BEA. To go, or not to go, that was the question. With my new baby, Perfect Pines Books and Gifts still in its infancy, I had to ask myself first if I could afford to go. That question had an easy answer, but only if I wanted to be completely honest with myself. “No.” So, I admitted that I couldn’t really afford the expense of attending Book Expo America in New York and ended the internal dialog. And then THEY started talking. You know them. Most people refer to them as the angel and devil duo, and they are often depicted perched on opposite shoulders. I would have settled for just two voices arguing for or against attending, but instead I got to put up with the fan, the reader, the journalist, the novelist, the cartoonist, the satirist, the biographer, the self-help guru, the adventurer, the traveler, the book and book bag collector and a host of other bookish and not-so-bookish types that weren’t satisfied with the usual suspects—time and money—being the only voices to chime in on my decision.
In the end, the deciding vote was cast by a genre I should be more familiar with—Fantasy. I was going to go, and somehow it was all going to work out. I figured the rest of the cast would have fun with that resolution as it developed. With no wizards, faeries, or similar other-worldly types to intervene on my behalf, I turned to a few characters in my life that tend to lean toward the heroic when faced with a damsel in distress. Fantasy became reality and my happily ever after, at least for the immediate future, was secure. I was going to BEA. My Prince Charming would hold down the fort . . . er . . . castle and take care of the prince and princess, and in lieu of a horse-drawn carriage, I’d be transported to the big city in a horseless carriage accompanied by my father, who would be too tickled if I referred to him as The King.
I had some plans to make, but in keeping with the fairy tale adventure, much of the work had already been done for me. Kudos go to the ABA, which chose a top notch hotel for their members, and who were so friendly and helpful throughout BEA. The Brooklyn Marriot was a treat. The rooms were clean, full of amenities, and the entire staff was friendly, helpful and quick to offer assistance. The shuttle service between the Marriot and the Javits Center was very efficient and user-friendly. No need to navigate, just board bus #5 and ride. We were able to flip through catalogs, review the daily schedule, or finish off our morning coffee while our drivers did all the hard work of navigating through Gotham. We used the shuttle bus, exclusively, to make the trek to BEA and back each day. These accommodations, combined with ABA’s bag check service and the Book Sense Lounge, ensured that we felt quite spoiled during our time at Book Expo America. The bag check was a much appreciated benefit that allowed us to drop off our books, catalogs, and so many other goodies so that we could enjoy the Expo without lugging a heavy bag around—a much welcomed convenience. Adding to our enjoyment of the Expo was the Book Sense Lounge and staff, who provided much needed refreshments and a friendly place to take a short break. (I finally did figure out that food, drink, and rest were necessary, even at BEA, and the Book Sense people apparently knew this before I did. They even had that most important of all food items, chocolate! 🙂
Day one of BEA was almost happily ever after. All that was lacking was air conditioning. The heat in the Javits convention center was a bit stifling, and felt nearly as hot as it was outside—somewhere in the 90s—but most seemed to take it in stride. Hats off to the many authors who still reached out to press palms with their devoted, if somewhat soggy, fans. We whined a bit, and fanned ourselves with promotional cards, as we waited in long lines to meet our favorite authors and to collect their coveted signatures and wonderful books, but when it was finally our turn, the wait was more than worth it. The day was filled with memories and our bags soon overflowed with treasures. No worry—it seemed that there were more bags at almost every booth. I couldn’t help but be a bit overwhelmed as I found myself face to face with authors whose work I have long admired. Although the long queues meant that greetings had to be exchanged quickly, there was no mistaking the excitement that so many of us felt as we anticipated our turn to thank our favorite authors, or to get the opportunity to preview the debut novel of a talented writer, yet unknown, who may soon be a prize-winning or bestselling author.
I spent most of day one, and day two for that matter, completely star-struck and awed. Maybe the heat had something to do with it, but I felt a bit of a “buzz,” a natural high. Of course, hunger and dehydration could have contributed. When Dad called me on my cell phone to tell me that he had pizza waiting in the food court, I wondered how anyone could take the time out to eat! Even waiting in line provided opportunities to meet other booksellers, collectors, librarians, fans, and even a few authors! What a helpful group of folks. On one occasion, a married bookselling duo with two adorable daughters gave me a printed copy of the autographing schedule when I lamented, out loud, that I had forgotten to bring mine to the convention center. Others allowed me to sneak out of line to grab a catalog from a nearby booth I hadn’t yet visited, or to zip over to the Petite Chef booth to accept a smoothie being offered. On the bus trip to Javits, another bookseller surprised me with a copy of a book that suggests great reads for book clubs—a much appreciated gift for a bookseller with a new shop. I returned those favors with little offerings of my own whenever possible, but the overall feeling that these many small kindnesses added up to isn’t something that can be easily returned or repaid. Almost without exception, everyone was polite, enthusiastic, and quick to offer assistance, suggestions and tips, not only for navigating my first BEA, but also for my new book shop. I learned so much from so many!
There were so many highlights of our time at BEA. Being presented with signed, advance copies of the 40th Anniversary Edition of S.E. Hinton’s, The Outsiders, James Patterson’s next novel, You’ve Been Warned, Judy Blume’s new book, Soupy Saturdays with the Pain and the Great One, and Jan Brett’s beautiful new title, The Three Snow Bears (which will make a wonderful gift, by the way), were among the many generous presents that were lavished on attendees. In so many ways, this gathering is like Christmas for book lovers of all ages. So many authors, so many books, and so little time! Even with Dad and I both waiting our turns in the various lines, there were so many authors we didn’t get to meet. Each line that we chose meant several we would have to miss, and it was so hard to choose. No matter which line I found myself in, however, there was one constant. The authors were all so incredibly kind and gracious. I asked many authors if I could take their picture for my book shop, and almost without exception, they not only allowed the picture, but often took a second to pose for me (lines/time allowing) and many even asked if I would like to be in the picture. It was so awesome to be standing next to these talented authors and illustrators whose work I so admire, and to meet up and coming authors. I realized, as I chatted with authors whose work was, as yet, unfamiliar to me, that I could play a part in bringing their work to others. In fact, I had already decided on a few books that I knew I wanted to share with my customers before I had even eaten that cold piece of pizza on day one! It was, at once, an empowering and humbling epiphany that brought with it an overwhelming sense of excitement and was tempered, a bit, by an equally impressive sense of responsibility. Publisher’s Weekly, in their “Show Daily, Day 2,” quoted Roger Cooper of Vanguard Press as saying, “It’s about people and books. It may be about too many books, but it’s still about books.” I am usually quick to say that one can never have too many books, but if you have to haul them back with you, indeed you can have too many. But the point of Mr. Cooper’s comment is, for many of us in the book business, the point of it all. “It’s about people and books.” Mr. Cooper wisely puts the people first, and those of us who work in this business are wise to be mindful of that. I had the feeling, at BEA, that the authors—even those who had already achieved a degree of fame and financial comfort—hadn’t forgotten to put people first.
People, books and for some of us, BEA was about food, too. Dad and I found that we didn’t have to go far to find GREAT food and service. In fact, a memorable dining experience was within walking distance from our hotel in Brooklyn. We might have missed out, but along with our morning coffee at ABA on day two was an ARC of a soon to be released cookbook featuring cheesecake recipes from Junior’s—a restaurant and bakery right there in Brooklyn. What a way to top off a wonderful day! Dad and I shared two meals, lobster tails and chicken parmesan, and found both to be absolutely delicious. I am surprised that I even had room for the main course after enjoying relishes, cornbread and rolls, and my salad. But somehow, I found room. We did, however, end up getting our desserts to go. Dad opted for the strawberry cheesecake which was piled high with gigantic strawberries, and on our waiter’s suggestion, I chose the carrot cake cheesecake. I had taken his advice on which entrée to choose, and he hadn’t let me down. It took Dad almost three days to finish his substantial slice of cheesecake. I’ll blame BEA for my appetite, but I polished off half of my cheesecake that evening back at the hotel, and enjoyed the rest with coffee for breakfast on day 3. If you love good food, great service, and cheesecake, you have to stop at Junior’s! If you can’t wait ‘til your next visit to New York, may I suggest a wonderful new cookbook coming out in October? You can pick up your copy ofJunior’s Cheesecake Cookbook; 50 To-Die-For Recipes for New York-Style Cheesecake, by Alan Rosen and Beth Allen, at Perfect Pines Books and Gifts, in Hale, Michigan.
The afternoon of day two at BEA found me playing a game of mental tug of war. Although meeting authors and getting to preview their new books was so much fun, and such a treat, I knew that the bookseller in me needed to be visiting those booths and talking with those representatives from so many publishing houses and companies. I knew that my baby, my book shop, would benefit from their knowledge and that I needed to make some valuable connections with the people and companies that could help my small business to survive, and hopefully, eventually, thrive. It’s about people, and books, but we can’t work for people, or with books, if we don’t make at least some money. (I think this is where the food part comes in. Ya gotta eat!) In addition to realizing that my business needed to make some money, I also knew that I couldn’t stock every new title, and I would have to make some tough decisions when I placed my orders in the coming year. I needed some guidance in that process, and the people who could help with that weren’t in the autographing lines. They were in the booths with their books. The night before, at a lovely reception sponsored by Harper Collins, which featured presidential memorabilia (and wonderful treats, by the way), I met Roslyn, who gently reminded me that I was here on business. I needed to get out of the lines and get into those booths. So I did. The reader in me moped, but in the end, I was glad that I pulled myself away and set out to see what books, products, and services would benefit my beloved book shop. My Dad likes to say that we don’t know what we don’t know—I don’t know where he came up with such a saying—but anyway, my visits with various exhibitors and representatives showed me that there was still much that I didn’t know I didn’t know.
This was my first BEA, and I wasn’t exactly sure how “things” were done. As it turned out, I didn’t need to know it all, or to be savvy. I mustered up the courage to walk into the Harcourt booth and say, “HELP!” Okay, so it wasn’t quite that dramatic, but I did squeeze around a few ladies packing their various book bags with galleys, and walked right up to a rep from Harcourt and said, “I have a new, independent shop which has been open, quietly, for the past six months, but now our grand opening is on the 22nd of this month, and I need to know which of your titles I absolutely HAVE to have in my shop. We’re small, and I’ve got to be choosy.” I don’t think I took a breath while I presented my case. Imagine my relief when she smiled, and proceeded to make it all so easy. She “walked me through” their new children’s catalog, their frontlist titles, and asked me the kinds of questions that made it easier for her to help me make selections for my customers. As she previewed their new offerings with me, she handed me a few galleys and books as we went along. I started to feel that one of my many hats as an independent bookseller, that of the buyer was going to be a bit easier to wear. A few minutes later, she introduced me to her counterpart at Harcourt who would introduce me to their frontlist titles for adults, and in the process teach me about print runs, and share other bits of information that would enable me to make informed choices about what to offer in our particular shop.
From the Harcourt booth, I ventured out to many more booths and talked with many more reps and exhibitors, and I can say without hesitation that it was time well-spent. As I listened and learned, I didn’t feel quite as badly about not being in line 12 or 22 at 3:00 when another of my many favorite authors would be signing. (Besides, my copy of Encyclopedia Prehistorica: Mega-Beasts, signed by Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart, was now tucked safely in my Puff the Magic Dragon book bag!) I felt like Charlie, toting around the golden ticket. There was that moment, however, when I stared down at my tickets for Alan Alda’s and John Lithgow’s autographing lines that I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to stand in those lines. Fortunately, Dad and I had both wanted to meet these gentlemen, and we each had tickets, so Dad would still have the privilege. Unfortunately, Dad hadn’t yet figured out how to get his digital camera to focus, so I have to trust that the men in his photos are indeed Mr. Alda and Mr. Lithgow. (Some things we accept on faith.) These were opportunities missed, but I decided that if I paid attention to the business side of my book shop, there would be many more opportunities to meet authors. If I didn’t pay attention, the visual that usually gets me back on track is one of me being dragged off to debtor’s prison kicking and screaming and trying to grab a few books on my way out the door. (Dad keeps reminding me that they don’t send people to prison for being in debt these days. Whew!)
Turns out, I didn’t need to be so worried about missing the chance to meet authors. Day two found Dad and me exploring the Book Sense Lounge, and discovering that we had opportunities to meet authors right there! The chocolate, lemonade and snacks were great, but meeting authors such as Markus Zusak, author of the Prinz Award winning novel, The Book Thief; the dynamic duo of Robin Preiss Glasser and Jane O’Connor, illustrator and author, respectively, of the Fancy Nancy books; and Joe Hill, an author who is fast becoming a favorite among my customers, in a more relaxed setting than the traditional autographing lines permitted, was a gift. What a treat to meet them, take pictures, and ask about what’s coming next for their many devoted fans. I was pleased to hear that many of these popular authors are working on their next book. Great news for my customers, their fans, who, I was always mindful of, would be waiting back in Hale, Michigan to hear all about BEA and to help me read all of the wonderful new books offered to us by publishers, authors and sales reps and to somehow choose which of the many, many great offerings to include in our shop in the coming year. They were going to enjoy hearing about how Joe Hill, who, after signing ARCs of his new book, 20th Century Ghosts, spent some time with a small group of Spanish speaking attendees who had apparently asked if they could take a short video with their digital camera. I wasn’t at all surprised that Mr. Hill had taken this extra time, nor was I surprised when Markus Zusak simply moved over to a nearby table so that he could continue to autograph books for fans when his time slot was over and a few of us were still waiting in line. Gracious is the word that continually comes to mind when I think of the authors and illustrators that I met at BEA. Karen Kingsbury gave yet another example of how it’s about people AND books as she greeted each person in her autographing line on OUR side of the table and took the time to take a photo with each fan that would appear on her website.\
Day three of BEA dawned with a sense of rush and a need to hurry. There was still so much I hadn’t done, and so many booths I hadn’t yet stopped by. There were catalogs to collect, sidelines to preview, and yes, still a few authors on my list that I had to meet, or books I simply had to read. I was there on business, as Roslyn had reminded me. Today I needed to focus on sidelines. The books were selling well, but I had to admit that not everyone was a reader, and even those who loved books sometimes wanted a small gift—such as a stuffed animal or a puzzle—to go along with their gift of a great book. I found several companies whose offerings would do well in my shop, some I had already known about, and some that I might have never have discovered if I hadn’t attended BEA. Perhaps this is one of the many reasons to attend. A short article on the BEA website, not too long ago, said something about how we come to BEA to find the perfect book that we didn’t know we wanted. In my case, I found many perfect books that my customers didn’t yet know that they HAD to read, and plenty of wonderful gift items that they didn’t yet know they would HAVE to give. But they would soon. It’s about people and books. It’s about matching each person to that perfect book, and providing people with lots of options for making their own matches. There’s no formula for that—no diagram or flow chart that helps us to do this. There’s a magic to it, and I am convinced that the more time we spend with people, and books, the easier and more magical the process becomes.
There are a few tools that can help us—bestseller lists, reviews, synopses, ARCs, galleys and such—not to mention the valuable help of so many wonderful booksellers, many of whom have been making magic longer than I have been alive, but when it comes right down to it, booksellers are often the bridge between the people and the books. It’s meaningful work, if you can find it—or if it finds you—and if you don’t necessarily need much in the way of money to get by on. There is some truth to the many anecdotes tossed around about the continual state of poverty that many booksellers manage to adjust to. I suppose I have my own anecdotes. You may have noticed me in the line to meet Holly Black, author of The Spiderwick Chronicles. I was the one munching on the Frosted Mini Wheats that I had brought all the way to New York with me so that I wouldn’t have to pay food court prices for something to eat. Anyway, the payoff for those of us who choose this business likely isn’t measured in dollars and cents. As for the bills, the utilities, the lines of credit, and so many other varieties of “wolves,” they are going to continue to knock at the door, and to threaten with their huffing and puffing. They don’t understand that it’s about people . . . and books. For now, I am keeping them happy and keeping my doors open. Nobody said it was going to be easy. But then, no one said it was going to be magical, either, and yet it is. Perhaps Lori Benton, who was quoted in “Show Daily, Day 2,” said it best when she stated (in reference to the inadequate air conditioning), “I guess if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the book business!” By day three of BEA, I was ready to cheer, “Bring it on!” I’m still cheering louder than the wolves can growl. It will take a little magic to keep it that way. Have you stopped by your favorite, local, independent book shop today? There’s a little magic in each of us, you know.
Laura Smith operates Perfect Pines Books & Gifts out of Hale, MI and can be contacted at http://www.perfectpinesbooks.com.
IOBA Standard, Summer Edition 2007, Volume 8, No. 3.