28 January 2018

Walking in Memphis, AKA Winter Institute

I have just gotten back from my favorite time of year for work: the annual Winter Institute conference for independent booksellers.  It’s a moveable feast, migrating from one urban location to another every year, and I was thrilled that this year we all convened in Memphis.  Not only do I love heading South in the winter, but my two oldest friends in the world live in Memphis, so it was a pretty special week, all in all.

Opening Reception

The conference always has a opening reception, and this year it was held downtown at the beautiful and historic Cadre building.  Even places with truly commodious proportions might seem crowded when you jam 600 or so booksellers, plus another few hundred people from the publishing industry into the space, and within 30 minutes or so, the room was so crowded that navigation was difficult.  Still, this year the food stations and bars were more strategically placed than last year’s venue in Minneapolis, so at least there was that.  I spent a couple of hours catching up with friends from the industry -- when we’re lucky, we might see each other 1-2 times each year, so there were lots of hugs and cheerful exclamations all around.

A gossip of Emilys. AKA All Emily, All the Time

When we’re very lucky, we might run into each other a few more times of year because we’re all part of the same regional conference. I’m told on good authority that the collective noun for a group of people named Emily is called a gossip, and every time the three Emilys of New England Bookselling find each other, we have to document it.  Above, you can see me, the New England rep for Chronicle Books (Emily Cervone) and one of the two owners of Print, a bookstore in Portland, ME (Emily Russo Murtagh).

Tommy Orange, debut author, at the evening reception

What outsiders to the conference probably don’t realize is how much work these things are.  Doors to the ballroom opened at 7:30 for breakfast each morning, and author dinners keep us out until 11:00, 11:30, or even later.  It’s a crazy pace, and it’s equal parts exhausting and exhilarating. In between, the schedule is jam-packed with educational sessions, roundtables, speed dating with books, and keynote speakers. There’s also a room where booksellers can graze all day long for free books, and one of the many highlights is the author reception, where around 100 authors line the perimeter of the room and booksellers bombard them for signed books.  Really, there’s no better gig out there.

Author reception
It can’t be Winter Institute if I’m not made to cry at least once, and thanks to Junot Diaz, I was able to cry over breakfast on our second morning. He gave a heartfelt thank you for the support of indie booksellers like us, who were early champions of his books (my own bookstore selected his first novel and second collection of short stories for our store’s signed First Editions Club, for example), but he also took us to task: looking out at the audience that morning, you’d have to look hard to see anything but a sea of white faces. We’re actively trying to embrace diversity in the books we carry so that all readers might see themselves reflected in the pages of our books, but he’s 100% right when he says we need to work from the top down, and the bottom up, to make sure that people from all backgrounds might see bookselling and publishing as a career for anybody, not just those with traditional cultural capital.

Everybody got a copy of Islandborn, Diaz’s first picture book for children, as well as a coordinating tote bag, courtesy of Penguin Young Readers, and my boss, Joan, even got to pose for a picture with him.  He recognized her right away and was happy to oblige us with a photo:

I learned so much last week, and I’m so grateful to Bloomsbury, Grove, and Knopf, the three publishers whose dinners I attended, where I got to hobnob with some amazing authors, like Carol Anderson, Fatima Farheen Mirza, Tommy Orange, and Aminatta Forna, among many others. The food was good, the conversation was lively, and the drinks were bottomless, but mostly it’s the memories that are priceless.

Now I just need to catch up on my sleep so that I can implement some of the new things I learned!


  1. That sounds like a great time! Which upcoming books really caught your attention?

    1. Yeah, it was amazing! The guy in one of my photos above? Tommy Orange? His new book is coming from KNopf in June and it's great -- Sherman Alexie has been raving about it to anybody who will listen.

  2. This seems amazing and ooooh so so so tiring.

    1. yes and yes. but i wouldn't pass it up for the world, either!


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