After eight years of shuttling back and forth between Minneapolis and Chicagoland, the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association and Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association’s joint trade show moved east to Cleveland for this year’s gathering. Heartland Fall Forum 2019 took place October 2–4 inside the Sixth City’s majestic 101-year-old Renaissance Hotel.

With 216 booksellers in attendance, down from last year’s show in Minneapolis that drew close to 300 booksellers, this year’s Heartland was noticeably smaller, with 58% of booksellers belonging to GLIBA and 42% MIBA members. But a small show can be a productive and friendly place to be, and this one certainly was, by all accounts. Exhibitors were pleased to meet booksellers who don’t usually attend Heartland; booksellers were just as happy to meet vendors who typically don’t exhibit there. According to the two organizations, 78 of the booksellers in attendance were first-timers, as were 27 bookstores and 20 of the 60 exhibits representing hundreds of companies.

“It was a gamble to move the show, but getting new people coming is worth it. You’ve got to bring in new people, both geographically and generationally,” said David Enyeart, manager at The Next Chapter Booksellers in St. Paul, Minn., who just stepped down from MIBA’s board.

Judging from the comments made to PW both by show veterans and first-timers, GLIBA and MIBA’s gamble paid off for all.

“We were encouraged by the energy, diversity and youth at this year’s show,” noted Susan Thomas, co-owner of CoffeeTree Books, Morehead, Ky., who is GLIBA’s new board president.

“It’s just the right size for me,” said first-timer Gretchen Treu, a MIBA member who bought A Room of One’s Own in Madison, Wis., last year. “Winter Institute was a bit much. And I like getting to meet all my reps in person.”

“Minneapolis is too far away, and the traffic around Chicago is too awful,” said Janet Jones, a GLIBA member and first-timer who owns the Source Booksellers in Detroit.

Maybe the exuberance that marked this show was due at least in part to the ubiquitous presence of Isaac Fitzgerald, author of How to Be a Pirate (Bloomsbury, March 2020), who emceed the Great Lakes/Great Reads and Midwest Booksellers Choice book awards ceremony on opening night, appeared at events throughout the show, and interviewed author/bookseller Emma Straub during the show’s grand finale.

Maybe it was Ruta Sepetys’s presentation on the relevance of historical fiction that did it. As Sepetys described the oppression that marked Franco’s Spain after World War II, the relevance to the modern day of her latest novel, The Fountains of Silence (Philomel, Oct.) was not lost on the audience -- although the word “Trump” was never mentioned.

“Young people are the future eyes of the past,” Sepetys said, “You put books into their hands, you are bringing these stories into the future. I am writing about people who believe the world has forgotten them, and you are putting [these books] into the hands of the most honest readers.”

During this show, much more so than usual, general booksellers were buzzing about children’s books, especially diverse children’s books, just as much as the specialty children’s booksellers. And everybody was talking about the same books.

“It’s our job to stock books that represent the real people in our community,” Tom Lowry of Lowry’s Books in Three Rivers, Mich.. said as he waited in a long line to meet the Children’s Author Breakfast speakers, Sharon Robinson (Child of the Dream, Scholastic Press, Sept.), Pam Muñoz Ryan (Manañaland, Scholastic Press, March 2020) and Gabby Rivera (Juliet Takes a Breath, Dial, Sept.).

Misian Taylor, a bookseller at A Room of One’s Own in Madison, Wis., raved about Juliet Takes a Breath, saying, “It’s the most exciting book I’ve read in the past six months. I have 30 books in my hotel room, and I can’t wait to read this one again as soon as I can.”

Suzanne DeGaetano, the co-owner of Mac’s Backs on Coventry in Cleveland, buzzed about Dragon Hoops (First Second, March 2020) by Gene Luen Yang, explaining, “It’s a graphic novel, supposedly for young readers, but it’s really for all ages.” Cynthia Compton, the owner of 4Kids Books & Toys in suburban Indianapolis, was even more effusive than DeGaetano about Dragon Hoops.

“It's BASKETBALL!!!” Compton wrote in an email, also describing it as a book for all ages. “Only Indiana stores can truly understand the significance and sales potential of this. To complete the author/topic/format trifecta of perfection.... it’s being released during MARCH MADNESS, that holiest of sports months. Well done, First Second, well done.”

But it was two quiet, reflective picture books that most resonated with a variety of Heartland booksellers. The first was I Promise (Arsenal Pulp Press, Oct.) by Catherine Hernandez, illustrated by Syrus Marcus Ware. “It’s just the sweetest story about queer families,” Andrea Schwesnedl of Moon Palace Books in Minneapolis told PW. “It’s the book I am going to force everybody to read when they walk in the store.”

The other is Listen (Roaring Brook, Sept.) by Holly McGhee, illustrated by Pascal Lemaitre, described by PW in its review as “a thoughtful offering, expressed in subtle poetic tempo, about shared humanity and the nourishing world.”

“It’s one of those children’s books that if you read it as an adult it will change your life,” Gloria Tiller of Kazoo Books in Kalamazoo, Mich,. said. Explaining that she has read it “two or three times,” Tiller said that she and her staff, had debated whether Listen should be shelved in the children’s section or in the spirituality section of the general-interest bookstore (it ended up being shelved in children’s).

Reflecting upon the conference this year, it was a children’s bookseller, Melia Wolf, the owner for the past two years of Cover to Cover Books for Young Readers in Columbus, Ohio, who summed up this year’s gathering the best. “I come out of this and I am so psyched,” she said, “I feel like what I am doing to make the world a better place is so important. It fills your soul to be around other booksellers.”