Maybe it’s the allure of hotel coffee and bad box lunches, but I do love this conference. More than that, I love independent booksellers. Taken out of context,we are a worrisome group – (mostly) Introverted readers who also run businesses that employ introverted readers and sell books to other introverts. Definitely not a textbook business plan. As a group, though, we are thought leaders. We shape and define the literary conversation. As Ann Patchett said in her speech this morning, we are capable of creating trends just by willing it to be so.
Ok, I skipped out on the last two educational sessions today. Give me a break – I have been social and outgoing for a solid 4 1/2 hours. I need solitary time. Just me and my keyboard.
But let’s talk about the past 4 1/2 hours here in New Orleans, where 500 of my closest bookselling friends are gathered to talk to each other about this rebellious, resilient industry of ours.
I didn’t think I’d like listening to the President and CEO of Ingram, but I actually sort of did (whilst remembering the very uncomfortable conference call a couple of years ago wherein the credit department of said wholesaler scolded me for paying our bill a few days late each month). I set down the chip on my shoulder long enough to actually benefit from what he said, and I came away remembering this most of all:
(paraphrased) If selling books is your main focus, you will fail.
My first instinct was to dismiss him. I didn’t take two planes to The Big Easy to be told that if I focus on selling books, I’ll die. But he illustrated his point by talking about a company that had been a leader for over 100 years, who invented laptop word processors, and introduced the first PDA to the world – Smith-Corona. Their mission: To be the best typewriter company in the world” was too single focused, too narrow, and technology upstarts devoured them.
I started thinking about my quest to be the best bookstore in St. Louis. I realized I was thinking too narrowly about who we are and what we do. Certainly we must choose a path that is focused with laser-like specificity – do one thing and do it well – but what if the definition of that thing is unchained from its dock? Does it float out to sea, or does it gain steam and chart a new course? What if we redefine what it means to be a bookstore?
I definitely don’t have the answer to that. Most of my professional life is spent balancing two ideas: preserving the the core identity and traditions of our 42 year old store (and hundreds of years old profession), and pioneering uncharted territory to ensure its future.
For Christmas I learned how to tool leather and made a guitar strap for my son that says, “Be truthful, gentle and fearless.” (a quote from Gandhi) It has become my mantra in days of uncertainty. I have trouble with being fearless, but I do feel good about the armada of other souls who are untethered from their docks, who are choosing to chart similar courses with me.