I have always been an outsider at Winter Institute, the American Booksellers Association’s annual conference—and yet I love it so. Having only attended four of the last six I am a relative newcomer compared to many of the legendary booksellers who’ve been attending for decades. I’m thinking here of the likes of Paul Yamazaki of City Lights or Lucy Kogler of Talking… Leaves or Richard Howorth of Square Books, all of whom I’ve had the great honor of sharing a table or bar or cab with.
I should say that Winter Institute is still happening this year, virtually of course, and from what I can tell it remains an invaluable practical resource for booksellers at all stages of the business, a place (online and off) for good advice, commiseration, and cautionary yarn-spinning.
For me, though, Winter Institute has always been about the interstitial socializing, the sidewalk conversations on the way to the next bar, the hungover confessionals of the diner booth, the 4 am rants about art and life and the absurdities of corporate publishing. I have seen otherwise genteel indie publishers bestride beer-wet bar-tops in smoky lock-ins, seen less genteel indie publishers nearly start rancorous fights at house parties, seen debut novelists moved to tears by a bookseller’s thoughtful questions, seen important book critics absolutely lose their shit in the presence of their literary heroes… Finding their way through it all, giving it purpose and passion, are the booksellers, the newbies and the veterans alike who invariably leave me with a deeply renewed faith in the importance of books in our lives.
And this is what I miss most about Winter Institute: the stark reminder of the ways in which books matter to actual readers—not publicists or agents or writers or editors or reviewers, but the people who’re deciding how to spend their $25. We (in the “industry”) so easily forget what it meant to buy a new book, to agonize over which journey to next, whether it be into history or fantasy or tragedy or comedy or some mix of them all. And when in doubt, we’d turn to the bookseller for help.
What I wouldn’t give right now to be sitting around a table with my favorite booksellers, the many dear friends I’ve made at Winter Institute, drinking too much, talking too loud, and, no doubt, arguing about the next book to read.