Rock stars don’t usually show up at book conferences in industrial parks in the middle of New Jersey, but it sure felt like one did when Judy Blume walked into the awards banquet at last week’s New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association fall conference, held September 30–October 3 at the DoubleTree by Hilton Somerset Hotel in Somerset, N.J. Blume stopped the show before she even came to the podium to receive both the NAIBA Legacy and Carla Cohen Free Speech Awards, by getting up to hug Children’s Book of the Year winner Tom Angleberger (The Secret of the Fortune Wookiee, Amulet) after his thank-you speech. It’s “a real honor to receive the award, an even bigger honor when Judy Blume is in the room,” he said.

Other award winners included Adam Rubin and Daniel Salmieri, who received the Picture Book of the Year Award for Dragons Love Tacos (Dial), and Alicia Michielli, assistant manager and children’s specialist at Talking Leaves... Books in Buffalo, N.Y., who accepted the Joe Drabyak Handseller of the Year Award.

Blume, who received a standing ovation for her awards, told a story about going to the book department at Bloomingdale’s to see her then-new book, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970), on the shelf. Unable to find it, she asked a clerk and was told: It’s with the Bibles. Addressing the booksellers in the audience, Blume said, “You’re more important now than you ever were. Don’t go away.”

They aren’t likely to, if the show’s turnout is anything to go by. Adele Herman of Como Sales called it “the best” NAIBA conference she’s attended. Executive director Eileen Dengler said that attendance was even with last year’s gathering in Crystal City, Va., with close to 180 booksellers from 74 bookstores. Concerns about the government shutdown notwithstanding, the mood of the show was determinedly upbeat. As Cindy Raiton, president of sales at Bookazine, noted, “The energy seems to show the resurgence of independents.”

That revival was evident with new partnerships, like one between Faye Skandalakis, founder of the Story Nook Children’s Bookstore – which specializes in school sales and online sales through its Web site – and the months-old Astoria Bookshop in New York City. Bookstores open less than five years, or those that have recently changes hands, like One More Page Books in Arlington, Va., and Doylestown Bookstore in Doylestown, Pa., have seen strong increases this year. Other new stores like Novel Places in Clarksburg, Md., which has been forced to move twice since it opened in 2011, are now on track. Novel Places moved across the street in May to a much more visible, 1,200-square-footlocation, and saw sales go from 40% down in the first part of the year to a record-breaking summer. NAIBA, too, is growing. Bill Reilly, co-owner of the River’s End Bookstore in Oswego, N.Y., reported 128 member stores, up from 118 in 2012.

The conference began with dinner and an hour-long tour of the Baker & Taylor warehouse in Bridgewater, N.J., which can process up to 150,000 books a day. As with every conference event, there were plenty of authors on hand to sign books. At the warehouse, Rachel King, manager of children’s books for the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza in Albany, N.Y., was particularly excited to meet Paula J. Freedman (My Basmati Bat Mitzvah, Abrams/Amulet). Appearances by many of the biggest-name authors were reserved for the breakfasts: David Wiesner (Mr. Wuffles!, Clarion), Susan Cooper (Ghost Hawk, S&S/McElderry), Loren Long (An Otis Christmas, Philomel), and James L. Swanson (“The President Has Been Shot!”: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy, Scholastic Press). Weisner’s signing line was so long that he continued personalizing books long after the breakfast was over and right through the annual meeting immediately following it.

A number of educational sessions focused on nuts-and-bolts issues, among them Common Core, the Affordable Health Care Act, and store design (led by Donna Paz Kaufman and Mark Kaufman of Paz & Associates). Others were more children’s-book specific, including the Children’s Pick of the List panel, where three booksellers shared their favorites for fall, and a few for spring 2014. Francine Lucidon, owner of The Voracious Reader in Larchmont, N.Y., chose a dozen current and forthcoming titles, including Chef Olivia Cookbook and Cookie Cutters Kit (Chronicle, Oct.); Thomas Jefferson (Penguin/Paulsen, Jan. 2014) by Maira Kalman, whom she called “a national treasure”; and the “incredibly moving” A Boy and a Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz, illustrated by Catia Chien (HMH, May 2014).

Sam Droke-Dickinson, co-owner of Aaron’s Books in Lititz, Pa., offered middle-grade selections with a little help from the store’s namesake, her son Aaron, who is about to turn 11. His pick of the fall is Mark Tatulli’s just-released Desmond Pucket Makes Monster Magic (Andrews McMeel/AMP!). Two series that Droke-Dickinson is particularly excited about are the Imaginary Veterinary books by Suzanne Selfors (Little, Brown), another Aaron selection, and Courtney Sheinmel’s Stella Batts series (Sleeping Bear), which Droke-Dickinson regards as a “must-have.”

On the young adult side, Michielli noted a post-Hunger Games turn toward the dark side, in books like Robin Wasserman’s The Waking Dark (Knopf, Sept.), which she called “a love letter to Stephen King,” and Susann Cokal’s The Kingdom of Little Wounds (Candlewick, Oct.), which Michielli described as “very graphic. I’m really unsure about YA for this one.” Of course, not every new book mines that vein. Her other picks include Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl (St. Martin’s Griffin, Sept.) and Jasper Fforde’s Song of the Quarkbeast (HMH, Sept.), a middle grade title.

The show’s “big idea” session on where the industry is heading, “What’s Coming to Our Stores?”, was moderated by Lissa Muscatine, co-owner of Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C., and examined current changes in the market. Panelist Simon Boughton, senior v-p and publisher of FSG Books for Young Readers and Roaring Brook Press said, “I don’t think anybody has a clear idea of what the children’s book market will look like when digital matures. There’s a difference in the way adults want to interact with a child with a book.” Dennis Johnson, cofounder of Melville House – who worked at Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, Mass., when he was growing up – spoke about how recent shifts have affected print runs. “Borders is gone; Barnes & Noble is shrinking; Amazon has realized it doesn’t have to have a lot in their warehouse. We’ve got to collude,” he said, “to put it in the language of the day.” Ruth Liebmann, v-p and director of account marketing at Random House, also focused on why independents have become so important to publishers – and it’s not just lip service. She encouraged booksellers to make noise early about the books they like, “even though it’s an unsettling time. You see ‘disruption’ in the media, it’s a huge opportunity for the indies. Everybody is looking at the independents. You have a moment.”

Opinions on just how much of a moment it is varied from bookseller to bookseller. Several, including Jonathan Welch, owner of Talking Leaves... Books, voiced a concern for books like Dan Brown’s Inferno, where simultaneous e-book releases have cut into sales. “Windowing would help us,” he said. Margot Sage-EL, owner of Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, N.J., wondered why, if authors want their books released in all formats at publication, publishers can’t do simultaneous paperback releases. The idea of simultaneous paperbacks, but for children’s trade titles that could be used in the schools, also arose during the q-and-a for Common Core. But what distinguished the show overall, despite concerns about competition with Amazon and discounters, is the sense that indie booksellers’ time has come.