The Skim Trade

Above, Alexis Akre, head buyer for Olsson's, checks out a photography book at the New York gathering. At left, she greets Christa Grenawalt, sales director for Lonely Planet. Washington, Akre says, is
Above, Alexis Akre, head buyer for Olsson's, checks out a photography book at the New York gathering. At left, she greets Christa Grenawalt, sales director for Lonely Planet. Washington, Akre says, is "a good travel city." (Helayne Seidman - Helayne Seidman Ftwp)

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By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 4, 2007

NEW YORK

It's a classic moment at BookExpo America, the nation's biggest book industry confab. Two moments, actually, happening simultaneously at Manhattan's Jacob Javits Convention Center.

On one side of a long aisle lined with publishers' booths sits the mild-mannered, white-shirted British novelist Ian McEwan, playing the role of Celebrity Author. McEwan smiles gamely and perspires a bit -- the cavernous Javits seems not to have figured out that it's June -- as he signs his latest, "On Chesil Beach," for a line of fans that stretches out of sight.

On the other side of the aisle, just a few yards away, stands Alexis Akre, the head book buyer for Olsson's Books & Records . . . not buying books.

Akre has been chatting with Craig Popelars, who represents a modest-size publisher called Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. Popelars seems not at all perturbed by the buyer's failure to buy.

"Nobody does that anymore, do they?" he says. An order placed here would be an occasion for celebration: "We should have those bells in the booth, like when a bartender gets tipped."

Welcome to the paradox known as BEA, which exists to bring authors, publishers and bookstore folk together, but at which few books are actually sold.

There are exceptions, of course. Small-town bookstores that don't get many visits from publishers' reps, for example, may take the opportunity to place orders.

But to spend a few days at BEA with a buyer for an urban independent bookstore chain such as Olsson's, which consists of six stores in the Washington area, is to observe the less quantifiable but no less important kind of transactions occurring there.

They're all about face-to-face contact, about sharing ideas and forging connections that will help you later on. These connections, one editor in attendance explained, tend to be made and maintained through serendipity, "and if the serendipity doesn't happen for you, BEA is a waste of time." This would be equally true, another pointed out, if you were talking about "the association of storm-door manufacturers."

Akre has her own phrase for the seemingly intangible benefits of bringing the book world together in one humongous, sweaty mass.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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