With each passing day, book lovers find themselves unable to resist the siren call of one-day shipping, making Amazon, already among the world’s most profitable companies, bigger and stronger. Publishers and owners of bookstores, those spaces formerly cherished as literary community centers, are required to play by Amazon’s rules or forgo the book’s game altogether.
Earlier this month, some of the best bookselling minds and most enthusiastic supporters gathered at Reimagining Bookstores, a virtual conference launched by Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park. The goal: to devise practical solutions to secure the future of their businesses and the communities that depend on them. Another 23 bookstores from a dozen different states, including six locations in California, jumped in to co-host the gathering, which attracted a diverse crowd of booksellers, publishers, buyers, authors, and readers from all over the country. These were ardent book lovers, sharing their hopes for the future. It was a resounding success.
This article was excerpted from Average Newsletter, delivered every Thursday.
During its two-day post, Reimagining Bookstores included a slew of Zoom rooms where people shared thoughts on strengthening the kinds of spaces in which so many of us have found refuge over the course of our lives. My first internship was at City Lights Publishers, located in the lofts of the City Lights Library in San Francisco. Seeing fellow readers perusing the towering shelves or discovering the staircase to the maze of books in the basement makes BART’s sticky journey across the bay worth every bustling minute. Attending Reimagining Bookstores was an opportunity to meet and talk with others who know what it feels like to see a lonely customer stop in front of a book that could completely change their lives.
On the first day of the conference, we gathered in a giant zoom room, the maximum attendance was about 250 people. The event was started by Praveen Madan, Kepler’s active CEO. “I am absolutely convinced that we can create a powerful and exciting future for libraries everywhere, but we will need a lot of help,” he told the virtual audience.
With his background in technology, Madan is an unusual personification of bookshops, but he is perhaps the right person to rethink the bookselling business. After an early career as a consultant, he and his wife, Kristen Evans, revitalized The San Francisco Bookmakers. In 2011, he became CEO of Kepler’s, a Menlo Park affiliate that was founded in 1955 and restructured into a mix of nonprofit and nonprofit organizations.
Reimagining Bookstores is designed with the concept of Open Space, a set of organizational principles focused on promoting organic discussion. The attendees were divided into three groups, and each group created its own talks to post the topics on agenda walls that opened into participant-led breakout rooms.
For a virtual event, it felt surprisingly organic.
There were discussions about how to get more teens into libraries, which inevitably turned into TikTok talk, and conversations about ambassadors and role models. Other rooms have received stabs of issues such as intimidating rents, living wages, the role of smaller libraries in providing social services that are currently inundated with libraries, and the always looming confusion as to why the wealthy do not open their pockets to help fund the libraries. A room discussing turning libraries into a nonprofit attracted many interested attendees, one sharing, “People say, ‘Why don’t you just write a grant? “It’s a lot of work, I don’t have the time!” In another conversation intended to provide mentorship opportunities to younger employees, one library manager asked, “How can I help employees more? The problem now is that I am the boss… I can’t be like, ‘Let’s Let’s go out to the bar, everyone!” Seems like that’s not so cool nowadays.”
The second day began with Madan introducing three talking points that were important to him personally. He drew attention to the fact that libraries are beneficial to our communities and that they must seek help to continue serving and become even more important, especially in the post-Covid era. This may mean adopting new models such as nonprofits, hybrids, and cooperatives. He also stressed that a living wage must be achieved for library staff to combat “institutional poverty”. Finally, he clearly recognized that booksellers need to save themselves, and this event is one way to start that effort.
With Madan’s points in mind, and “generosity” as his rallying cry, discussions included a discussion of unionizing bookstore staff in exchange for requiring clients to “tip” the bookseller who helped them or adding additional fees to their total purchases to support library staff, differentiating pain points For booksellers versus clients, the potential supervisory board.
As someone who grew up attending storybooks at my local library, and who later sought a quiet spot in a YA section where I could sit on the floor with a pile of books, I’d hate to see these cozy spaces go beyond recognition in an attempt to adapt to the culture Obsessed with technology. However, I see the need to reorganize how the book works. Talking about creating workers’ cooperatives was particularly compelling to me as a way to ensure that employees receive fair pay while potentially saving these stores. (In fact, there are already a number of bookstore cooperatives, including the Oakland Moments Cooperative and Community Space, which opened in 2020.)
While one would expect the stand-alone bookstore revival event to be filled with Amazon hissing and frantic brainstorming about how its demise had been achieved, there was an impressive tuning from most of the participants, even as the giant’s name was called. One bookstore leader wrote in the conversation at the end of the first day, “Make sure your lawmakers know you support antitrust legislation that would force Amazon to crash!!” But overall, people seemed to realize that Amazon wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Rather than wasting resources trying to bring down the monopoly, the focus was on community work and giving libraries a fighting chance.
Often these conferences are filled with goodwill that dies at the bright red “Leave” button, participants finding themselves staring at their reflections on a dark screen, but as Reimagining Bookstores ends, participants seem energized. A bulletin board was created to continue the discussions and an email group was launched for nearly 600 participants.
Talk about the future of bookselling has only just begun.
Two weeks later, after witnessing firsthand the booksellers’ genuine care for the employees they work for, a major departure from Amazon’s blatant labor abuse, I feel more committed to bookstores. Next time I desperately need a worthwhile novel, I’ll head to my nearest standalone store instead of ordering it from…well, you know where. Customers are also stakeholders in reimagining. If we keep showing up on their behalf, booksellers will keep showing up for us.
We’re in this together. As one participant said, “I’m staying at the table.” I will do that too. •
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