Friday, September 26, 2008

MPIBA Brings Sexy Back to Bookselling

By Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly,09/22/2008

At the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association regional trade show held this past weekend in Colorado Springs, the association’s booth featured canvas messenger bags for sale bearing the motto “Reading is Sexy.” It was the latest product introduced as part of a fundraising and awareness campaign for the organization. The bags, which feature the woman’s silhouette, stirred a minor frisson among some of female attendees.

MPIBA president Andy Nettell, co-owner of Arches Book Company in Moab, UT, told PW that he originally objected to the design, which was first printed on stickers. “I initially didn’t think it was appropriate,” he said, “Then we sold 250 stickers in a few months. I saw it was only women who were buying them – mostly librarians – who would pick them up by the stack. That sold me and I stopped worrying about the image.” Jennie Shortridge, author of the novel Love and Biology at the Center of the Universe, (NAL) was at the show to sign books. She told PW she felt “disappointed” when she saw it. “It strikes me as sexist and sends the wrong message,” she said. Still, the bags seemed to be generally popular with booksellers.

This year, the MPIBA was forced to move to Colorado Springs after the host hotel in Denver where it had been held the previous 24 years declined the booking. The change of venue, combined with the faltering economy, resulted in a substantial drop in bookstore attendance, the number falling from 102 last year to 65 stores this year. “It was the fewest we’ve ever had,” said MPIBA executive director Lisa Knudsen, who was herself celebrating her 20th anniversary with the organization. (Two Houston booksellers scheduled to attend – Valerie Koehler of Blue Willow Bookshop and Tamra Dore of Katy Budget Books – failed to make the trip as they were still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Ike.)

The show also lost 25 exhibitor tables, according to Knudsen. “It was a result of consolidation and recession,” she said. The drop in show attendees does not, however, indicate a decline in membership. The association announced 22 new members last year, ranging from 24,000 sq.-ft. Legacy Books in Plano, Texas, due to open in November, to Fact and Fiction bookshop on the University of Montana campus in Missoula.

Among those opening new stores in the region is Joni Montover. She is building a 1,500 sq.-ft. general bookstore, on South Padre Island, Texas. Montover, a Denver accountant who has vacationed on the resort island, was confident that despite the downturn in the economy, this remains a good time to open a bookstore on South Padre. “More and more people are moving to South Padre as boomers retire,” she said, adding “the nearest bookstore is at least an hour’s drive away and with the gas prices so high people don’t want to drive so far for a book.”

Sue McBride, owner of Whistle-Stop Books and Gifts, a 1,900 sq.-ft. store in Douglas, WY also found a silver lining in the high price of gas. “Previously people might drive 45 minutes to Casper to do their shopping,” she said, “but now, they are staying put.”

All this should prove positive for the ABA as it continues t roll out its new IndieBound marketing program. Haven Stillwater, owner of The Bookhaven in Salida, CO – a town of 6,000 people – said that though her five-and-a-half year old store has been growing each year, “incrementally, not exponentially” the biggest challenge she faces remains “convincing locals and newcomers the value of buying locally.” She’s had the IndieBound branding on display in her store since it was announced at BEA. She called it “eyecatching” and remarked that it was “an easy-transition from BookSense.” Still, it was mostly tourists to her store who understood the concept. Though she expressed uncertainty about its future, she thinks it’s still “a great shot in the arm for booksellers.”

Vicki Burger, co-owner of Wind City Books in Casper, WY opened her bookstore on September 12, 2007. She said that since the economy in Wyoming is generally strong due to growth in the energy sector, business “has been good and we’re riding the boom.” She said she’d like to do more with IndieBound, especially since here strongest competition comes from a nearby Waldenbooks. “But since I work a 12-hour day as it is, I really don’t have the time,” she said. Arsen Kashkashian, buyer at the Boulder Bookshop in Boulder, CO, pointed out that for a store in a town such as Boulder or Austin, Texas which already have strong business alliances, “that concept is already out there,” and less relevant.

Looking ahead, Kashkashian echoed what many booksellers felt: With politics drawing media attention away from books and the economy taking a downswing, “It’s looking like a tough fall for booksellers,” he said.

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