A combination of four events seems to have contributed to this year’s Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association's trade show in Denver being simultaneously an exuberant celebration of the ties binding together this diverse, but close-knit, community of booksellers and a sober time for serious reflection upon the mission of the 35-year organization. The events that served as a backdrop to the meeting were the news that Bookworks’s owner, Nancy Rutland, was handing over her Albuquerque bookstore to two young store employees; King’s English bookstore owner Betsy Burton was absent from because she’d been summoned from Salt Lake City to Washington, D.C. to join President Obama at a press conference touting health insurance reform for small businesses; Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association [MPiBA] executive director Lisa Knudsen pending retirment; and the encouraging report that many MPiBA booksellers had experienced a particularly good summer.

Many of the 150+ booksellers and 70 exhibitors representing hundreds of companies talked up the importance of the annual gathering, which brings together for three days booksellers hailing from a 13-state region that stretches from the Canadian border all the way down through Texas. Several bookstores sent delegations of booksellers to MPiBA, including the Tattered Cover in Denver, which sent a total of 25 employees at various times out to the Marriott Hotel in Denver’s Tech Center area.

The underlying theme of the show was communication, with an emphasis placed on dialogue -- not just between publishers, booksellers, and authors, but also between MPiBA’s board and its members. Even Friday’s annual membership meeting became an opportunity for conversation, as, instead of a meeting, board members facilitated roundtable discussions with groups of booksellers, seeking their input on the direction the organization should take, as, with Knudsen’s retirement in December, there will be a changing of the guard.

And while a panel session of two DIY publishers and four booksellers discussing their relationship turned into, in the words of its micro-publisher moderator, a “trainwreck,” with each group airing their grievances against the other before a packed room holding 80 people, the conversations between booksellers themselves resonated with this year’s attendees.

“Everything we do well in our shop we stole from someone else,” declared Andrea Avantaggio, owner of Maria’s Books in Durango, Colo. “And we get those ideas here at MPiBA.” First-timer Jane McBride, a buyer at Utah State University Bookstore in Logan, said, “That’s the uniqueness of booksellers. We’re not afraid to share. I’ve had more people give me their business cards and tell me to call them if I have any questions.”

Julie Shimada, a bookseller at Maria’s Books, pointed out that the educational seminars – with such titles as “Using Telereps Effectively” “Linked by Passion: Growing Sales Through Local Retail Partnerships,” and “How to Transform Booksellers Into Industry Advocates,” set a positive tone. “They weren’t all about competing with the chains, so I felt really energized by the time I got to the trade show floor,” she explained, as her three colleagues from Maria’s nodded in agreement.

While the seminars revved up booksellers, it was the author presentations that blew everybody away, beginning on Thursday morning with Craig Childs’s discussion of his new release, Finders, Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession (Hachette), and continuing all the way through Saturday evening’s author banquet, featuring Ian Frazier (Travels in Siberia, FSG), Nevada Barr (Burn), Margaret Coel (Spider’s Web, Penguin/Berkley), Connie Willis (All Clear, Random/Spectra), and Holly Arnold Kinney (Shinin’ Times at the Fort: Stories, Celebrations, and Recipes from the Landmark Colorado Restaurant, Fur Trade Press).

The two highlights for many during this author-packed show was Laurie Halse Anderson’s passionate defense of her “historical thriller” Speak, (S&S), which is under fire by a right-wing group in Missouri seeking to ban it from library shelves, and the three Saturday breakfast speakers providing the backstories to their works – including Jonathan Evison, who concluded the introduction to his spring 2011 epic novel, West of Here (Algonquin), with an “Ode to Bookselling.”

“These are charismatic people who care so much about their subject. It comes across in their presentations and in their writing. The presentations were riveting,” Tattered Cover café manager and bookstore blogger Jackie Blem commented later.

With a roster of 22 authors presenting their books to off-the beaten-path-of-author-tours booksellers who don’t often get face-to-face time with authors, it’s not surprising that most of the fall releases creating the most buzz at MPiBA were written by those speaking at the show. Not only were Anderson’s newest, Forge (S&S), and Childs’s Finders Keepers huge hits, but so were The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart (Houghton), Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes (Grove Atlantic), Art & Max by David Wiesner (Clarion), and Artsy Fartsy (Bailiwick) by Karla Oceanak.

Three spring 2011 releases, though, were, hands-down, the hits of the show, with every bookseller PW spoke to expressing excitement about them: Evison’s West of Here, Fire Season by Philip Connors (HarperCollins/Ecco), and The Paris Wife by Paula McLain (Ballantine).

While few, if any, other MPiBA booksellers could top Houston’s Blue Willow Bookshop’s 10% increase in sales this past year, all of the booksellers PW spoke to reported that they were at least holding steady, though some reported a strong summer, resulting in an uptick in sales this year to date. “It’s not just seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” insisted Anuschka Bales, the co-op advertising manager at Bookworm of Edwards, Colo. “I think we’ve come out of it. I can tell there’s a difference in customers’s attitudes: they’re saying, ‘I want this book; I’m going to buy it.’”