04 March 2013

Winter Institute: Kansas City

KC's beautiful Union Station
When was the last time I mentioned here how much I love my job?  (Quite recently, as a matter of fact).

Last week I traveled with co-worker/friend/mentor Joan Grenier to Kansas City for Winter Institute, which is the funnest of all possible fun book conferences to attend. While Kansas City has many, many groovy things going for it, I think even its fiercest apologists must admit that it's not at its best in February. Especially not when it's bookended by blizzards.  (See what I did there? I managed to work something bookish and alliterative into that one sentence fragment.)

Joan and I were among the lucky ones, as we timed our travel day perfectly--missing the storms at both our destination and at home by about 12 hours.  Not only that, but since winter travel can lead to many plane cancellations and airport closings, we specifically chose to fly through Minneapolis.  MSP is a workhorse of an airport--they don't close for a little snow, wind, or ice AND it's a comfortable and beautiful place to spend a few hours, should your destination airport wimp out and delay flights into it.

Festivities began that Friday night at a cocktail reception in Union Station, a truly beautiful space and one which we could reach via the elevated and sheltered walkway from the hotel. We mingled about, chatted, drank, reconnecting with old bookseller friends and making new ones.

We spent Saturday and Sunday attending various plenary addresses and breaking up into smaller groups for educational sessions and networking.  On Saturday over lunch we got the first of two "rep picks," which are essentially speed dating sessions. We, the readers, sit down and eat while sales reps from six different publishers have 15 minutes to tell us about their favorite books being published this spring and summer. One of the other highlights of Winter Institute is the author reception on Sunday night, where for two hours, about 40 (or so) authors lined the perimeter of a big ballroom and we could stand in line to meet whichever ones we wanted AND get free books signed.  You'd think that after more than 15 years in the biz that I would be a bit jaundiced, but that's not the case.  This was the fifth Winter Institute that I attended, which means I have a finely honed strategy now. I offer it up here for your own edification:
(1) Line up near the door while you're waiting for the ballroom to open.
(2) Study the layout of the ballroom and which authors are located at which tables while you wait.
(3) When the doors open, make a beeline for the Rock Star authors, as their lines will be longest.  Do NOT pause for booze and/or food. Basically, if you want to get a book signed by Sherman Alexie or Dave Eggers AND you still want time to meet other authors, do those lines first.
(4) There will be lots of authors with nobody at their table waiting in line. This is sad, but there will be time for you to stop at almost all of those authors' tables after you get your Rock Star signatures.
(5) If you must fortify yourself with booze or food, just grab & go as you cross the ballroom from one author line to another. Try to grab foods that won't leave grease stains on your books. For the last two years they've had some pretty amazing madeleines on offer--these are perfect.  Two bites will polish off one madeleine. They're light & airy and won't mark your fingers. You don't even really need a napkin.
(6) Above all, make sure you have a commodious book bag so that you always have one hand free to shake hands, hold a wine glass, proffer a pen or business card, etc. (Maybe this should have been in the #1 spot, eh?)
My hotel room view--love the skating rink and the fairy lights on the trees

Some Rock Star authors like to chat with each person who comes through the line.  While I appreciate this when an author does this in my bookstore with my customers, I would prefer not to wait in line behind 100 other people while the Rock Star author tries to make each one of them feel like a Special Snowflake. I have no idea whether other booksellers feel this way or not, but frankly, I wish there were two lines for those authors: the express line and the Special Snowflake line.

This year I made one crucial mistake: I underestimated the popularity of an unprecedented author + dog signing.  The first time I walked by that table the line was manageable--maybe 5 people, so I ducked into the Dave Eggers line to get a book inscribed to my coworker. By the time I made my way back to that table, the line was substantial and slowly moving. Knowing that I had one worker and one husband to still get books signed for, I figured I'd kill two birds with one stone and just stand in line for a while.  It was worth it, though, because if you like novelty books, dogs, and/or the design aesthetic of Chronicle Books, it's great. If you're like me and you happen to like all three, it's amazing. Here's a shout-out to Sally Brewster from Park Road Books in Charlotte, NC, who enlisted her husband's help to get a second book signed for me, as they were being fairly strict about limiting them to one per customer.

On Saturday, I met up with some folks from Bloomsbury and FSG and some booksellers to walk over to Lidia's for dinner. Gail Godwin, the author of one of my favorite books this spring, Flora, was at the dinner, so I was doubly excited to be invited. The food was excellent and so was the company:
Dick and Ken from Oblong Books and Macmillan
Cristina and Kelly, from Books & Books and Carmichael's 
Author Cathleen Schine and me
For each course, the authors changed tables so that as many booksellers as possible got to speak with them. The thing about these author dinners is that they basically come with a bottomless wine glass.  Once you sit down to eat, it's impossible to know how much you've had to drink because the waitstaff constantly circulate among the tables, topping off everybody's wine.  This is just as well for many reasons, among them being that somebody at the party thought it would be a good idea to insult Southerners in general and people from the hills of western North Carolina in particular, calling them backwards. When I politely inquired what made him say this, he clarified that they were backwards and conservative, and ipso facto ignorant. This, despite the fact that there were people from Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Kentucky, and even North Carolina, right there in the room. So instead of getting into a further exchange, I simply picked up my newly-refilled wine glass, turned away, and began a conversation with the person on my other side. Manners: what has happened to them, I ask you?

(No, the person of whom I speak is not in my photos, and no, I will not name any names. I still haven't even said who is was who sat next to me at the worst author dinner ever.)

The next night was the Algonquin/Houghton co-hosted shindig.  I didn't know what to expect from the Houghton side of things, but I knew from experience that the folks at Algonquin put the fun in funicular, so I was really looking forward to it.  Turns out that they rented a gallery space and asked Arthur Bryant bbq to cater it.

Kelsy from Bank Square Books

The cool loft room that Kelsy and I explored with Jessica from Northshire
Two other favorite authors from the spring lists were there that night, too: Carlene Bauer from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for Frances & Bernard and Jill McCorkle from Algonquin for Life After Life. We all went back for extra helpings of the bbq, we tossed back a few local brews, and then it was time for the authors to tell us a bit about their books.  After that, it was time for cupcakes, and I cannot for the life of me figure out what happened to my cupcake photos, but you'll have to take my word that they were gorgeous.  Unfortunately less tasty in practice than theory, but I often find that's the case with cupcakes.
L-R: author Carlene Bauer, me

L-R: me, author Jill McCorkle, Algonquin marketing guru Craig Popelars
Ahh, good times, good times.  Joan and I had to leave Winter Institute early because Delta pre-emptively canceled our flight 48 hours ahead of our departure, so we opted to depart on the last day of the program rather than risk getting delayed in Kansas City. On the downside, we missed the small press author reception and a couple of really productive-sounding educational sessions, but on the upside, we shared a taxi to the airport with author Ruth Ozeki, who wrote yet another of my favorite books this spring, A Tale for the Time Being. Now all I have to do is wait until next year to do it all over again in Seattle!


  1. Sounds like a wonderful experience. Only slightly envious!

  2. Oh, sounds like fun times! I wish I had a chance to go to things like that for my job.

  3. Aside from your fabulous book reviews, I look forward to this post every year (well, at least for the last 2). Thanks for letting us be a part of it. Belle

  4. This sounds like an absolutely fantastic time! Great books, great authors, *and* bottomless glasses of wine? Once again I'm in the wrong line of work. ;-)

  5. That is all awesome. I am envious of your bookstore-related shenanigans. And you've again made me kind of want to visit Kansas City, even though I normally do not associate it with fun times and coolness.

  6. Have to confess, In Re the above comment: I'm more than "only slightly envious"...pea green is more like it. Loved all the pictures, especially the ones with you!

  7. Glad you had a great time here in KC..It is funny how you managed to sneak in between our 2 big snowstorms. I am so jealous of the fun and books!

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