As this year’s Heartland Fall Forum wound down on Friday, October 14, Sarah High, senior partnerships manager at, who has exhibited at five of the six regional trade shows this fall, declared that while she enjoyed all of them, “The warmth and energy of this show is palpable. I think it’s because of all of the new booksellers here. Meeting so many people who are opening bookstores or have opened them within the past year is so encouraging.”

Ruth Liebmann, v-p, account marketing at Penguin Random House, added, “The new bookstores I talked to have a strong vision of how they want to connect to their communities. Their enthusiasm for bookselling is contagious.” And Scholastic senior manager of field marketing Nikki Mutch declared that she enjoyed this year’s Heartland so much, she can hardly wait to attend next year’s gathering in Detroit. “What a way to end this year’s fall conferences season!” she told PW.

The Midwest Independent Booksellers and Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Associations 10th-anniversary joint show brought 209 booksellers and 144 exhibitors to St. Louis, Mo. Close to 60% of the booksellers in attendance were first-time attendees.

The innovative young entrepreneurs who created such excitement among veteran booksellers and exhibitors alike also made this regional the most diverse gathering of Midwestern booksellers this reporter has seen in 25 years. They included Angela Sherrill and Tara Baldridge, co-owners of Bookish Chicago, a pop-up selling both adult and children’s books that has partnered since 2018 with neighborhood businesses and organizations to, Baldridge said, “bring books where there aren’t any books,” and to do so in a creative manner. For instance, she said, when Kate Hannigan’s third volume in her League of Secret Heroes series, Boots, illustrated by Patrick Spaziante (Aladdin), was released in paperback in August, Bookish Chicago held an author event inside a shoe store.

Another pop-up selling both adult and children’s books is La Revo Books, launched last year in Milwaukee by sisters Barbara Cerda and Valeria Cerda “to lift up Latinx literature.” The inventory of their “traveling bookstore” focuses on Spanish-language books, “not Huckleberry Finn in Spanish: nobody wants to read that,” Barbara said, explaining that their business model is inspired by their Mexican heritage and emphasizes family, community, and collaboration. Their ultimate goal, they told PW, is to convince publishers to publish and promote more Latinx books. “We’re advocating for our customers and for our community,” Barbara said; Valeria added, “We’re directly asking the publishers here for Latinx books. They’re going to remember us, and they know we’re going to ask for it again next year.”

Children’s Authors in the Spotlight

Of course, when it comes down to it at any gathering of booksellers, it’s really about the authors and their books, and Heartland was no different. There were 61 authors total in attendance, and the show kicked off on Wednesday evening with a raucous Heartland Awards ceremony emceed by Isaac Fitzgerald and Saeed Jones, which featured such beloved luminaries as Jacqueline Woodson, who accepted the award in the picture book category for The Year We Learned to Fly, illustrated by Rafael López (Penguin/ Paulsen); and Kate DiCamillo, who accepted the award in the YA/middle grade category for The Beatryce Prophecy, illustrated by Sophie Blackall (Candlewick Press).

“One of the most sacred things in the world is to put a book in someone’s hands,” DiCamillo told booksellers while accepting her award. “Books are for me doors into lighted rooms. You lead people through doors into lighted rooms.”

Accepting her award, Woodson noted that the books she writes “do get censored‑a lot,” even Brown Girl Dreaming, which won a National Book Award and the Newbery Medal. Book banners, she said, feel that “it made white children feel bad because it wasn’t about them.” Woodson thanked booksellers for their courage in persisting in selling banned books, especially because most of the books being challenged these days are by BIPOC and women writers.

The spotlight shone on two children’s book authors at Thursday’s keynote author breakfast‑one of them still a child himself. The breakfast featured Sidney Keys III, the 16-year-old author of Books N Bros: 44 Inspiring Books for Black Boys (Union Square & Co.) who engaged in a q&a with Ty Allan Jackson, the author of Make Your Own Money: How Kids Can Earn it, Save It, Spend It, and Dream Big (Storey Publishing). It was a lively conversation that included a little call-and-response between Jackson and the booksellers. Keys’s mother, Winnie Caldwell, and his baby sister were introduced to the crowd, and there was even some impromptu testifying by the co-owner of EyeSeeMe African-American Children’s Bookstore, an indie in a St. Louis inner-ring suburb.

Keys said that he started writing when he was 10 years old, after being inspired by a visit to EyeSeeMe in 2016, recalling that “a whole new world opened up to me. I saw books with covers with people that looked like me on them.” The first book he picked up, he said, was Jackson’s 2010 release, Danny Dollar Millionaire Extraordinaire: Lemonade Escapade (Big Head Books). “I couldn’t put that book down,” he said, prompting Jackson to point out that Keys‑who is the founder of Books N Bros, a virtual book club headquartered in Atlanta with chapters there and in St. Louis that advocates for African American representation in literature and for African American literacy‑is the “physical manifestation of what books can do.”

Books Represent Hope and Dreams

Keys acknowledged that his “passion is really getting more representation in the literary space,” explaining that “people say we [Black boys] don’t like to read, but they give us the most boring books to read—Black boys do like to read, but we want books that we can relate to, that interest us.” After, Jackson gave a shoutout to Keys’s mother. She had, Jackson declared, provided her son with the financial and emotional support that enabled him to pursue his dreams. Jackson also pointed out that representation is “essential—it’s important for Black kids to see an author from ‘the hood.’ ”

Jackson noted that the process was going to come full circle, that just as Keys had been inspired as a child by reading Jackson’s book, another generation of children would be inspired by Keys, because Books N Bros “is now the book that’s going to be on bookshelves that a young person is going to sit down and read at EyeSeeMe.”

At this point, EyeSeeMe’s co-owner, Jeffrey Blair, stood up, took the microphone, and explained that he and his wife, Pamela Blair, had opened their bookstore in 2015 because they were having difficulties in finding high-quality literature for their four children that featured fully-dimensional African American characters.

“We wanted a bookstore that would be in a central location where parents could bring their children, who could see themselves in the books that they read,” Blair said. “It’s a dream come true, to see Sidney manifest [our] mission. It’s affirmation, and I tell the story so often. I’m honored to be here, and I’m so proud of [Sidney].”

Reflecting upon the show after Thursday morning’s breakfast, Melia Wolf, owner of Cover to Cover Books for Young Readers in Columbus, Ohio, described this year’s Heartland as “the most connective event” for her. “St. Louis is amazing, with all the bookstores,” she said, giving a shout-out to Ymani Wince, owner of The Noir Bookshop on St. Louis’s South Side. The young entrepreneur opened the store four months ago and sells both adult and children’s books, with an emphasis on the Black classics. “She is really inspiring,” Wolf said.

Sales at Cover to Cover have risen, Wolf noted, since she committed to making the store more inclusive by hiring a young person of color, Maryan Liban, as education and community relations coordinator. “This was key in helping things improve,” Wolf said, and she is feeling “very hopeful” as the world continues to open up and the pandemic recedes. “People are happier,” she said, “And books are helping. Don’t you feel that the books are giving us hope?”

Heartland Fall Forum in 2023 will take place in Detroit, October 18-20.