Is there a collective term for a group of booksellers? After an exhilarating two days at the Booksellers Association Annual Conference, I am convinced there ought to be. A defiance of indies, perhaps? An enthusiasm of retailers? A persuasion of book-pushers?
The BA Conference took place this past weekend at the Jurys Inn Hinckley Island. The venue is handily positioned between the M1 and the M6 motorways, 20-odd miles from Leicester and, perhaps more importantly, 100 miles from London. Adjacent to the centre sits a giant Amazon warehouse, erected, so we were told by the BA’s “Covid” president, bookshop owner Andy Rossiter, after the venue was first booked more than two years ago.
The juxtaposition could have been horrifying—particularly for those indies who turned up in droves this year after the forced absence of the past 18 months—but in truth, it hardly mattered. Battered by discount, bruised by online, buffeted by coronavirus, today’s high street booksellers are a hardy and realist bunch. They’ve seen worse than a big Amazon sign.
In years gone by the BA Conference was a set-piece event for the whole trade; now only half the trade turns up. Publishers may swing by to speak and present their new titles but they do not participate in great numbers, and the event is no longer geared around them. I’ve previously lamented their absence—who wouldn’t want to share a hotel breakfast with the heads of Penguin Random House, HarperCollins and Hachette after partying the night before with their star authors?—but I think the conference is better for not having the distraction. Business-focused, supportive and brilliantly compered by the very knowing Cathy Rentzenbrink, it’s a safe space for booksellers to talk, yes, shop. And this year, of all the years, was the moment for that—the biggest of all catch-ups. “I have not put any mascara on because I am sure to cry it off,” wrote Rentzenbrink on Facebook. She was right, too. The emotion was palpable. The strain of these past long months evident.
If the BA is smart—and under its newish m.d. Meryl Halls, it is—the conference will follow the agenda-setting path already established by the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute, and then publishers will want to come again, and willingly. Even to Hinckley Island.
For now, we are at something of an inflexion point. Bookselling is doing OK—don’t say this too loudly, lest people forget that for almost all of the past 25 years it has been under threat. But at the conference 70 new booksellers attended and, as delegates heard, bookshops have become a beacon, the type of shops retail planners want to see on their high streets. By way of a good example, over dinner I sat next to the two young bosses of Store 104, the latest incarnation of a family-run enterprise based in Rochester, that combines bookselling with knitting, patterns and needles sold alongside texts and journals. Who knew? Like the prospectors of old, they did.
A knowledge of booksellers. Obvious when you think about it.