In-person regional bookseller conferences came roaring back to life this fall with six high-energy shows hosted by seven of the eight bookseller organizations. Last fall, only the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association and Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Associations hosted in-person gatherings, with PNBA limiting attendance to 75% regular capacity.
The 2022 shows—beginning with the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance’s gathering of 67 booksellers in New Orleans, September 7–8, and winding up with the Heartland Fall Forum, which drew 209 booksellers belonging to the Midwest Independent Booksellers and Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Associations to St. Louis, October 12–14—were joyful affairs, despite the pandemic’s lingering impact. Booksellers were happy to reconnect with one another and with publishers’ reps, while also meeting face-to-face with authors after more than two years in which only Zoom meetings and virtual author events were possible. Though dozens of marquee authors attended the different conferences, regional authors found recognition, too. Of PNBA’s 100 guest authors, half are published by indie presses, something that added to the gathering’s egalitarian vibe.
The excitement at this year’s regionals was magnified by the enthusiasm of young entrepreneurs attending their first bookselling conferences. Many of them are BIPOC and female, and some have used alternative business models to launch bookstores within the past two years. There were 131 first-time attendees at the Heartland show, including one of that region’s newest booksellers, Ymani Wince, who opened the Noir Bookshop in St. Louis in May to sell Black classic titles and other books by BIPOC authors after raising $16,000 through GoFundMe. Valeria Cerda and Barbara Cerda were also at Heartland, having launched La Revo Books pop-up in Milwaukee, Wis., last year to sell primarily Spanish-language books. Veronica Johnson was at MPIBA a year after launching Libros Bookmobile in Hutto, Tex., which also specializes in Latinx literature. And Seattle’s Kristina Clark attended her first PNBA after opening a community space called Loving Room: Diaspora Books + Salon on this year’s Juneteenth.
Though most booksellers PW spoke with reported that sales are up from 2019 levels—with Nantucket Book Works in Nantucket, Mass., up 900% in web sales alone—the revenue gains are not necessarily falling to the bottom line, as a range of costs, including freight and rents, increase. A number of booksellers at the various shows said that rising housing costs are making it harder to retain employees. Maria’s Bookstore in Durango, Colo., raised wages twice this year and still sees staffers leaving due to the higher cost of living. The California Independent Booksellers Alliance last month issued a call for “substitute booksellers,” inviting experienced workers to step in and help out at stores that are short-staffed due to illness or financial reasons.
Supply chain disruptions are still very much an issue for booksellers as well as for publishers. Riley Davis, sales manager at Minnesota Historical Society Press, said that True North Cabin Cookbook quickly sold out of its initial 5,000-copy print run, and the publisher is “racing against the clock” to print more copies and get them to stores in time for the holidays. While Torrey House publisher Kirsten J. Allen said she had to postpone two books originally scheduled for a 2022 release until 2023, Microcosm CEO Joe Biel said he now bakes a few extra weeks of wait time into each print order.
New and seasoned booksellers alike are also focusing on best practices for doing business in the post-pandemic era. All of the new booksellers PW spoke with are committed to building partnerships with businesses and organizations in their communities, while veteran booksellers are intent on making their stores more inclusive. Next Chapter Booksellers in St. Paul, Minn., adopted something of a new business model in deciding to become totally cashless. “We struggled with this decision,” explained store manager David Enyeart, “but cash was only 7% of our sales, so after we reopened following the shutdown in 2020, we decided not to take cash at all.”
Despite having to navigate their way through an evolving industry and a changed society, booksellers are looking forward to a strong holiday season and to a return of customer traffic. After all, as author Louise Erdrich, who owns Birchbark Books & Native Arts in Minneapolis, put it in video remarks streamed during Heartland’s awards ceremony, people want and need what a bookstore provides them. “It’s about more than books: it’s about finding a community around books,” she said. “I think we’re here to make people more alive. That’s our big draw: to make people feel the all-encompassing strangeness of life and to feel connected with other people who feel that too.”