Wisconsin Forum Helps Booksellers Begin Crossing the Digital Divide

On Saturday, March 10, over 50 booksellers gathered for the second stop on the American Booksellers Association's 2007 Winter/Spring Forum Tour. Presented in conjunction with the Midwest Booksellers Association (MBA), in Brookfield, Wisconsin, the program featured the ABA education sessions "Participating in the Digital Revolution" and "Handselling: Customer Service With Results" and the "Booksellers Forum & Strategic Planning Session." MBA presented a "Let's Talk" lunch, followed by upcoming title presentations by a number of publishers' reps. At the conclusion of the program, participants left the Country Inn and Suites -- Milwaukee West to attend a reception at nearby Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop in Brookfield.

Programming started with "Participating in the Digital Revolution," presented by Len Vlahos, ABA's director of education and BookSense.com. The popular session about the ways technological advances are impacting almost every aspect of business and bookselling was highly praised by all of the booksellers contacted by BTW.

Barbara Wilson, owner of Butterfly Books in De Pere, Wisconsin, found the content very appropriate. "As a children's bookstore," she told BTW, "we need to relate to younger people, particularly teens, and see how they use technology."

She described the digital gap between Baby Boomers and Gen Y-ers as vast. "We're so far apart," she said. "There is an explosion in technology, and we [at the store] are so far behind."

Wilson and several other booksellers said they were especially struck by a point made by by ABA CEO Avin Mark Domnitz several times during the daylong program: "The baby boomer goes on line, while the Gen Y-er lives on line," Wilson paraphrased. Domnitz credited this quote to Tina Sharkey, chairman of BabyCenter, LLC, at a recent meeting of the Association of American Publishers.

"We [Baby Boomers] use e-mail and think it's just wonderful," Wilson said. "Kids don't use e-mail. Len gave us a lot of good ideas about how to market to the Gen Y-ers," she said, referring to the session's discussions about text messaging, MySpace, and other digital alternatives. "We have to look at where they are getting their information."

Wilson reported laughingly that her college-aged son had been insisting that she maintain a blog on the store's website. She told BTW that she had resisted until she heard the issues raised by Vlahos. Upon returning home, she said, "I told him, 'OK, I'll blog. Show me how.'"

Arlene Lynes, owner of Read Between the Lynes in Woodstock, Illinois, told BTW that since the forum, she keeps "going back to the comments regarding technology. It was very, very informative and motivated me to revisit [the store's] MySpace page."

Lynes described how the store page, initiated a year ago, had become problematic when young staff members and others misused the site. Although she has since terminated the store's MySpace page, she wants to try again, this time with firm guidelines established for its use, because she's concluded that the advantages of this type of fast moving, "viral" method of engaging young consumers may be too significant to ignore.

Carol Grossmeyer, president of Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops, was enthusiastic about the update-to-date content of the ABA education sessions. "This was my first crack at the new material," she said. "[ABA programming] is always very informative, but I found these presentations particularly encouraging. We were told that the bricks-and-mortar stores would go on and survive, but we need to work differently to include new technologies."

The session "Handselling: Customer Service With Results," led by Domnitz with Mary McCarthy, vice president and COO of the Schwartz Bookshops, also gave booksellers encouragement. Wilson told BTW, "This kind of session reenergizes you and gives you a boost; we need to do this."

Grossmeyer agreed, noting that even after working for three decades at Schwartz, "We always need a renewed script [for handselling]. We may know about best practices, but we don't always use them. The video vignettes [illustrating do's and don'ts of handselling] were very funny."

All of the booksellers contacted appreciated the opportunity the forum afforded to network with other booksellers and interact with publishers. "Everyone has something valuable to share," Wilson commented. She also enjoyed hearing about new books from the reps during the MBA's round-robin session. "Even though we're a children's bookstore, we have a small adult section, so this was a good chance to get input," she said.

Grossmeyer told BTW she was pleased that the forum program's location enabled many Schwartz staff members to attend.

During the reception, booksellers had the opportunity to tour the Schwartz Brookfield store. They also received signed books from five visiting authors: Lesley Kagen, Barbara Jossee, Isabel Sharpe, Lauren Fox, and sisters, Natalie Kring, and Shannon Kring Biro.

Lynes, whose store has been open for 20 months, found the whole experience so gratifying and useful that she plans to attend the Booksellers Forum program in conjunction with the Great Lakes Booksellers Association on March 20, in Aurora, Illinois. "I'll be glad to hear it all again," she said. --Nomi Schwartz