The annual Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Discovery Show, held from September 15-17, in New Orleans drew representatives from 71 bookstores across the region.

Doug Robinson, owner of Eagle Eye Bookshop in Decatur, Ga., and current president of the board of SIBA, discussed show attendance figures and current membership stats at the organization’s town hall event on Friday. Total bookstore membership for SIBA stands at 138, down three members from last year. Booksellers from five stores in Florida, as well as others from Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia, were unable to make the trip to Louisiana due to complications caused by Hurricane Irma. (Total attendance figures for the show were not available at press time.)

Booksellers from 10 stores were first-time attendees to the show, including those from Title Wave Books in Mount Pleasant, S.C, WordsWorth Books Co in Little Rock, Ark., and Story on the Square in Mcdonoughm, Ga. Missy Couhig, co-owner of The Conundrum Books in St. Francisville, La., was among the first-timers. “It’s important for us to meet the reps and develop a stronger relationship with them,” Couhig said.

Robinson echoed Couhig’s sentiments, adding that the show “lets booksellers look at what’s on offer a little closer and find things that might work in their store that they night not otherwise see.”

The show floor was generally busy and exhibitors expressed satisfaction with the traffic. “Most of the booksellers seem to have a general feeling of excitement pertaining to the fall,” said David Mallmann, midwest sales representative for W.W. Norton.

Professional development panels took up much of the first two days of the event, on Thursday and Friday, and the show was putting diversity and inclusion issues front-and-center.

Thursday featured a closed door workshop on diversity and inclusion; this was followed Friday by a range of panels covering topics from maximizing backlist sales to another on “inventory activism.”

Kimberly Daniels of The Country Bookshop in Southern Pines, N.C., who helped oversee the latter panel, explained the concept of “inventory activism” as one in which a bookseller chooses to stock books that embody values of diversity and inclusion, rather than announcing or promoting direct political action. “I live in a community where I cannot put a ‘Black Lives Matter’ sticker on my front door,” Daniels said. “So what can I do? I make sure that our ‘staff picks’ represent books that are diverse and inclusive of the wide variety of authors and subjects we have for sale.”

Michelle Cavalier, co-owner of Cavalier House Books in Denham Springs, La., outside Baton Rouge, said she plans to stock and display the forthcoming YA novel Dear Martin by Nic Stone (Crown), about a college-bound African-American man who reacts to injustice by keeping a diary addressed to Dr. Martin Luther King, alongside King’s collected works. “That will work in my store,” she said. “On the other hand, I cannot display the new Hilary Clinton book, because there are male customers who will come in and potentially react violently to seeing it. As a woman who sometimes works alone in the store, I can feel threatened.” On the flips side of the political coin, Cavalier has opted not to stock Milo Yiannopoulos’s Dangerous. “That is because of principle,” she said, adding that she will order any book a customer requests.

While many booksellers have brought more diversity to their store through the titles they stock, there is a long way to go when it comes to bringing more diversity to their staff. Stone, the Dear Martin author, speaking at a breakfast panel, asked for a show of hands of “brown people” in the room. A single arm shot up. “There is no easy way to change the composition of this room,” he said. “We don’t like talking about it. We don’t like looking at it, but we need to.”

Aside from diversity, the theme of racism and racial tension came up repeatedly at the show. Eleanor Henderson, author of Twelve Mile Road (Ecco), a novel about a lynching in Georgia in the 1930s, who spoke at a breakfast session on Saturday morning, said she was unsure how much had changed since the time her book portrays. Either way, she went on, “I do hope that this book helps people remember that it is important to look to our past to understand the future.”

Author Wiley Cash spent five years working on his new novel, The Last Ballad (William Morrow), which is based on true events that took place in 1929. What he portrays in his book, Cash noted, has an eerie resonance in 2017. “My novel is about an independent woman standing up against the forces of corporate greed and racial injustice. She was killed when a crazed person drove into a crowd of protestors,” Cash said, inferring that there are stark parallels between the incident in his novel and the recent situation in which a protester was killed during a rally mounted by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Va.

Another topic attendees were discussing, albeit not publicly, was SIBA executive director Wanda Jewell’s planned move to San Francisco. A number of booksellers expressed concern about how Jewell will run the organization while being based so far away from its members. Asked why the issue wasn’t raised during the town hall meeting, SIBA president Robinson said it was merely that “we ran out of time.”

One SIBA board member, who asked to remain anonymous, said “There are a lot of people who feel the organization, which has promoted local book buying and community engagement, should have a director who is local to the region. But we’ll deal with that when the time comes.”

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