The Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association celebrated its 20th anniversary this year by leaving the suburbs for a big city on a Great Lake. After many years alternating between Dearborn, Mich., and suburban Chicago, GLiBA was held this past weekend at the Renaissance Hotel in the heart of downtown Cleveland, the third time in two decades the show’s come to Cleveland. Although attendance numbers were not available at presstime, there was an obvious drop this year in the number of booksellers checking out the latest offerings from 55 exhibitors, representing hundreds of companies. Bookstore memberships in the organization have dropped too, with a 7% decline in membership over the past two years, from 406 bookstores to 392. While Jim Dana, the executive director of GLiBA, declined to speculate on why fewer booksellers came to Cleveland this year, he attributed the drop in GLiBA’s membership primarily to the sorry state of the economy in the Great Lakes states, and to the fact that aging booksellers in the region are retiring without finding buyers to take over their businesses.

Despite the gloom of the continuing recession, which has hit Michigan and Ohio especially hard, booksellers from both states, as well as Illinois, were a highly visible presence at GLiBA this year, determined to educate themselves on how to best negotiate the latest technological and social trends, when not snapping up ARCS of winter and spring 2010 releases.

Susan Capaldi, the store manager at McLean & Eakin, in Petoskie, Mich., maintains that her store’s success in keeping sales at the same level they were at two years ago is because they are “savvy in technology,” in using the store Web site and weekly e-mails to draw in customers, but also keeping them coming back by organizing great author events. Another bookseller, David Brennan of the Athens Book Center, in Athens, Ohio, admitted he had to “do something besides the books to keep the doors open,” so he has opened a smoothie bar in his store, which serves a university community. It’s working, up to a point: the store now is breaking even.

Liz Murphy, owner of the Learned Owl in Hudson, Ohio, was philosophical about a 20% decline in sales at her store over the past year. “It could be better, it could be worse,” she said, explaining that traffic is the same — people are just buying less, especially the “whimsical” impulse purchases. While Murphy has had to cut back on store hours, she hasn’t cut back on employees.

Bucking the trend and providing a glimmer of hope that the economy is going to turn around in the region, Robin Allen, the owner of Forever Books in St. Joseph, Mich., reported that sales have gone up in varying degrees since April (between 2%-10% each month), with a 40% increase in sales in September over the same time last year. “I think people who have money and still have jobs are starting to relax a little more,” she said, “Many people are buying stacks of books again. I hadn’t seen that since last fall.”

Most GLiBA booksellers are banking on their customers starting to relax as well this holiday season, by cozying up with new releases that remind them of other books they’ve read and enjoyed. Historical fiction was the big draw at this year’s GLiBA, with booksellers buzzing about Saving Cee Cee Hunnicutt by Beth Hoffman (Viking, Jan. 2010), comparing it to The Help and TheLife of Bees. Other books praised included Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin (Jan. 2010), which bookseller Jessilynn Norcross of McLean & Eakin declared to be “the next Loving Frank. It’s one of those historical fiction novels with a narrow focus that appeals. It’s the human interest side of history,” she said about the tale of Alice Lidell (the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland). Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier (Dutton, Jan.) also intrigued booksellers, who talked up the bestselling novelist’s latest, a story about Mary Anning and her fossil discoveries.

Moving along from historical fiction to literary fiction, Michael Boggs of Carmichael’s in Louisville, Ky., praised The Solitude of Prime Numbers (Doubleday, Sept.) by Paolo Giordano, calling it “a little bit The Lovely Bones, a little bit Dog in the Night-time, full of characters who are creepy, yet attractive.” Bill Cusumano, the buyer at Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor, Mich., talked up Elizabeth Kostova’s follow-up to The Historian, The Swan Thieves (Hachette, Jan. 2010), declaring her as having “matured as an author. She keeps getting better and better.” And Forever Books’s Allen focused on historical nonfiction — The Big Burn by Timothy Egan (Houghton, Oct.). “It reads like fiction,”she said, “It reminds me of the Devil in the White City. It goes back and forth between the characters and between the history of conservation.”

Two regional titles in particular resonated with booksellers--Great Lakes Reader, edited by Carl Lennertz (Delphinium. Oct.), with essays by several regional booksellers, and the Booklovers Guide to the Midwest by Greg Holden (Clerisy), which explores the literary history of the region. The two books seemed especially meaningful at this year's gathering of regional booksellers, with Deb Covey, a bookseller at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Cincinnati, describing them both as “putting us in touch with our roots - our memories as well as our futures.”

GLiBA will return to Dearborn next year, and is scheduled for Oct. 8-10.