Wednesday, June 04, 2008

BEA: Part 1

Like any major convention, Book Expo America, the largest publishing industry trade show of the year, makes for fast friends, exhaustion, some free food and booze, and sore feet. When such a trade show occurs in your hometown, it can be devastatingly tiring -- when you get home from slogging through the convention, mingling until you feel your face has permanently frozen into a sad, misshapen smile, you get to walk your dog, do the dishes, and pay your bills. I'd rather just hit the hotel bar and pass out, but that's just me.

Thursday morning, I took the Metro to the Renaissance Hotel (or "Hotel ABA" as it was known for the convention), and immediately regretted that I'd had to work an event at the store the night before. I was about to embark on a three day long odyssey around LA, leaving business cards in my wake and I was already dog tired. Not a good sign. Immediately, I made some friends. Janet Geddis and Amy Salley are two women from Athens, Georgia who are opening a new independent bookstore there called Avid. On Thursday morning, they were two of the many people with no idea where the Grand Ballroom was located (Why put the hotel's Grand Ballroom outside the hotel? To confuse tired, caffeine-deprived conventioneers, that's why.). Having stumbled upon it earlier while searching for the registration desk, I was happy to lead the way. We chatted a bit, joined eventually by Jen, the Vroman's promotions director, as we waited for Ed Begley, Jr. to give his keynote address.

Mr. Begley spoke about how he'd come to live the incredibly eco-friendly existence he currently does, and how each of us, doing something, can make a big difference in the future of the earth. He also saluted the independent booksellers in the room for carrying on the rich tradition of independent thinking in America. His speech would prove to be a harbinger of things to come, as much of the ABA's Day of Education, and BEA in general, would focus on bookselling and its impact on the environment. Quickly after Mr. Begley was finished, I was off to my first seminar of the day, "Booksellers at the Tipping Point," a discussion of leveraging localism and the shop local movement to better brand an independent store.

I'm a big proponent of the shop local movement, beginning, like many people, I imagine, with a change in how I shop for food. This seminar offered some ideas for why people had begun to resist what seemed irresistible a few year's ago -- the allure of the big box chain retail experience. Higher fuel prices, a generally sagging economy, a desire to preserve the character of the area, all of these are reasons why people are beginning to see the benefit of staying within their immediate area when shopping for, well, just about anything. I thought there were some useful bits of insight, including the idea that, while a store like Vroman's can't compete with Amazon or some of the chain bookstores on price, it can offer a better shopping experience, winning customers with its service, its charm, its superior quality. The example given was Starbucks, which has raised the standard price of coffee by about 200%, yet offers a pleasing shopping experience. "You're not getting any bargains at Starbucks."

After a quick break and buoyed by my third cup of coffee, I went to the second seminar of the day, a panel discussion on "Thought Leadership and Children's Events." The panel, I thought, had a lot of terrific ideas for creating fun, inventive programming for kids and teenagers. The focus of the panel was how Thought Leadership, a nebulous term I understood to mean forming loose alliances with people in related industries -- zoos, non-profits, etc. -- and then rely on one another to build networks to help promote events and share ideas. The other main focus was to "give away knowledge", which is basically what we at independent bookstores do everyday. The customer comes in to learn about books, and we offer that information free of charge (the books, of course, cost money).

At lunch, I ate a mediocre sandwich (turkey, I think, but don't hold me to it), and chatted with some women who run a bookshop called The Traveler on Bainbridge Island, WA. Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now, was the luncheon speaker. She spoke about librarians protesting the Patriot Act and other simple acts of defiance. At the end, she threw her fist in the air and said, "Democracy Now!" This earned her a standing ovation from much of the room, and left several people in tears. Frankly, it was a bit heavier than I was looking to get at lunch. No matter, it was off to the afternoon panels, starting with one on managing blockbuster events.

At Vroman's, we've had our share of blockbuster events: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barbara Walters, etc., so there wasn't a lot to be learned at this panel, but we did pick up a few useful pieces of information that will no doubt come into play next time we get 500 people here for an event. After this seminar, I began to drag just a little. I went to the final meeting of the day, a report on the Shop Local movement, but I couldn't make it through the entire presentation. I blame the turkey.

As the Day of Education wound to a close, Vroman's big moment was approaching. At the ABA's annual Celebration of Bookselling, Vroman's accepted its award as Publishers Weekly's 2008 Bookseller of the Year. Our CEO Joel Sheldon III gave a fine address, saying that he wasn't, personally, the best bookseller, although he wondered allowed whether he might be the best bookstore owner (we like to think he is). After that, Allison Hill, our president, took the stage and recognized the over 120 employees who "work so hard every single day to make Vroman's the best it can be and make the world a little better." Allison got a little misty-eyed, but she held it together. I'm not embarrassed to say that at the end of her speech, it was very dusty in the Grand Ballroom.

After Vroman's was honored, the awards for sales rep of the year, and Book Sense Book of the Year were given out. Brian Selznick, who won an award for his book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, wore a plaid suit that absolutely rocked, and every woman in the audience (and probably most of the men, too) swooned as Khaled Hosseini accepted the award for fiction. He was Clooney-esque in his debonair suit.

After the reception, Edan, Jen, and a bunch of folks from Vroman's headed over to Skylight Bookstore to check out their new space and attend the Skylight & City Lights party. I took the train (I'm eco like that, Ed Begley, Jr. style) down to Patina for the Disney Book Group dinner. I'm not a huge kids book guy, but even I recognized many of the authors in attendance. Right away, I was introduced to Jonathan Stroud, who was very cool. He had taken up residence at the bar, and he and I chatted for awhile about blogging and the best way for a working author to use the internet. After I got my Basil Hayden (Is there anything better than top-shelf liquor? Yes: free top-shelf liquor), I mingled into the crowd. I talked with a few of the booksellers at the dinner, and it didn't take long before I realized that all of them knew a lot more than I did about kids' books.

When we were seated for dinner, I ended up between the kids' books buyers for a couple of major independent stores. Rick Riordan was seated at my table, and we all had a blast listening to the various authors introduce themselves, their work, and each other. Mo Willems, the famous illustrator and author, made the mistake of missing this year's dinner. His absence was greeted with applause from Dave Barry and opened him up to ridicule from pretty much every other author at the dinner. Eoin Colfer, author of the Artemis Fowl series, was as funny as most professional comedians. He even took a shot at Roald Dahl. Brian Selznick and the legendary Ann M. Martin performed a bizarre and hilarious skit for their new book The Runaway Dolls. The evening reached its peak when Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. told a joke that involved a leprechaun and a penguin coupling in the woods. Good times.

After the event, I led a group of apprehensive children's booksellers to the subway, convincing them it was a good idea to follow a scruffy webmaster they'd just met into the bowels of downtown LA. After catching the last train out of downtown, I finally returned home. Where I did the dishes and walked the dog (Nah, I'm just kidding. The dog was asleep when I got home).

All photos courtesy of Guinevere.

Tomorrow I'll post the second part of my BEA experience and discuss the ABA's new initiative IndieBound!

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At 6:27 AM, OpenID julieklam said...

I feel like I was there! Thank you, Patrick!


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