“NEIBA’s always a wonderful show for us,” said Jennifer Bunting, publisher of Tilbury House in Gardiner, Maine, the 2009 NEIBA publisher of the year. She was optimistic heading into the 36th annual New England Independent Booksellers Association trade show, which was held in Hartford, Ct., for the first time in two decades—an optimism shared by booksellers, whose businesses have been holding their own. Incoming NEIBA president Dick Hermans, owner of Oblong Books & Music in Millerton and Rhinebeck, N.Y., said that his stores were up in August, which is usually his third biggest month. At two-year-old Written Words Bookstore in Shelton, Ct., co-owner Dorothy Sims-Broder said that business had picked up slightly in September. Walk-in traffic for the Norwich Bookstore in Norwich, Vt., has suffered from construction, but institutional sales are way up, according to co-owner Liza Bernard, who credits it to “evangelist teachers” insisting on shopping at their local independent.

The trade show, which took place at the Connecticut Convention Center from October 1-3, had a marked drop in attendance, down 30%, which NEIBA executive director Steve Fischer attributed in part to stores bringing fewer frontline booksellers. Even so, there were a number of new attendees and exhibitors, such as Trish Koch, co-owner of Kennebooks, which opened in May in Kennebunk, Maine, and Jim Cote, sales manger at first-time NEIBA exhibitor OrangeArt, which sells fine paper and stationery.

Still, the economic downturn continues to roil New England. Fischer said that he had received several calls from booksellers trying to decide which would be cheaper: to attend the show or to join NEIBA. At the same time, commission reps and major houses scaled back their presence, not just with smaller booths, but with fewer reps. Consolidation among smaller houses also affected attendance figures. Applewood Books in Carlisle, Mass., for example, used the trade show to announce a new distribution agreement with regional publisher Commonwealth Editions in Beverly. As Wendy Sheanin, director of marketing, adult publishing group at Simon & Schuster, remarked, “We’re rethinking everything.”

At the annual meeting, there was more glum financial news. Despite the fact that the 2008-09 fiscal year ended in the black, NEIBA projects that it will lose nearly $112,000 in the coming year. The loss parallels a drop in revenue from what has long been one of the association’s biggest money-makers, its holiday catalog. Revenues will go from a high of $407,000 in the preceding year to $260,000 in 2009 and are expected to continue to decline. In spite of the troubles ahead and uncertainty over the future direction of the association, Fischer reminded attendees, “NEIBA’s core mission hasn’t changed, how we deliver it will change. We have an embarrassment of riches [in terms of books] this season. I think this could be a turning point, and I hope it’s a positive one.”

Even with a sense of potential problems, the mood throughout the weekend was upbeat. At the author reception, booksellers stood in line to meet authors ranging from Joe Hill, who signed his upcoming novel, Horns (William Morrow, Feb.), “Go to hell”, to beekeeper C. Marina Marchese, author of Honeybee: From Hive to Home, Lessons from an Accidental Beekeeper (Black Dog, Sept.) and Crispina ffrench’s Sweater Chop Shop (Storey, Sept.). Workshops like What Were They Thinking?, moderated by Bloomsbury USA publishing director George Gibson, which provided a peek at how editorial decision-making works, and a talk by Daniel Pink on motivation 3.0, based on his new book Drive (Riverhead, Jan.), were well attended.

The smaller scale of this year’s NEIBA trade show, which Random House sales rep Ann Kingman called “the best NEIBA show in several years” in a recent Tweet, had a number of advantages. Booksellers enjoyed the opportunity to sit with authors like memoirist Mary Karr (Lit, HarperCollins, Nov.) , Sarah Vowell (The Wordy Shipmates, Riverhead paperback, Oct.) and debut novelist Adam Haslett (Union Atlantic, Random House, Jan.) at the breakfasts. “It seemed busy, perhaps even busier than last year or so,” said University of Chicago sales rep Blake DeLodder. “Perhaps, it may be seen that the smaller association has a way to concentrate our minds and business.”

Michael Watson, owner of Watson & Woodward, labeled the newly introduced Publisher Pick-Nic, which gave booksellers a chance to meet with four or five reps and hear the picks of their lists over the course of lunch a “tweakable success.” All in all, he said, “I was quite pleased with the weekend, and look forward to doing it again next year. So often we toil in isolation. It is important to get together as a group and celebrate our shared vocation.”