I correspond with over social media, but also to get to go to panels on subjects I’m interested in, to go sit down at lunch with reps from various publishing companies and chat with them about what they’re excited about…To be able to sit down with publishers at dinner, too… it’s really exciting to see that side of the world that we work in.

KP: Other than the book aspect of it, learning about new books and why we should be excited about them from the reps, along with these meetings, I look forward to the industry enrichment panels that are offered at these conferences. It’s a great way to get word out about great programs like booksellers without borders, which I was lucky enough to be a part of last year. And to see the excitement grow among other booksellers is really nice.

Also, it’s a really great way to network to address issues in our industries, such as environmental impact and sustainability. Which I am actively trying to take a part in. I’m trying to help establish a committee to address those issues. So it’s really all different facets of the bookselling world: connections with publishing, but also connections with readers. It really accentuates the community that bookselling is, and that we’re a part of a larger community as well.

UM: It’s really great, too, because you do get a chance to meet other booksellers you normally wouldn’t have any interaction with. It was also interesting, to Sara’s point -- having publisher dinners, sitting with other booksellers, and having conversations with them about what we do, or coming up with and exchanging ideas, or being able to come back as a team with new ideas and brainstorming to tailor them to our needs and our bookstore in ways that are sustainable for what we want to do. It was a really great exchange.

It’s totally different from when I go to sideline conferences -- those are trade shows.

SB: It was like bookseller summer camp. But it was winter.

Really exciting, jam-packed days, really interactive -- what’s so exciting is that it is one of those opportunities to really get ahold of the industry that you’re a part of and come back to your town, your city, revived and ready to rumble. I feel like we all got a lot of very exciting ideas at WI. It’s fabulous that the ABA put together an opportunity for us to really brainstorm, and get, like, the brain trust of the book industry together to power forward and figure out what’s next, and how to continually grow.

KP: What experience was the most memorable for y’all?

UM: One of the most memorable things for me, because they’re one of my favorite publishers, was to go to the Europa Editions dinner. How their dinner was situated was that we rotated authors and were able to have real conversations with these people. At our first rotation, we didn’t just talk about her book, because we started talking about prison reform and education. Just to have those types of meetings…

Something else that was great was just having those one-on-one interactions with publishers. That was a really big thing. Those two are my ties for most memorable experience.

SB: It’s kind of hard to narrow it down, because I had a fabulous experience, for example, with the Bookselling without Borders panel, which brought together a crew of folks who had been on previous trips with BWB to go to book fairs around the world. It also brought in Michael Reynolds, who’s in charge of Europa Editions.

It was really awesome to look around the packed room (we were standing against the wall on the side, trying so hard to keep out of everyone’s way -- later, someone came up to us and said, “oh yeah, I was standing behind Keaton, I was behind his Stetson!”) and realize that there are a lot of other people who have similar levels of excitement about what we’re doing.

Also just being able to connect face to face with a lot of the authors that we are excited to sell the books of this coming year. We met Ocean Vuong and got to chat with him and get advance copies of his upcoming novel. And we got to see the lay of the land. What are publishers excited about, what are their authors excited about, and what can we pass on to our customers and Houston in terms of what’s coming up?

KP: If I had to narrow it down to one thing, I really enjoyed meeting and having dinner with Max Porter, the author of GRIEF IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS. His next book, LANNY, comes out in May and I’m really looking forward to it. Probably the single best feeling I got was seeing the utter excitement and huge line to meet and get signed books from Houston’s own Bryan Washington, whose debut collection of stories, LOT, comes out next month. We’re going to have a launch party for him. Just to see how this very Houston-centric set of stories -- it all takes place in our fair city -- is generating excitement across the rest of the nation is just really heartwarming. I couldn’t be happier.

SB: Houston’s getting a great moment in the spotlight. People are really seeing the city for what it is, and for its potential. It was really exciting.

I also loved talking about my favorite books with the folks at NYRB Classics and Archipelago.

UM: Also, dinner with New Directions was amazing. When Sara and I went there, there were eight of us. Total. Including Mieke Chew and Barbara Epler. Who gets to do that?

KP: #perksofbeingabookseller

SB: It means that not only are we able to bring excitement about individual books back to Houston, but we’re able to better convey the excitement and thought process and general ethos behind a lot of the indie presses that we already adore.

KP: It’s always a blast to go to these conferences, and to see how beloved our industry is, within itself and also with the relationship we share with publishers. Our readers have a lot of great books to look forward to. It’s going to be a lot of fun.

UM: Books AND events! Including a really exciting surprise for Independent Bookstore Day!

SB: Yeehaw.

UM: I can’t believe you just said that.

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