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Reinventing bookstores


Earlier this month, Praveen Madan, CEO of Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, Calif., Delivered a terrible series of observations to attendees of Reimagining Bookstores, an online gathering of nearly 600 booksellers and publishing professionals. . Independent bookstores face multiple crises that threaten their existence, Madan said, ranging from declining literacy to unsustainable employee wages which he called “institutional poverty”.

Then, before sending attendees to one of the most exhilarating gatherings on the independent bookstore in a generation, he offered warm encouragement, “Let’s have fun. Let’s have an energizing conversation. Let’s create change.

Madan’s balance of pragmatism and optimism is what led him to purchase and revitalize Kepler’s, the nearly 70-year-old independent bookstore institution, in 2012. Over the past nine years, he has transformed the store. through creative partnerships – Kepler’s took over. for the community library when it closed at the onset of the pandemic – and by committing to a living wage for employees.

Those successes led Paul Wright, a board member at Kepler’s Bay Area neighbor Berrett-Koehler Publishers, to suggest last year that Madan summon the booksellers to try and apply the same revitalization to the whole of its segment of the publishing industry.

Madan was not convinced. “At first I was like, I don’t know,” he said.

But instead of giving up, Wright took Madan’s reluctance as a challenge to create a core of potential participants, to persuade him to move from uncertainty to a firm yes. He began by introducing Madan to author and consultant Peggy Holman, whose work dates back to the early days of the Internet and focuses on ‘open space technology’ (OST), a philosophy of creating intentional gatherings. and non-hierarchical to solve complex problems.

Holman then introduced Madan to a team of fellow OST members. Together, they said they were ready to help him organize whatever he needed so that participants could set goals and generate ideas. Holman assured him that if he was ready to start envisioning a new landscape of book selling in the United States, they could create and manage a simple framework to channel the experience of hundreds of booksellers into the beginnings of a movement for change.

The team’s enthusiasm persuaded Madan, who began sending out invitations to Reimagining Bookstores in mid-September, and on the first day of the rally, October 18, the list had grown to nearly 600. All along From the conference, attendees split into groups, crafting their own session topics focused on creating new ways to tackle endemic issues that have long hampered the stability and growth of independent book sales.

In retrospect, Madan said, his initial reluctance reflects a problem among independent booksellers. They hesitate to ask for help. Addressing attendees on the second day of the conference, he said, “Bookstore owners and managers can improve themselves to ask for help, and they will have to improve themselves to ask for help in the future. than we imagine here. “

Madan admitted that what he is proposing is difficult. To be successful, he believes independent booksellers must completely reorient the public’s perception of what they offer, presenting it as a social good that warrants a range of supports from individual customers, industry partners and government leaders. At the same time, he’s very skeptical that any of these stakeholders can be trusted to lead efforts to make the changes that bookstores need.

In a harsh assessment, Madan told Reimagining Bookstores attendees that only booksellers should take the necessary steps to guide Americans toward the importance of their place in their communities. “We really have to stop expecting someone to come to our rescue,” he said. “There are many versions of this fantasy: the publishers will come and save us, God will come and save us, the American Booksellers Association will come and save us.

Madan and her fellow organizers are also confident that lasting answers will only emerge if a diverse group of booksellers is at the forefront of sharing ideas that lead to action. Time and again during the conference sessions, conversations seemed to affirm this sensibility. The participation and leadership of BIPOC and LGBTQ booksellers was notable, especially in a predominantly white industry.

At Reimagining Bookstores, the conversations generated radical ideas with potential, including a proposal to create an independent bookstore fund to act as a lender in place of banks, which often deny booksellers, especially booksellers. BIPOC, access to capital. And nearly two dozen industry professionals attended a session on creating a standing organizing committee to move the discussion forward.

For Madan, the key to success will be resisting creating another one-solution mindset or monolithic organization. “It is not so much, for me, that we’re going to do like how, and the how is determined by principle, ”he told the conference. “I think the reason the Principles are so important is that we bring a radically different set of them than what has been applied to this problem before. “

Evan Karp, the only bookseller besides Madan on the group’s organizing committee, said the enthusiasm of OST members to facilitate the event is a positive sign in itself, a sign that indicates the potential of the OST. booksellers to create the radical change they need. by relying on broad community support. What form the effort will take from there remains an open question, but Madan plans to follow the participants in the coming weeks, encouraging them to resist the urge to resume their activities as usual. (Four new sessions have been scheduled for November so far, and four other leaders are looking for expressions of interest in their topics before scheduling meetings.)

For Wright, whose enthusiasm sparked the idea of ​​starting to reinvent bookstores, the rally was an affirmation that continued effort is needed to ensure the independent bookstore’s long-term viability. “I have felt over the past two days the feeling that community bookstores are one of the pillars on which this country stands,” he said. “And whether their situation is dire – or as dire as we fear – I see them as institutions that must be protected for the good of our society as a whole. “

Reimagining Bookstore organizer Praveen Madan (left) with author and consultant Peggy Holman.

A version of this article appeared in the 01/11/2021 issue of Editors Weekly under the title: reinventing bookstores