Amid a global recession, decreasing book sales and industry-wide layoffs, how was day one of BEA ’09? Well, it depends on who you ask. Publicists were typically upbeat (“busy” was their buzzword), while a few heads of houses wondered aloud—and off the record—how much business was actually getting done at the show. And booksellers, especially independents, lamented the decrease in ARC giveaways. But even with such varying assessments, there was no denying the sardine can—like quality of many of the aisles on the show floor. Many corridors were packed with convention-goers from early morning till past 5 p.m.

Sterling’s Leigh Ann Ambrosi was giving out rulers and tote bags. As people streamed into her booth, Ambrosi said the show “seems busy,” but acknowledged that the publisher also cut its exhibit space in half this year, from 60’x60’ to 30’x30’. Jonathan Karp and Cary Goldstein of Twelve also commented on the crowded but smaller aisles.

Publicists tended to be enthusiastic, with Little, Brown’s Michelle Aiello noting, “It’s not as quiet as I expected it to be” as she handed out galleys of Josh Ferris’s new novel, The Unnamed. Lonny Stein, director of marketing for Barron’s, said the show was “very positive so far. I had limited expectations and have been pleasantly surprised.” Sue Frank Ostfield, director of national accounts for Publishers Group West, also said the show had been “super-productive,” and suggested that perhaps the smaller number of major houses exhibiting on the show floor (Macmillan was one major absence) resulted in fewer distractions for book buyers.

Traffic moved freely at the HarperCollins booth, where the publisher was giving out Symtio cards carrying digital versions of its galleys. Ellen Ferado of Time & Again bookstore in New York City wasn’t a fan of the house’s e-galleys, preferring hard copies, although Irene Aiello of Bookfairs Plus bookstore in the Bronx said she didn’t have a problem with them.

Irene Ochoa of Borders commented on the decrease in galleys: “[The show is] pretty good, but there aren’t as many books as last year, though it’s understandable.” Ellen Meerpol of Odyssesy Bookshop in S. Hadley, Mass., was a little less forgiving. She coordinates a book group and was on the lookout for new titles for the group. The fact that there are fewer galleys this year “makes it difficult” to do so. Meerpol was excited about a new collection of short stories by Jill McCorkle from Algonquin, and said BEA is a good opportunity for her to visit small presses, and also mentioned Unbridled. She was disappointed that Graywolf, which is distributed by FSG, does not have a booth this year. “I look for small presses; those are the jewels.”

The author stages on the show floor were a welcome addition this year; a number of booksellers had positive comments. And Workman, which was situated right behind the Downtown Stage, didn’t seem bothered by the booming speakers coming from the stage. “The stage is not a hindrance,” said Kristin Matthews.

Despite the downsized atmosphere, many attendees noted the high quality of meetings—and books. Alison Nihlean from Bookpeople in Austin was number 62 in the line for Neil Gaiman’s signing at HarperCollins and said the show “feels smaller, but in a good way. All the substance is still there.” Carisa Hayes of Free Press said the house wasn’t having any parties this year, but that it had “lots of big books. It’s all about the books this year.” Hayes said the strength of other publishers’ lists this fall would also get people into bookstores, a sentiment repeated by numerous other reps from major houses.

Click here for more coverage of BookExpo America 2009 from PW.