Ci2023: Daniel Nayeri: 'A Town Without a Bookstore Is an Oversized Gas Station'

On Tuesday morning, Printz Award-winner Daniel Nayeri (Everything Sad Is Untrue; The Many Assassinations of Samir, the Seller of Dreams, Levine Querido) delivered the first morning keynote of the 11th annual American Booksellers Association's Children's Institute, taking place in Milwaukee, Wis., this week. Nearly 400 booksellers--251 of them first-timers--are attending, representing 238 stores across the United States, including 222 bricks-and-mortar stores, eight pop-ups, five online retailers, and two mobile stores.

Daniel Nayeri

ABA CEO Allison Hill introduced Nayeri, telling attendees about his background: he was born in Iran and spent several years as a refugee before immigrating at age eight to Oklahoma. Hill recounted a series of jobs Nayeri, as a child, had hoped to achieve when he grew up, including skydiving instructor and pastry chef. Nayeri did eventually train as a pastry chef but ultimately moved into the world of publishing, where he has been an editor, publisher, and author. Hill joked that though "there is part of me that wishes Daniel were here in his position as pastry chef," she was thrilled to introduce him as the day's keynote speaker.

Nayeri jumped on stage with immense energy, especially impressive considering he had left a film shoot in Connecticut and arrived in Milwaukee late the evening before. More impressive yet was the fact that Nayeri rewrote his speech after arriving at Children's Institute. He had initially planned to deliver a speech entitled "The Best Questions I've Ever Asked" but, after speaking with ABA leadership, reconsidered his focus. "What," he thought, "might I have to offer that would be useful to you as booksellers and as humans?"

"My whole life I've thought entirely about books," Nayeri said as he displayed pictures of bookstores he has visited across the country. "My life has been measured in bookstore visits in a lot of ways," he noted as he named bookstore after bookstore to applause and hoots from different areas of the hall. Nayeri said that working as a bookseller at the Strand in New York City "changed [him] forever. I was once told to stop smiling and get back to work when I was working, which implies they think smiling slows you down." He also worked at Midtown Comics in New York and came "face to face with the best and the weirdest humanity has to offer." Indie bookstores, he said, "are staffed by the most interesting people in town" and he is "giddy with excitement" that 471 stores have opened since 2021.

"The most pressing concern before us these days," Nayeri stated, "is labor. The big challenge is to keep people. And there, friends, is the topic of my talk: How can a bookstore retain its staff, help them thrive, and ultimately overturn the narrative?" His answer: fostering community. "Relationships are the first thing we deprioritize [when things get tough] even though they are the first things we should work on.

So, then, what does Nayeri think are the parts of community that matter most?

  • Social--"not parasocial"--networks ("This has nothing to do with the Internet")
  • Career mindset
  • Undigitizable experiences
Daniel Nayeri and Allison Hill

The social fabric of the store is imperative, Nayeri said. After visiting a bookstore where several of the employees had met their romantic partners and where previous employees remained customers, he felt the store was clearly doing something right. Not the romantic relationships, necessarily--"the point is that the store is such a part of people's lives that they hung out for after-work events." The new era of management needs to care about staff, Nayeri said. "This is a country dying of isolation. Books have always been the panacea to our loneliness. So can bookstores."

An additional part of management caring about its staff is offering employees careers rather than jobs. Booksellers, Nayeri mentioned, are some of the most "over-educated and under-employed" individuals in the country. "Consider a two-year growth plan for each of your employees," he said. "Give them the insights you wish you had," mentor them, send them to industry conferences. "Give people careers not jobs." Lastly, Nayeri spoke of "undigitizable experiences." "We have to rethink the events model," he said to much applause. Nayeri mentioned events he did at different bookstores where participants made meals--"Food is clearly a good angle here. And clearly what I'm obsessed with"--or skill-shared. Reading and signing books is great, Nayeri noted, but it doesn't necessarily build community. And "we need our bookstores desperately because a town without a bookstore is an oversized gas station."

He finished, "I hope you'll let me come cook for you and celebrate books. I hope you have a brilliant conference--everyone wants you to. And I'll be cheering my head off from the sidelines for all of you." --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness

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