Bookseller Kiran Dass gets ready to sharpen her skills in Denver, CO

Kiran Dass is one of two booksellers from New Zealand currently en route to Denver Colorado for the 11th Winter Institute conference, where she will be hobnobbing with booksellers from all over the USA and the world. The Winter Institute is run by our American cousins, the American Booksellers Assocation, and Booksellers NZ is very grateful to have our scholarships sponsored by Canadian eReader company, Kobo. 

We asked Kiran a few questions including why she does what she does for a living, what she is most looking forward to about the experience, and what she’ll be reading on the way there.

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What made you want a career in bookselling?
If you’re doing it properly, bookselling can be quite mentally, physically and emotionally invigorating work! I find it stimulating and rewarding from so many different angles.

Every day on the shop floor brings the satisfying pleasure of being able to effectively engage in a dialogue about books with our customers. It’s quite a special relationship, and it’s built on trust, you know. Because when you learn about what sorts of books a customer likes, you are actually gaining quite a personal, intimate insight into who they are and what makes them tick. It sounds like such a cliché, but it’s true, there really is nothing quite as satisfying as being able to instinctively put the right book into a customer’s hands and introducing them to the book they didn’t even realise they were searching for. And they always come back. To be able to open those doors for readers is such a privilege.

Of course, Unity Books transcends being merely a bricks-and-mortar retail space. Bookshops are at the heart of any community. They’re where ideas are formed and shared and that’s the kind of place I want to be. Put simply, it’s the books and the people that make it for me.
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Tell us the three main things you hope to get out of your attendance at the Winter Institute?

I think the conference will be a brilliant opportunity to connect with booksellers from around the world – there will be around 500 attendees. Over ten years I’ve had the absolute pleasure of working for two of the best independent bookshops in New Zealand, and so I’m looking forward to meeting and engaging with people from all different facets of the book trade in an international context. The conference this year seems geared towards best practices for booksellers, which of course is of interest – as a bookseller, I am always keen to refine and sharpen my bookselling skills and knowledge.

What sessions during the conference are you looking forward to the most, and why?
The Education for International Booksellers session will no doubt be fascinating and useful in terms of exploring trends in U.S. bookselling. I think it will be an interesting discussion led by a panel of experienced American booksellers who embrace adapting the fast changing challenges of bookselling. Americans are world-class at marketing any product, and at Unity we keep a keen eye on American literary trends so I think it will be an informative and valuable session.

Because I am interested in the wider arena of the book trade and the different relationships within it, the Economics of Publishing session will provide an insight into the financial and logistical realities of publishing and how this relates to bookselling.

The retail bookselling session looks like a practical crash-course on the essentials of opening a new bookshop or buying an existing shop. Let’s find out the nitty gritty of what this takes!

Backlist titles are one of my passions – those enduring personal favourites that you can really get behind, so I’m really intrigued by the Backlist Bookswap Party, too. To be honest, I just want to get to as much as I can during the conference, and to talk to as many different people as possible!

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What do you know about the bookstore you will be working with while over there? What will be your focus as a take-away?
Book Soup! When I found out I was being placed in a bookshop in Los Angeles, I secretly (well, actually not so secretly!) crossed my fingers and hoped that I would end up at Book Soup because I have heard that it is similar in spirit to Unity Books and their stock looks absolutely amazing – my manager Jo is a big fan of Book Soup and described it as “Unity Books x 3!” And many of our customers who have been there come back raving about it. I think I did an excited little dance on the spot when I found out my Book Soup wish came true!

Of course, I am a huge music nut and Book Soup proudly proclaims that “Book Soup has been serving readers, writers, artists, rock & rollers, and celebrities since it was founded by Glenn Goldman in 1975!” To me, that sounds like just the ticket. They also hold a dizzying array of in-store author events which I am looking forward to observing – and amazing authors, too. They recently hosted a book signing for Grace Jones when her memoir was published. The idea of a week at Book Soup immersing myself in the culture and dynamic of the shop is absolutely thrilling. I’m really keen to observe and learn more about their bookselling practices and the nuts and bolts of the running of an independent bookshop in the States.

What are you planning to read in the plane on the way there?
Oh, I’m really excited about this one. I’ve been saving this book for months. Fortuitously and in a rare instance, I don’t have to read for reviewing purposes while I’m on this scholarship, which means I can read a book for my own pleasure and immerse myself without having to have all my critical faculties blazing from all angles and having to stop every paragraph to scribble down notes.
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So I am taking Lucia Berlin’s extraordinarily singular and wonderful A Manual For Cleaning Women which I started over the Christmas break. To be honest, while I’m a huge fan of classic short stories by Richard Yates and John Cheever, I don’t tend to gravitate to short stories. But as soon as I read about Lucia Berlin and her backstory, I knew I’d love her before I even began. And two stories into this collection, I wasn’t wrong.

And of course, I’m looking forward to firing up my Kobo eReader!

Helen Wadsworth, from the Dorothy Butler Children’s Bookshop in Ponsonby, is the other recipient of Booksellers Kobo Scholarship to Denver. We will feature her answers to similar questions back on this blog tomorrow.

If you are just now wondering how on earth you get chosen to receive a Kobo Scholarship, let Cherie Donovan know you may be interested in applying for 2017 – she will make sure you get the form once applications are open in the next couple of months.

Jared Raines and Jenna Todd: Kiwis’ Take on U.S. Bookselling

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This article is by Alex Mutter, and reproduced from Shelf Awareness.

Jared Raines (left) and Jenna Todd (3rd in), two indie booksellers from New Zealand, attended Winter Institute 9 in Seattle, Washington, thanks to a sponsorship from Kobo and a contest run by Booksellers New Zealand (the N.Z. equivalent of the ABA). As part of the arrangement, the two booksellers also spent the week after Winter Institute working at two Seattle-area indies. Todd, manager of Time Out Bookstore in Auckland, worked at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park and Ravenna, Wash., while Raines, owner and manager of Paperplus Northlands in Christchurch, worked at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle.

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Raines, whose own store is an approximately 2,560-sq.-ft. general-interest bookshop with a copying center, said that the most obvious differences between Paperplus Northlands and Elliott Bay were the sheer size and volume of stock of the latter.

“There is also less of a focus on sideline product in the U.S. than we have in N.Z.,” Raines added. “Most bookstores in our group have a very strong personal and commercial stationery offering.”

Raines’s store, which was opened by his family 33 years ago, has been franchised by several different brands and has traded under a number of names, the first of which was Target Books & Stationery. Raines began working in the family business in 1996, when he was 14. In 2010, he took over full management of the business. He currently employs 12 staff members; during the holidays, that increases to 15 or 16.

Another key difference between bookselling in N.Z. and the U.S., Raines said, was the lack of wholesalers in the former. N.Z. indies, he explained, really have only publishers as their main suppliers.

“This does at times cause issues, as publishers make printing decisions based on sell-in numbers,” Raines explained. Indies typically cannot afford to buy three or four months worth of stock at release, which often leads to the underprinting of N.Z. titles. And, aside from Random House and some local publishers, the majority of large publishers have consolidated their New Zealand operations with their offices in Australia. This has led to complications with shipments; a delivery within 3-5 days is considered fast. If the wholesale model were adopted in N.Z., Raines asserts, that could go a long way in solving these problems.

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Todd was struck in a pp_jenna_toddsimilar way by the size of Third Place Books. Her own store occupies approximately 700 square feet of a long, narrow heritage building, with an upper floor devoted to events and community gatherings. Time Out carries around 17,000 volumes across many genres; the store’s only focus, Todd said, was on “the best of the best.” She reported that literary fiction, children’s books and coffee table books do particularly well.

The frequency of author events at American indies and the relatively low price of books compared to N.Z. also struck Todd. Author visits are rare for most N.Z. indies, although Time Out is fortunate to have author Eleanor Catton as a regular customer (the launch party for The Luminaries, Catton’s Booker Prize-winning novel, was held at the store). She attributed both differences to New Zealand “being at the bottom of the world.”

“However,” Todd added, “one thing I learned when I was visiting all of these excellent stores in Seattle is that we just slot right alongside their high caliber–Time Out is just as excellent and special!”

Todd has worked at Time Out for four years, and has been manager for two. There are 12 staff members, most of whom work part time and are involved in a range of creative endeavors (Todd, for example, is a photographer, and the store also employs a director, an actress, a writer and a musician).

What they learned
Todd said overall of the Winter Institute that “there was just immeasurable value from just talking and spending time with all of the wonderful book people who attended WI9. It was such a fantastic experience.”

Similarly, Raines said he appreciated the people at WI9. “I really was made to feel like part of the U.S. bookselling community,” he said. “The most interesting thing I learned while there is that we all have the ability to survive the changing retail climate that is hitting our industry; we must work hard to be involved in our community, and be more than just a store full of product.”

And as for what he brought to Elliott Bay, Raines reported that his American counterparts were frequently interested in his retail system and his store’s security camera system. He also provided, he added, the “terrible Kiwi accent and colloquialisms!” –Alex Mutter

This piece was originally published in Shelf Awareness for Tuesday 11 March, the American Bookselling Association’s newsletter.

Bookselling is a people industry: Wi9 Seattle for Jenna Todd

I’m finding it difficult to put in to words all that I soaked in during the American Bookseller’s Winter Institute in Seattle, Washington; but I will try my best!

We arrived on the Sunday afternoon that the Seahawks were playing a game to get into the Superbowl finals. Which meant that the city was eerily dead, the notorious traffic was a breeze and there was a hilarious amalgamation of easily distinguished football fans and booksellers at our hotel, the Westin Seattle. Our New Zealand contingent (pictured below: Jared Raines, Mary Sangster, Jenna Todd and Lincoln Gould) came slightly earlier to recover from the long flight and also attend a dinner with the 50 other international Wi9 attendees. But over the next few days, the football fans were out, and 500 booksellers, publishers and authors filled two central hotels to the brim.
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The ABA organised many of these visiting booksellers to go on a full day Seattle bookstore tour; something I had really been looking forward to.While exhausting, I did find it extremely enlightening. We visited a large variety of stores – some were huge, most were medium-sized. We saw a children’s bookstore, a university bookstore and a travel bookstore (just like Notting Hill.) We ferried to a store on an island – the common factor of all of these stores was that they sold socks. I did not see a store as small as Time Out – but I was extremely happy to feel our store was just as fantastic as the stores we were visiting.

Seattle is the home of Amazon and 15,000 of their employees. Despite this, the Indie bookstores I visited seem to be on the up in terms of both sales and community engagement – thanks largely to a nationwide change in consumer behaviour, dubbed the Localism movement. There is good reading about the Localism Movement here. You can also find good reading about the independent bookstore movement worldwide here on the Indiebound NZ website.

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The Wi9 officially started on a Tuesday night, at a reception at the large and beautiful Elliott Bay Book Company on grungy Capitol Hill (above). We drunk tap wine, ate sliders and celebrated being booksellers! The atmosphere was terrific and this continued throughout the week.

The conference blew through very quickly. Author Sherman Alexie spoke of his love of Indie Bookstores and author Dan Heath spoke of being decisive. There were daily workshops for international booksellers. Indie Booksellers from all over America told us what to read this year. We listened to Scholastic authors speak while eating ice-cream sundaes. There was a room of advanced reading copies that we could just take, box up and send at a FedEx desk set up in a corner. We could also meet authors of these reading copies and get them signed! (see Jenna below with author Ruth Ozeki)

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There were so many special afternoon sessions to choose from and attend – I’m sure every attendee of Wi9 would have had a unique experience. I learned about selling sensitive teen fiction, I listened to how bookstores run their killer events, how to push word of mouth marketing and listened to owners of successful independent businesses in Seattle.

It was a whirlwind of ideas; meetings and swapping business cards over filtered Starbucks and boxed lunches. We ate delicious dinners with the most interesting people and then continued on conversations in the Westin lobby until 2am.
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Wi9 bought some of the most wonderful and passionate booksellers together, and I felt incredibly lucky to be a part of these conversations.

The best comments I heard about the book industry was from European International Booksellers Federation chair, Irishman John McNamee, who dropped a pearl of wisdom every time he spoke. ‘Machines don’t write books and machines don’t read books. Bookselling is a people industry.’ The main thing I believe I have taken away from the Wi9 is that we need passionate booksellers and publishers to continue and grow the wonderful communities we have based around our bookstores. ‘We do not choose our customers, they choose us’ (another gem from John) and we need to give them reasons to continue spending their money locally.

by Jenna Todd, Kobo scholarship recipient 2014, and Manager of Time Out Bookstore in Mt Eden