After shuttling back and forth between Minneapolis and Chicagoland for eight years, the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association and Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association’s joint trade show moved east to Ohio this year. Kicking off with a half-day tour that took 80 booksellers to three local indies for browsing, swag, and other treats, Heartland Fall Forum took place October 2-4 inside downtown Cleveland’s majestic 101-year-old Renaissance Hotel.

Regional pride was on full display throughout the booksellers’ gathering in a Rust Belt city that is often disparaged in popular culture, despite being rich in venerable indie bookstores, like Loganberry Books in Shaker Heights, which hosted an opening night party for the booksellers after the Great Lakes Great Reads and Midwest Booksellers Choice book awards ceremony and reception,

“It’s not Brooklyn,” Sarah Smarsh noted that same evening, as she accepted a Great Lakes/Great Reads Award for her memoir, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth (Scribner, 2018). “But it’s cool because it’s not Brooklyn."

While many publisher reps and booksellers noted that the show seemed smaller this year, they praised it for being highly productive and friendly, providing plenty of opportunities for quality interactions with colleagues in two half-day segments on the trade show floor. Exhibitors were pleased to meet booksellers who don’t usually attend Heartland; booksellers were just as happy to meet vendors who typically don’t exhibit there. According to the two organizations, 78 of the 216 booksellers from 105 bookstores (58% GLIBA members and 42% MIBA members) in attendance were first-timers, including 27 of those bookstores. Approximately 20 of the 60 exhibits staffed by 186 persons representing hundreds of companies were first-time vendors there. And, according to GLIBA executive director, Larry Law, its member booksellers’ attendance was the highest since the two organizations’ trade shows merged in 2011.

“It was a gamble to move the show, but getting new people coming is worth it. You’ve got to bring in new people, both geographically and generationally,” said David Enyeart, manager at The Next Chapter Booksellers in St. Paul, Minn, who just stepped down from MIBA’s board.

PW's interviews with several first-time attendees demonstrated that it was a gamble that paid off for all.

"Minneapolis is too far away and the traffic around Chicago is too awful," said GLIBA member Janet Jones, the owner of Source Booksellers in Detroit, adding that obtaining a copy of a biography of African-American cyclist Major Taylor, The World's Fastest Man (Scribner, May) signed by Michael Kranish alone made the drive to Cleveland worth it.

“It’s just the right size for me,” said MIBA member Gretchen Treu, who bought A Room of One’s Own in Madison, Wisc. last year. “Winter Institute was a bit much. And I like getting to meet all my reps in person.” Treu's discoveries included new distribution options as well as Two Dollar Radio. "I am so excited to read everything I picked up from Two Dollar Radio today," she said.

Rory Fanning of Haymarket Books, which previously exhibited only when Heartland was held in Chicago, also said that making the trip was well worth it. Unlike BookExpo, he pointed out, every bookseller he talked to at Heartland was a book buyer. He also noted that many small-town booksellers were soliciting author visits to their stores, adding, “I didn’t realize how easy it is to get authors to these stores that are outside of big cities.” Haymarket fully intends to exhibit at Heartland next year, when it takes place in St. Louis, Mo. Oct. 14-16, 2020.

Perhaps it was because of the recent speculation regarding the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association merging with the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association (SCIBA ended up dissolving as of the end of this year), but several conversations in the hotel bar concerned the feasibility of MIBA and GLIBA further merging operations, a suggestion brought up at GLIBA’s membership meeting by a bookseller who considers that a larger organization might have more pull in the industry. Booksellers discussing this issue with PW declined to go on the record with further comments.

Frustration over On-Sale Violations

Several booksellers brought up the persistent problem of street sale date violations. “It isn’t just Amazon and Testaments,” said Nina Barrett, the owner of Bookends and Beginnings in Evanston, Ill. She complained of a local B&N store selling the paperback edition of Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States before Norton’s “strict” Oct. 1 on-sale date. Bookends and Beginnings not only abided by the date, but contacted Norton and Ingram to notify them of the B&N transgression.

“It totally screws us,” Barrett said, “Our customers think we are being slow or difficult when the B&N a block away is selling a book we can’t sell yet. I feel like this is happening all the time. Why have on-sale dates if Amazon and B&N sell the books [earlier] without facing any consequences? We even had that B&N store’s manager telling us we should start selling the book too [before the on-sale date].”

Of course, wherever booksellers gather, the talk inevitably turns to books and authors. Some booksellers focused upon debuts by diverse new voices from the Midwest, like Real Life (Riverhead Books, Feb. 2020), a novel by Brandon Taylor, who used to live in Madison, and Rust Belt Femme, Raechel Anne Jolie’s memoir (Belt Publishing, March 2020).

Other booksellers raved about spring releases by beloved Midwestern novelists, such as Peter Geye’s conclusion to his four-volume Eide family saga, Northernmost (Knopf, April, 2020) and Alex George’s Paris Hours (Flatiron, May 2020). Geye was a Tasting Notes dinner speaker Thursday evening, while George, the owner of Skylark Bookshop in Columbia, Mo. did double duty at the show as both an author and a bookseller.

“Geye and George have the two most intriguing books coming from male authors next spring,” said bookseller Pamela Klinger-Horn, the special events coordinator at Excelsior Bay Books in suburban Minneapolis. “Both novels are profound and emotional journeys that are going to catapult them both to the realms of the nation's most powerful writers.”

In the end, however, despite the presence of so many authors talking up their fall and spring releases, it was a children’s picture book with simple line drawings that most resonated with a variety of booksellers PW talked to: Listen (Roaring Brook, Sept.) by Holly McGhee, described by PW in its review as “a thoughtful offering, expressed in subtle poetic tempo, about shared humanity and the nourishing world.”

“It’s one of those children’s books that if you read it as an adult it will change your life,” Gloria Tiller of Kazoo Books in Kalamazoo, Mich. said, disclosing that she has read it “two or three times” and is going to bring it along to a spirituality conference she will be attending soon. She and her staff, she explained, debated whether Listen should be shelved in the children’s section or in the spirituality section of the store (it ended up being shelved in the children’s section).