Oberlin, Ohio is fascinating.
It has a wonderful liberal arts college, which produces zany geniuses like Ryan Trecartin.
It has a great activist history, and was the scene of socialist meetings and conferences that drew thousands of participants every summer. (Forty years ago, when people who were called socialists actually believed in socialism.)
And even today, Oberlin is that rarity, a fairly integrated, politically progressive small town.
It even has a downtown with actual stores, including a wonderful, quirky bookstore (MindFair Books) which doubles as a retro dime store and picture framing business. (On its shelves you can find vestiges of Oberlin’s radical past in the yellowed volumes of Trotskyist literature.)
But my reason for driving 420 miles to Oberlin on Monday was to visit NACS- the National Association of College Stores. NACS is a membership organization of campus stores which also wholesales books to them.
Wholesaling is a tricky segment of the book business. If it’s sometimes a challenge to get a bookseller to imagine a customer for a book- or, as my friend Arsen bluntly describes it, “picturing someone bringing this up to the cash register”- think of adding another whole layer to that equation. The book wholesaler has to think not only about whether a book will inspire people to visit a bookstore for it, but also whether the bookstore will turn to them- the wholesaler- to order it.
Some wholesale buyers are bookish and erudite, and getting them jazzed on a book is essentially the same process as getting a retailer excited. Ron Watson at Ingram, for instance, has exquisite taste and loves books. But unlike the retail booksellers, a wholesaler’s customers are stores, not individuals, and grabbing them by the lapels is a little more complex than cornering an individual customer who walks in the shop door.
Most retail booksellers use a combination of direct ordering from publishers and wholesaler ordering. As it happens, NACS is the only wholesaler on my plate, and the adjustment to the slightly different mindset required is sometimes a little jarring. As a rep who grew up in bookstores, I always feel a little more comfortable selling in places where real live customers are coming and going.
My NACS meeting was brief but efficient. We talked about numbers and carton quantities and promotional opportunities. I left feeling somewhat inadequate.
And then I headed back to Milwaukee, cursing the three-decker trucks and the grim tollway service plazas, but thankful for some recent mix cd’s given to me by booksellers.