Monday, October 8, 2012

NEIBA: A Lively Experiment

I’d been to Providence before. Once on a class assignment to interview author Rosemary Mahoney—who spends her time between Providence and Greece, and twice for the annual Waterfire festival, during which enormous torches in the midst of the river are lit while gondolas cruise the sparkling waters and spectators roam the river walk, enjoying good food, live music, performances, and dancing. But no matter what my purpose in Providence is, the arrival is always the same. Upon stepping out of the train station the first thing I see is the bone white dome of the Capital, looming over the quaint town. And, engraved beneath the dome, the words that always seem to capture the spirit of Providence: To hold forth a lively experiment…
On this particular afternoon, Providence was not exactly the picture of liveliness; the sky was overcast and a mist hung over the quiet streets. To find sparks of life, I had to make my way downtown to the convention center, where the annual conference of the New England Independent Booksellers was already underway.
I arrived in time for a panel discussion on selling maps in bookstores. Booksmith’s general manager Dana Brigham starred on the panel, along with National Geographic’s Mike Dyer, Eileen Osteen from Michelin Maps, and James Leniart, the creative talent behind stylish Red Maps, soon to be carried by Booksmith. The audience was mostly composed of booksellers from around New England, curious about what you might call Booksmith’s newest “lively experiment”: over the summer we increased our travel section by over 2,000 new titles, including a wide selection of both folded and wall maps.
One of the best parts about NEIBA is the camaraderie, encouragement, and affirmation gained from a gathering of booksellers all trying to stay afloat in an industry that is constantly competing with the newest e-reader or corporate monster in online book sales. In such a setting, it might be easy to become discouraged by all the challenges bookstores face in today’s economy. So it was a relief to hear from experts in the travel industry that in fact, map sales are up.
“Can this really be true?” an incredulous bookseller asked the panel, “that despite GPS and all the mapping applications available, people are still buying paper maps?” The answer was an overwhelming affirmative. No one wants to be caught out hiking or on a lonely country road with only an electronic device that may fail them. Everyone likes an atlas in the car, and the comfort of a folded map in their pocket.
“People coming into bookstores are generally print people,” Dana offered, “So they are also going to be interested in the aesthetic of paper maps.” One particular aesthetic on display was James Leniart’s Red Maps, beautifully designed specialty maps which unfold in the handy accordion-style to reveal a colorful array of streets and sites printed across durable and wonderfully textured paper. Art for the urban explorer.
For those of us still worried about print book sales, there was the encouragement of the speakers at the Author Breakfast the next day: James Dashner, Dennis Lehane, Lisa Genova, and Junot Diaz. Each writer spoke to their particular process of becoming a writer, and all ended up affirming the role of booksellers in that process.
Lehane and Diaz both came from working class immigrant families where reading literature was an anomaly. Diaz described finding an advertisement for “Free Books” in the classified section of a paper he was delivering when he was ten years old. He called up the elderly woman across town, scouted the route, and coerced his older brother into helping him swipe a few shopping carts to schlepp the books home.
It was the first time he could remember everything working out for him, Diaz told the room full of booksellers. He then deftly turned the touching story into a metaphor for the long and arduous process of getting a book from its composition stage through the publishing industry, into bookstores, and finally, into the hands of a reader.
After breakfast, it was onto the trade show floor, for a day of more rewarding exchanges between booksellers, writers, and publishers about the newest titles and the best ways to get them into the world. For me, the trade show began with a conversation with our map distributor about our new destination of the month at Booksmith, and ended with consuming free pink frosted cupcakes with events director Jamie, at the Scholastic table in honor of Clifford’s birthday.
After day one of NEIBA, my husband joined me in Providence for dinner. We were crossing the river, heading toward Brown’s student district, when we ran into Eileen and James, participants on the map panel. “I’m trying to find a taxi,” James told us. “I need to get to the train station to get back to New York.” We wished him luck, only to realize a few blocks later that the station was, as most things are in Providence, within walking distance. “Why didn’t he walk?” my husband wondered.
“I don’t know,” I replied, “Maybe he needed a map.”

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