Thinking about how to give the next generation a step up, four young booksellers started the Emerging Leaders Project in 2006 with the support of the American Booksellers Association. In the intervening years, the original gang of four have gone on to become industry leaders—Allison Hill is now president and COO of Vroman’s in Pasadena, Calif.; Cindy Dach, co-owner and general manager of Changing Hands in Tempe, Ariz.; Julia Cowlishaw, a rep with Ingram Content Group; and Neil Strandberg, director of member technology at the ABA.
And so have many booksellers who participated in the program. John Hugo took over the running of HugoBookstores, a chain of four stores based in Marblehead, Mass.; sweet pea Flaherty bought King’s Books in Tacoma, Wash.; and Jessica Stockton Bagnulo opened Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, N.Y., with Rebecca Fitting. The Emerging Leaders Project quietly ended, but while no one has come forward to revive it, the project’s goals are part of hiring practices as store owners put more emphasis on the value of frontline booksellers.
For Dach, the program is no longer necessary. “There are a lot more opportunities now that didn’t exist [earlier],” she says, singling out Winter Institute, which is inexpensive enough for frontline booksellers to attend, and social media as ways to meet and learn from peers. “With social media,” she adds, “bookstores have voices that aren’t just those of the owners.” She also credits younger booksellers, who tend to be fearless when it comes to technology, with pushing stores in directions they might not otherwise have taken. “When I think of social media and how that came into Changing Hands,” says Dach, “it wasn’t through the ownership group. It was younger booksellers saying, ‘Here’s something going on and we should be doing it.’”
Dach sees technology, or more particularly the store’s Web site, changinghands.com, as playing a bigger role in hiring further down the line. “If there’s one thing we need more of, it’s data entry,” says Dach, who uses the term to refer to writing and designing copy for the site. “We book an event, and a publicist is saying [almost immediately], ‘Why isn’t that on your calendar?’ We have to start thinking about whether that is where I have to add more time to my payroll.”
While Dach worries that she may have to go outside the store to find booksellers who have different skill sets, like HTML, Steve Bercu, co-owner of BookPeople in Austin, says technology skills are a given in Texas’s Silicon Valley. Instead, he looks for “customer service skills and if they are going to fit into our personality mold. I’d rather have a former restaurant employee than a withdrawn book person. We like restaurant people. They have to deal with all different kinds of people. That’s excellent training for customer service, and customer service is our brand.”
BookPeople does keep up with technology, though. It was one of three Austin stores to launch the Isis Mobile Wallet app late last month, which enables customers to tap their smartphone to make purchases. The only other city where the app is available is Salt Lake City. “Technology is what we’re all having to do,” says Bercu, pointing to the rollout of Kobo and a proprietary system that his store is developing for book fairs.
“I focus on people who take bookselling seriously and want to see the industry grow,” says Christine Onorati, founder and owner of Word Books in Brooklyn. “It’s not enough to just like books. We have to make money. I’m pretty strict about hiring, even part-timers. I want somebody who understands that the store has to be a living, breathing thing. I have to be picky. It’s a big deal to have somebody represent us.” In addition, Onorati relies on staff to help her reach out to other young people. “I’m 41,” says Onorati. “There’s a lot of stuff I’m not in touch with. It’s nice to know what the staff thinks. We’re pretty collaborative here.” She credits younger booksellers like Jenn Northington for encouraging her to start the David Foster Wallace Appreciation Society and Stephanie Anderson, who is now working for the Darien Public Library in Darien, Conn., for forming New York’s first literary basketball league.
“To be honest, we’re not doing a lot of hiring,” says retail manager Margaret Shaheen, who has seen the number of booksellers at Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver drop significantly from its heyday of 300 to just over 100 today. “I don’t know that we’ve changed what we look for,” she says. “We’ve always hired diverse people. It really creates a nice working environment. All our customers can find people to help them. You just have to wear a lot more hats.”
University Bookstore in Seattle doesn’t have a lot of turnover either. But as Pam Cady, assistant manager of general books, sees it, “I’m preparing people. We won’t be here forever. It’s like casting [for a play]—80% of the whole thing is hiring the right people, who are creative, smart, make sacrifices because they’re not going to be paid a lot, and have whimsy about them. They have to be fearless about talking to everybody and doing things they may not be comfortable with, like technology. Things change so quickly. You hire people who can change and grow.”
At Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vt., general manager Chris Morrow notes, “The role of the bookseller is more essential than ever. People expect us to be great at what we do and much of that falls on the booksellers to deliver. While there is constant pressure to keep the payroll down, cutting bookselling staff is not the way to go. We differentiate ourselves based on the ambience, the selection, the booksellers. We need to find new ways to differentiate ourselves from the online world, while simultaneously playing in that arena.”
Today’s emerging leaders come from varied backgrounds, but share a commitment to physical books and independent bookstores. Below are some of their thoughts on their generation’s contributions to indies.
Seija Emerson, buyer and conference coordinator at University Bookstore (Seattle, Wash.)
“There’s this whole homemade, slow everything, artisan trend among people of my generation that is really serendipitous for bookstores. I think it’s the inevitable backlash against mass production: the fetishization of the one-of-a-kind object. We love our iPhones, but deep in our hearts we yearn for a hand-bound book made on a vintage letterpress. Every display and shelf-talker is a reflection of individuality. I see my generation as being adaptable and open to change. We are more ‘whatever works’ than ‘this is how it’s supposed to be.’”
Marie Franki, bookseller and special orders and Internet order processing at BookPeople (Austin, Tex.)
“You can’t help reckoning with [technology] when you work in a bookstore and people ask to buy a Kindle. I think bookstores will continue to exist. All of us [at BookPeople] are staunch believers in the educational value of a [physical] book. [It’s] a self-contained work of art, not just the way the words are printed on the page. At BookPeople, we have a consignment program for books and magazines for people putting out really good works outside the mainstream. Independently published people and artistic magazines are important.”
April Gosling, retail manager of the Colfax Avenue store of Tattered Cover Book Store (Denver)
“Books aren’t going anywhere. People my age  and younger are reading books. We’re the kids who grew up in the ’90s when Borders and Tattered Cover were booming, and everybody was adding cafes. While we’re shifting and changing and making ourselves smaller, I don’t believe that the independent bookstore is going anywhere. I just have this really great image of my four-year-old nephew at his birthday party. As his boring aunt who works in a bookstore, I gave him two books. He opened the first book, and he had to read it right then.”
Aaron Neber, assistant manager, event host and used-book buyer at Changing Hands Bookstore (Tempe, Ariz.)
“I’m not afraid of what technology is going to do. Maybe a bookstore that has a little bit of everything doesn’t work anymore, when you can get everything online. I’m 28—we had e-mail when I was in the fifth grade. One of the things my generation can contribute is taking away the doom and gloom about technology. My friends are all still readers of books. Books have been slow to reinvent themselves. This is a great time to promote Vox by Ann Carson, where you have to have this physical entity to get the full experience, or Melville House’s hybrid books, a unique take on the bundling idea. It’s up to the younger generation to promote these products.”
Jenn Northington, events manager at Word Books (Brooklyn, N.Y.)
“We definitely bring a lot of energy and enthusiasm, as well as comfort with digital tools and platforms. My generation had computer lessons in middle school. We make a lot of connections digitally now, and it can be a really positive force. Personally, I’ve been able to tap into a huge community of readers and authors that I would never have had access to otherwise. The way I see it, physical bookstores are a natural complement to a digital community. You can get recommendations and buy things online, of course, but with such broad access and so many different sources, it’s hard to sort out the signal from the noise.”
Krysta Piccoli, bookseller specializing in science, sustainability, and nature at Northshire Bookstore (Manchester Center, Vt.)
“I like technology, but I still want to hold a book. We have a lot of customers who come in and say, ‘I have an e-reader, but I like books.’ The digital age has made bookstores more important. Wikipedia is great, but books are more reliable than anything you can get from the Internet. You can come into the bookstore and slow down and browse. There aren’t a lot of chances to slow down.”