It always seems to be boom or bust for the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association member bookstores—much like the region in general. Right now, the MPIBA booksellers are booming. Not only has the organization grown in the past two years, with 160 member stores representing 200 locations, up from 90 members in 2017, but, according to many attendees, this year’s fall trade show in Denver, held October 10–12, was one of the most energetic in recent years.
Despite terrible road conditions the first day, due to an early snowfall that snarled traffic, booksellers representing 60 MPIBA bookstores, including booksellers from 14 stores that were attending for the first time, met at the Renaissance Hotel in the Stapleton neighborhood for three days of talking shop, discovering books, and meeting authors. While MPIBA did not provide numbers, it reported that total attendance this year was up 10%.
The exhibit hall was bustling throughout the day Friday, with booksellers browsing 62 exhibits representing hundreds of companies. Small regional presses, such as High Plains Press, headquartered on a 7,000-acre ranch outside of Casper, Wyo., displayed their offerings alongside the large houses, like Scholastic. Publisher Nancy Curtis noted that High Plains reps don’t write a lot of orders at the show, but make the drive every year because “it’s fun and we like to talk to people; we don’t usually see anybody up in Wyoming.”
Valerie Pierce, director of retail marketing at Sourcebooks, said that the Chicagoland company has committed to attending as many regionals as it can, and especially enjoys MPIBA because it provides Sourcebooks personnel with an opportunity to meet booksellers in another part of the country. “It’s always in Denver and there are amazing bookstores in the surrounding area,” Pierce said. “I try to visit new bookstores every year. Seeing the stores and chatting with the booksellers on the floor really helps me get a feel for what works for them, their stores, and their community.”
Anne Iverson, the marketing manager of Mountain Press in Missoula, Mont., told PW that the 71-year-old publisher of outdoor books, including the Nature’s Yucky! series of children’s books, had not exhibited at M&P “in years,” because, she said, it was not writing enough orders there at the time. It instead started attending PNBA because it does not have the resources to attend two regionals in one year.
“But I met [MPIBA executive director] Heather Duncan at PNBA and decided to do [M&P] this year because Heather is very high energy and a lot of fun,” Iverson said. “That changes the whole dynamic. I’ve met a lot of good people here this week. I’m thinking we’re going to come back in 2020.”
While the exhibits, of course, inevitably pull in booksellers, the main attraction every year is the slate of authors in attendance. This year’s stellar roster of 84 authors, up from last year’s 62, did not disappoint. All of the author events were packed, including Thursday morning’s Children’s Author & Illustrator Breakfast and Friday evening’s sold-out Gala Author Dinner Party.
The evening gala featured a lineup of prominent authors, a vibrant mix of children’s and adult writers that included Therese Anne Fowler (A Good Neighborhood, St. Martin’s), W. Bruce Cameron (A Dog’s Promise, Forge), Raina Telgemeier (Guts, Scholastic/Graphix), Ransom Riggs (The Conference of the Birds, Dutton), Emily St. John Mandel (The Glass Hotel, Knopf), and Colum McCann (Apeirogon, Random House).
“Every author I’ve heard speak, I want to read their book,” declared Anne Holman, co-owner of The King’s English in Salt Lake City, after the gala. “It’s especially good this year.”
While, according to the latest NPD Books study of trends in the children’s book market, YA fiction sales are slightly down and YA nonfiction is slightly up, one would not know it from the selection of a dozen titles presented by their authors at Saturday’s YA Lit Lunch. Of the 12 titles introduced to a packed room of booksellers, only one, Trans+: Love, Sex, Romance, and You by Kathryn Gonzales and Karen Rayne (Magination), was nonfiction. With YA novels referring to climate change with a plot about storms becoming malevolent forces of nature (Rage by Cora Carmack, Tor Teen), the romance between two teenage boys (The Gravity of Us by Phil Stamper, Bloomsbury), gaming culture (Don’t Read the Comments by Eric Smith, Inkyard Press), and the aftermath of a school shooting (The Lucky Ones by Liz Lawson, Delacorte), it was evident that a common theme ran through all 12 books: the importance of finding a safe space in order to survive a dangerous world.
Besides the treasure trove of books and authors, the big take-away from M&P this year is that these booksellers, as well as the organization, aren’t afraid to tweak their business models in creative ways and to think outside the box to benefit their communities.
Denver’s BookBar, which bought an abandoned gas station near Regis University, about a mile from the bookstore, intends to use that space to expand upon its nonprofit arm, which will sort books for distribution to other nonprofit organizations.
“It’ll operate much like a food bank, but for books, a place] where people can gather around literature, and not be pressured to buy books,” Sullivan said. “Book clubs can meet there and there will be BYOB days, where people can bring picnic dinners and a bottle of wine. There need to be places like this, where you aren’t being pressured to spend.”
As for M&P, it announced during the show that it is overhauling its 30-year-old Reading the West Book Awards program in order to drive sales to its member bookstores during the spring and summer months.
“We already have a holiday catalog in the fall,” Duncan told booksellers during its membership meeting. “This program is for the rest of the year, especially the summer months. It’s meant to give us more clout with publishers, but more importantly, we want your customers to know about these books from you.”
The Reading the West program will also feature the regional promotion of a single title each summer, called “Summer Of.” M&P Booksellers will be encouraged to promote this title in their stores with book displays and book club discussions, and anything else individual booksellers want to do—with marketing materials provided by the organization.
The inaugural title in the “Summer Of” program is Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, first released 35 years ago. “We want to make this book a bestseller in this region,” Duncan said, adding, “We want to show what our 12-state regional bookseller organization can do for a book.”
Sitting in the hotel bar one evening, a Colorado bookseller, requesting anonymity, probably best summed up the prevalent sentiment of MPIBA booksellers, many of whom drive hundreds of miles over rough terrain every fall to attend this gathering.
“It’s expensive to get here, and more difficult this year, what with the snow, but we’re earnest middle-of-the-country people, not coastal slackers,” she said. “As long as the publishers come here, and send their authors, I am going to drive over the mountains to get here. Thank you, publishers.”
The MPIBA booksellers will return to the Renaissance Hotel in Denver’s Stapleton area for their fall 2020 show, to be held October 8–10, 2020.