If this year’s Midwest Booksellers Association annual trade show, held October 1-2 at St. Paul, Minn.’s RiverCentre, seemed to swarm with local paparazzi, it was for good reason: MBA kicked off with a breakfast featuring both former Vice President Walter Mondale making his first public appearance touting his hot-off-the-presses autobiography, The Good Fight: A Life in Liberal Politics (Scribner), and Laurie Hertzel, Minneapolis Star-Tribune book editor, talking up her newly released memoir, News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist (University of Minnesota Press). Journalists were there in full force, covering Mondale or supporting Hertzel. One of Hertzel’s fellow Star-Tribune editors, political writer David Hage, who assisted Mondale in writing The Good Fight, was even double-dipping, providing moral support to both authors with his presence. Informing the crowd he’d been limited to 11 minutes, Mondale drew laughs when he quipped, “I was in the U.S. Senate, and I’m pretty sure that limit is unconstitutional.”
Mondale, who grew up in smalltown Minnesota, then delivered a barn-burner of a speech about America’s past and present political climate that woke up the 120 booksellers in the room, who’d listened politely to the three authors who spoke before him. Recalling his four years as v-p under President Jimmy Carter, Mondale drew applause and cheers when he said, “We told the truth, we obeyed the law, and we kept the peace.” A few minutes later, after the audience gave him a rousing standing ovation, Mondale further endeared himself to many present by making a beeline over to Hertzel, asking her to autograph a copy of News to Me for him.
Themes of war and peace carried over into the next day’s children’s book and author breakfast, when Suzanne Collins, the author of the bestselling Hunger Games series for YA readers, explained how her lifelong “maniacal” obsession with war growing up in a career military family inspired her to write the series of three dystopian novels about teens who are ordered by a ruthless government to fight to the death, which is televised as popular entertainment for the masses. “I think we’re all becoming a little numb, a little desensitized to the images on our television,” Collins said, recalling the impact of the Vietnam War upon her childhood and the impact of 9/11 upon her own children.
Perhaps all that intense talk about the world outside affected the ambiance inside RiverCentre, or perhaps it was simply the knowledge that, after 23 years at the helm, MBA executive director Susan Walker was running her last show-- but MBA seemed much more somber than in past years, with both exhibitors and booksellers commenting on how much smaller the show seemed to be this year -- an observation borne out by the numbers. There were 295 booksellers from 88 bookstores checking out the books displayed by 50 exhibitors, with 228 staff members representing hundreds of companies. In comparison, last year’s show included 358 booksellers from 96 stores, and 61 exhibits.
Despite the show being smaller and quieter than in previous years, with an evening reception that included a bookseller tribute to Walker replacing the traditional book and author banquet, all agreed that the quality of interactions between booksellers and publishers was as high as ever. People were there to do business. Tristan Publishing reported within 45 minutes of the trade floor opening thatit had already taken two orders, and bookseller Chuck Wilder of Books on Broadway, in Williston, N.D., told PW at midday that he had placed 15 orders.
While most of the booksellers PW spoke to reported either that sales are holding steady or that they were slightly up this past summer, sales at Books on Broadway have risen significantly in the past two years, due to North Dakota riding high throughout the recession with an oil boom . In contrast, sales at Chapter One Books, in Aberdeen, S.D., have dipped for the first time this past year, leading owner Peggy Bieber to pin her hopes on How Lucky You Can Be: The Story of Coach Don Meyer by Buster Olney (ESPN), a November release about a beloved local sports figure’s personal tragedies. “One book can make an entire year,” Bieber insisted. “I think this book can make some money.”
Books with northland themes appealed to MBA booksellers, most of whom seemed to hail from Minnesota and Iowa, though there were representatives from bookstores throughout the nine-state region and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. While elegiac memoirs by two well-known Twin Cities journalists -- Hertzel’s News to Me and Peg Meier’s Wishing for a Snow Day (Minnesota Historical Society Press) -- were popular, the nonfiction star of the show was The Opposite of Cold: the Northwoods Finnish Sauna Tradition by Michael Nordskog, illustrated by Aaron Hautala (University of Minnesota Press). “It’s expensive, $35,” conceded Mary Keyes, co-owner of Howard Street Booksellers, in Hibbing, Minn., “but anything Finnish is snapped up in our store.”
On the fiction side, the savviest booksellers focused on what was being released by small presses they trust, rather than simply hoping to chance upon a hidden gem from one of the large houses. Many MBA booksellers raved about Safe from the Sea by Peter Geye (Unbridled Books), with Tripp Rider from Carleton College Bookstore, in Carleton, Minn., declaring she was especially eager to read the novel set in northern Minnesota because Unbridled had been so excited about it at BEA. John McCormick of Northern Lights Books in Duluth, Minn., said he was also excited about The Wilding by Benjamin Percy (Graywolf), based on its publisher’s recommendation. “Instead of just pressing the same titles on everyone,” he said, “Graywolf actually takes the time to find out what’s good for your store.” And Chapter One’s Bieber was going to crack open West of Here by Jonathan Evison, a spring 2011 release from Algonquin, because it had been buzzed about on a panel that included Algonquin editor Chuck Adams, publicity director Michael Taeckens, and Evison himself.
While bookseller Geoffrey Jennings has been immersed in the book business since his mother, Vivien Jennings, founded Rainy Day Books, in Fairway, Kans., 35 years ago, and regularly attends BEA and Winter Institute, this was the first time he’d ever attended a regional trade show. “I never felt the need before,” he declared, taking a break from roaming the booths, talking shop with sales reps and hand-selling fall and spring 2011 releases to his fellow booksellers. “But the bookselling community is smaller. It’s more important than ever to share your perspective. The more people share their perspective, the stronger the community gets.”
MBA is moving across the Mississippi River next fall and will hold its 2011 show September 23-25 at the Historic Depot on the edge of downtown Minneapolis.