As the 155 booksellers attending the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association fall trade show arrived at Denver’s Renaissance Hotel between Oct. 10-12, they were given bags from Utah publisher Gibbs Smith that read, in large white letters on a red background, “Keep Calm and Read On.” It was an apt slogan for the show, as a number of attendees were impacted by September’s torrential floods in Colo., amplified by this month’s government shutdown, which is also affecting booksellers throughout the region. Not only are there furloughs of federal employees who are bookstore customers, but national parks are closed in a region heavily reliant on the visitors they draw. (Utah and Colo. booksellers were relieved to hear during the show that their home states were taking over national parks and temporarily reopening them.)
With a crowd of American Red Cross workers in residence at the hotel, it was hard not to reflect upon the impact of the recent floods, particularly on MacDonald’s Bookshop in Estes Park. Although the store suffered no damage, it was closed for four days; afterwards, the sidewalks outside had to be cleared of mud and debris so customers could enter. The store was slammed yet again in Oct. when nearby Rocky Mountain National Park was closed. Sales are down about 50%, co-owner Paula Steige said, with no signs of a rebound. “Winter is a down time in Estes Park anyway,” she said.
Boulder Books closed for three partial days and for an entire day, when the city of Boulder shut down, book buyer Arsen Kashkashian reported. It was, he recalled, the first time in the 20+ years he’s worked at the store that it ever closed because of weather. Kashkashian, who once skied from his home to the store to open it during a huge blizzard, said that Boulder Books lost 20-25% in sales last month, and is still down about 5% in Oct. “Hopefully, it’ll continue to go up,” he said.
In contrast, Old Firehouse Books in Ft. Collins stayed open the day floods blocked access between downtown and the rest of the city. “Downtown was an island,” co-owner Susie Wilmer recalled. Sales were good, because people were “trapped” downtown, but “not as high as normal.” Even though the store took a hit in Sept., sales this year are still up 3%, and last year “was the best year we ever had.” She is, Wilmer says, “counting upon” a strong holiday season.
Other regional booksellers fared much better this year. Sales are up at Park City, Utah’s Dolly’s Books, manager Sue Fassett says, due to a vibrant tourist industry in the upscale resort area. Valerie Koehler reported that Blue Willow in Houston was up 3% and Vicki Lee Burger reported that Wind City Books in Casper, Wyo., an “oil-boom-or-bust town,” is riding a boom now that’s fueling sales. Plus, she pointed out, Blue Heron Books and Ralph’s Books & Cards have closed in the past year or so, making Wind City Books the only bookstore in Wyo.’s second largest city.
While recent nonfiction releases with a regional bent like Hell on Wheels: Wicked Towns along the Union Pacific Railroad by Dick Kreck (Fulcrum Publishing) and Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats by Kristen Iversen (Crown) enticed booksellers, adult fiction dominated the show.
Craig Johnson’s novella, Spirit of Steamboat (Viking), had to be the most buzzed-up book of the show. It didn’t hurt that Johnson, a gregarious, charismatic, and larger-than-life Wyomingite, captivated booksellers, first with a visit to the show floor during the day, and then with a rousing speech at the authors’ banquet that evening, when he reminisced about his visit to MPIBA in 2004, promoting his debut novel, Cold Dish. Spirit of Steamboat is Wyo.’s inaugural state-wide reading selection; the program launches next week. Other novels that most appealed to booksellers include Monument Road by Charlie Quimby (Torrey House, Nov.), which Anne Holman of the King’s English in Salt Lake City praised for its characters and strong sense of place; and Shotgun Lovesongs (St. Martin’s/ Mar. 2014), Nickolas Butler’s debut, which bookseller Jackie Blem of Denver’s Tattered Cover talked up to seemingly everyone at the show. Shotgun Lovesongs is one of the titles featured in the ABA’s new “Indies Introduce” marketing program.
Although the quality of the books on display overwhelmed many booksellers that PW queried, the 71 authors in attendance stole the show. Blue Willow’s Koehler pronounced this year’s author events to be “spectacular,” with the “best set of authors ever,” including literary icons like Armistead Maupin, who told booksellers that Days of Anna Madrigal (HarperCollins, Jan. 2014) would be the last of the “Tales of the City” that he started writing in the mid-1970s; and Kent Haruf, who received the Spirit of the West Award for lifetime achievement. Haruf, who was interviewed by PW at MPIBA 2012, touched booksellers when he disclosed for the first time publicly that a cleft palate made his teen years miserable, "but ended up being a blessing.” His social withdrawal during his youth caused him to be “more aware of others and to pay close attention to how people think,” which still serves him well in writing fiction. Ever since he started writing, he declared, “I’ve tried not to write too small, and I’ve tried not to live too small either.”
“There was a lot of laughter and poignancy” during the author presentations, Koehler noted as the show wound down Saturday. Her sentiments were echoed by Dolly’s Books’ Fassett, who commented that she’s “always surprised at how eloquent and entertaining authors can be. Of course, they’re wordsmiths, and it often translates. MPIBA chose their authors well.”