SF Bay Area to the World – Praveen Madan, CEO of Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, California is on a mission: to ensure a bright future for independent bookstores and their community of stakeholders- employees, owners/leaders, readers, writers, publishers, and partners. His new project, Reimagining Bookstores, is a consortium of sorts that focuses on helping independent book stores increase literacy and interest in reading, strengthen communities, and pay employees living wages.
Others have joined Madan in this movement, and he and his team have been monitoring the changing landscape of commerce, particularly book selling, for some time. With an eye toward re-identifying to the world the importance of independent book stores as community hubs as well as sources of books and related products, Madan and those he calls “allies in the movement” are working to help independent book sellers fully realize their potential to not only survive but also thrive despite competition (big box stores and Amazon) and rising costs of operations.
Madan and his team recently completed their kick-off event for Reimagining Bookstores: a highly successful two-day virtual gathering of some 600 book sellers, publishers, distributors, authors, readers and book lovers from around the world. Using Zoom and Open Space forum, attendees were afforded real-time conversations with others in the trade that addressed a spectrum of challenges to the independent book store.
–THE NEEDS OF THE INDEPENDENT COMMUNITY BOOK STORE-
Why, you may ask, is this message of re-imagination and re-thinking especially needed now? Because, as in the words of attendee and community book store supporter Kathy Brozek:
“A lot of people don’t even know there’s a challenge to independent book stores…”
Madan’s experience as CEO of Kepler’s Books & Magazines in Silicon Valley-adjacent Menlo Park, combined with his heart for independent book selling, gives him a unique standing in tandem with his calling to industry peers and collaborators for “help” to keep community bookstores, as was suggested in one conversation, alive and well.
“Imagine bookstores with new ways to engage their communities, easy access to funding and new business models…,” Madan inspires. “Now imagine these bookstores having strategies to increase readership, attract and retain high-caliber staff, and provide meaningful careers paying meaningful wages….”
Sound utopian or, even, impossible? This underscores the importance of the gathering that just took place…
–HARNESSING TECHNOLOGY – THE BRAVE NEW WORLD OF (OLD) OPEN SPACE-
With the loss of Book Expo America, the (pre-Covid, physical) annual gathering of the publishing industry, independent book store owners across the country lost the ability to connect during any American Book Sellers Association (ABA)-facilitated plenary sessions. Going “virtual” via Zoom is a huge move, one enabling simultaneous gathering of many stakeholders. Further, Madan’s choice to operate in Open Space format and engage via Google Docs allowed attendees to not only choose which discussions to join but also design and host their own, topic-driven, break-out rooms- and then record the results on a master document that could be viewed real-time by all.
Madan and his team took a quantum leap in their quest this week, even without face-to-face meetings, to begin achieving Reimagining Bookstores‘ overall goals: “to transform America’s bookstores into next-generation community bookstores, to help literary entrepreneurs open new bookstores in book deserts, and to help bookstores strengthen their place in the hearts of their communities as thriving centers of ideas and conversations.”
Using the principles of Open Space technology, ie, with no agenda, for a gathering of this nature was described by attendee Art Scott as “an historic event” from many standpoints, but most especially “tech.” Madan’s event host team included experts in various specialties from tech (Ben Roberts, who shared that he’s “been involved with organizing Open Space meetings for some eleven years,” Sono Hashisaki (Open Space specialist, remote from Washington State), and Henry Zatarain, a local Kepler’s employee) to organizational change (Peggy Holman, Journalism That Matters, hosting remotely from Seattle); Michelle Ferrier (Media Innovation Collaboratory); Sandra Janoff (Future Search Network; remote from Philadelphia); Evan Karp (Quiet Lightening); Jyotsna Maan (social learning communities co-creator, remote from Iowa); Nancy White (group process practitioner); and Paul Wright (Berrett-Koehler Foundation).
This event went so smoothly that one can only imagine much time and preparation was poured into it, and no stone- technical, business, spiritual, or psych/sociological- went unturned as participants were invited to dream and collaborate during break-out sessions and also welcomed to enter “butterfly” (or social) space in between (or even during) conversations in progress. Participants were made more than comfortable to transcend the informational level of sharing and move beyond the personal and into relational- important. At the conclusion of the event, participants were asked to stand and extend arms so as to indicate- if even only on-screen- the community’s close connection between individuals despite any physical separation.
It was obvious this project was a labor of love when at event’s end, Madan thanked his team and those who attended, fending off compliments by sharing that planning and execution took “a lot of very early California-time and late night meetings…” That commitment and effort paid off as evidenced by the number of participants who stayed to attend throughout the entirety of the two-day gathering. Madan and his Reimagining Bookstores team not only created a highly successful virtual gathering of some of the greatest of book industry and media minds but also one that was as inclusive, level, and perhaps far richer, even, than they could ever have imagined.
–THE COLLABORATIVE PARTIES & IDENTIFIED ISSUES-
“When we were deciding to do this, people were joking that it would be me and my ten best friends,” Madan shared. However, the response and participation were more than robust: all 600 spots for online attention were spoken for prior to the event start date- and, no, there was no “SRO”! Independent book stores across the country were represented both by management and staff (see list below), together with various members of the publishing, distribution, literary and other book-selling related concerns. Evidently, the time is now for the independent book selling community to come together to, well, re-imagine…
Additional co-hosts for this inaugural event included Berrett-Koehler Publishers (Steve Piersanti), Publishers Weekly (Alex Green), Shelf Awareness (Matthew Baldacci), and Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA). Among other important industry players attending and bringing their wisdom and knowledge to the mix were Random House‘s Ruth Liebmann, Grove Atlantic‘s Morgan Entrekin, Hachette’s Meghan Vortherms, Harper Collins‘ Kathleen Faber, Highlight‘s Ed White, Hyperion‘s Claudia Bautista, multiple reps from Macmillan, multiple reps from Heyday,Sourcebooks’ Broche Aroe Fabian, Emerson Collective’s William Ames, The Washington Post‘s Ron Charles, multiple reps from Libro.fm Audiobooks,Romero Libro fm‘s Albee Dalbotten, Seminary Co-Op’s Jeff Deustch, multiple reps from Penguin, Ballantine’s Dawn Emory, Nomadic Press‘ J.K. Fowler, Graywolf Press‘ Ethan Nosowsky, Copperfish Books‘ Lucile Perkins-Wagel, multiple reps from University of Chicago Press, University Press‘ Lanora Jennings, CALIBA‘s Ann Seaton, other literary movers and shakers who were attending “stealth” from the reporter’s insider report, as well as, even, someone from Barnes & Noble…
Others attending in support of community book stores included representatives from the New York City Mayor’s office, Emerson Collective, Yahoo, Facebook, Genentech, Rutgers University, UCSD Rady School of Management, Centre for Global Inclusion, Bay Area Book Festival, Chicago Literacy Alliance, East Palo Alto Charter School, City of Alexandria, Earth ICT, Partnership Advantage, and North Carolina Writers’ Network. All of these parties, while not book sellers, are stakeholders and parties otherwise very interested in the future of independent book selling. Their perspectives were more than invaluable contributions to this open forum.
The high points of the intense discussions included the call to action to independent book store owners from Madan to “Know when to ask for help…,” as well the specific areas raised to which booksellers are invited to not only seek help from but also offer help to fellow sisters and brothers in the trade. The highly inclusive and deeply personal exchanges identified new ideas- arising from new concerns- that will be topic for future conversations: examining how to improve wages and also offer benefits such as health care coverage for employees; exploring new business/legal models- such as those like a non-profit, cooperative, or a hybrid of these; discerning how and where to apply for affordable financing and, if eligible, for community and other grant opportunities (such as those available to arts organizations); identifying and accessing sources of revenue via donations and memberships that can underwrite training and other skills development.
As per book seller tradition, other areas of needs discussed include: continuing advocacy for community book sellers emphasizing the value of books and book stores; strategizing to increase readership and best potentiating community literacy; exploring and developing relationships with publishers that are as mutually beneficial as possible.
The business model of the independent book store is unique in that it has, probably, the highest ratio of overhead costs to profits of all book sales models while also most striving (and concerned about) rent and overhead expenses while also paying living wages to and healthcare for employees. Working to apply out-of-the-box thinking, discussion groups considered various ways stores could bring in money in addition to “just selling books.” Including other stakeholders in this gathering- publishers, for one- greatly enriched any brain storming.
Looking to the creative arts organizations as role models, book sellers are considering connecting with philanthropic funders. Other business model ideas tossed around included the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model that provided funds to community farmers. Another included tapping schools for book selling internships programs in order to save on payroll. Still another includes creating a system of support such as the one for public television, specifically NPR. Still another book store is set up as a foundation, with a set number of donors the financial support from whom “keeps the lights on” and pays a manager and one helper.
Something some independent book stores have had as ace in the hole is the ability to adapt and provide more focused hospitality in their smaller, cozier, and even in some cases movie-theater, coffee-shop, or wine-bar-adjacent locations. In-store events, a topic brought to table at one of the Re-imagining Bookstores break-out sessions, can generate excitement and buzz for the authors, create traffic, and even make publishers quick money- or not. Despite the fact that not everyone attending an event makes a purchase (or purchases later, or elsewhere) in-store (or off-site) events undeniably create an invaluable authentic community atmosphere and provide a space in which relationships between book sellers, authors, readers, and other interested parties can grow and flourish- something we need right now just coming out of sheltering-in-place for so long. While these events used to be generously supported with promotional assistance from major publishers, there may have been some changes such that this is no longer the case. This is one of several areas that garnered a position on the group’s event “further discovery” list- and rightly so.
“These (small store) events help in curation and discovery,” Morgan Entrekin, publisher at Grove Atlantic said. “That is two things they (bigger stores) cannot do. The key in the publisher’s lifeblood are indies. We have always put more resources into backing these events in ways like galleys, ARC’s (advanced reader copies), event co-op, etc. We’ve never quit this, and we don’t understand why large corporations (publishers) don’t recognize that more…”
The summation of the three groups’ ideas recorded on the Open Source platform will be available shortly to all who attended, many of whom are hoping for another opportunity to connect again, across industries- book selling, publishing, distribution, writing, reading, and more- in this same way. And while this productive gathering took place in a way that is considered “historical,” optimizing use of the best of Silicon Valley’s technology, Madan says he “hopes people don’t just think of this as ‘some Silicon Valley thing…’”
“Somebody said to me, ‘oh, that’s so Silicon Valley,” Madan shared in reference to his assertion that bookstores need to be reimagined as a social cause and should be funded by their communities and other philanthropic sources similar to how libraries and public radio and television stations are funded, adding, “I told her, ‘not really.’ Generosity was not invented in Silicon Valley, it’s built in to humanity. That’s what we’re trying to keep alive.”
Fortunately, one strong theme was palpable during the two days’ collaborative time: the independent book selling community is still passionately interested in serving those who love books and reading and also in working togetheras a way of not only surviving but also thriving in that service in all ways- community, business, staffing. They are also deeply committed to fostering and enriching community within their business niche. As one ReimaginingBookstores team member, Sono Hashisaki, shared at the event close: “I had no idea of the love for books and also for each other in this group…”
I’m confident that’s a blessed under-statement…
Stay tuned for the results of future such important Reimagining Bookstores gatherings.
Nota bene: A list of the independent bookstores taking part in the Reimagining Bookstores appears below for your reference now and for holiday. Happy Shopping! And thank you, in advance, for supporting independent community book stores!