Reports from Regional Trade Shows
Synchronicity was the unofficial theme for the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association’s annual fall conference, which returned to Portland on Sept. 15 – 17 after a three-year hiatus. At the show’s “Celebration of Authors,” for example, the self-deprecating Elwood Reid recounted his strange long trip from life as a “big dumb jock” to literary success with the Doubleday thriller Midnight Sun. He off-handedly mentioned that he owes his career to a tiny independent bookstore in Michigan that jazzed up his writerly ambitions — not knowing that the owner of the bookshop The Shaman Drum, ABA board member Karl Pohrt, was in the audience at the time.
Of course, that coincidence was a mere sidelight to PNBA’s fall program. Attendance of over 600 was up from the Spokane show last year — and included booksellers from 155 stores and exhibitors from 150 vendors. The numbers were down from three years ago, however, and it was clear that employee shortage is a chronic problem in this land of high-tech campuses, putting pressure on many a bookseller to stay home and mind the store.
Among the roster of Friday’s panels was the euphemistically titled “The Changing Role of the Sales Rep,” in which Graphic Arts rep Jim Harris and others noted the downward spiral of fewer stores and reps and the upward spiral of titles in reps’ bags. But the end of the session saw a sort of cathartic reconciliation, with Harris promoting his longstanding belief in “working for the store,” or having reps strengthen partnerships with bookstores via informed title suggestions targeted to a store’s specific market. As for BookSense, the ABA can rest assured: sign-ups came so fast and furious that staffers had to dash out to the nearest Kinko’s to run off more program materials.
Meanwhile, bookseller attendance was also up at the New England Booksellers Association, climbing more than seven percent during this year’s event at Boston’s World Trade Center, held on Sept. 22–25. As at PNBA, the dot-com drain on the talent pool seemed to be on everyone’s mind. As Harvard Book Store’s Carole Horne said, “We usually take as many of the floor staff and managers as possible to NEBA. This year, we just couldn’t because we don’t have them.”
But despite the staffing woes, NEBA executive director Rusty Drugan said that more than 1,538 booksellers were on hand, while overall registration rose six percent to 2,646. Drugan cited plentiful book orders (David Godine boasted that he had written “50 orders” himself) and record seminar attendance. At the opening day luncheon, NEBA awarded, posthumously, the Saul Gilman Award for outstanding New England sales rep to Marc Seagar, a NEBA founder and a popular 34-year bookselling presence. Seamus Heaney received the President’s Award for Lifetime Achievement; Heaney accepted as a “New Englander” (he teaches part-time at Harvard) and donated his $1,000 prize to the Irish Immigration Center.
Despite brisk orders, some publishers noted that the Northeast remains “depressed.” One sales manager mentioned the closing of Lauriat’s, while Waterstone’s and LearningSmith have also shut down in recent years. The venerable Bookland of Maine chain, meanwhile, has been in bankruptcy court this year, and its usual show presence was missed. “But,” said another sales manager, “New England is a briar-patch. Many older communities are just too small for a chain to invade. These stores are professional ‘survivors.’” Of course, non-indies were welcome at the show as well. Borders reps were plentiful, and B&N’s new Northeast regional buyer, Noel Pasco, was sighted in the company of B&N small press director Marcella Smith.
We thank Jennifer McCord and Christopher Kerr for their contributions to this article.