Bookseller Suzanne DeGaetano of Mac’s Backs in Cleveland, Ohio, said it best when she described this year’s Heartland Fall Forum as “running smoothly, like a well-oiled machine.” The event joined in a single show, for the sixth year, the members of the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association and the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association.
This year’s show was hosted by GLIBA, and took place October 11-13 at the Westin Hotel in the Chicago suburb of Lombard, Ill., where Heartland was held in 2015.
With approximately 275 booksellers from 109 stores attending Heartland, numbers were a little lower than the 2015 show, but on par with last year’s gathering in Minneapolis. Attendance was split almost evenly between the two organizations, with 51 MIBA bookstores, 55 GLIBA bookstores, and three stores holding memberships in both organizations. Additionally, 40% of the booksellers at this year's show were attending Heartland for the first time.
If there was a theme to this year’s gathering, it was that all in attendance--booksellers, vendors and over 160 authors--are essential links in the publishing supply chain. “The only job we have as publishers is to connect authors with readers,” Sourcebooks' senior v-p and editorial director Todd Stocke told booksellers during Wednesday afternoon’s booksellers outing to the company's headquarters in nearby Naperville.
Many of the educational sessions on Thursday focused on the ways indie booksellers can prevail in a competitive marketplace. Female Factor CEO Bridget Brennan, the author of Why She Buys, said female consumers, who are often the primary buyers in families, “[look] at purchases through the lens of other people’s wants and needs.” Brennan urged booksellers to strive to meet the needs of this key demographic. “It’s not about the product, it’s about service,” Brennan explained.
Customer service was also emphasized in another educational session called “What Amazon Can’t Do,” with four booksellers relating things they've done both solo and in collaboration with other local indie bookstores to effectively distinguish their bricks-and-mortar stores from the online retailer. During the panel, Nina Barrett of Bookends and Beginnings in Evanston, Ill. declared: “Amazon has a smile on its box: I have a smile on my face.”
While booksellers usually have big holiday titles on their minds during the regionals, this year Heartland booksellers seemed more intent on finding reads that reflect these tumultuous times. The three titles most mentioned by booksellers were The Immortalists (Putnam) by Chloe Benjamin, a novel exploring themes of fate and destiny; An American Marriage (Algonquin) by Tayari Jones, about a man’s incarceration and its impact upon his marriage; and They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (Two Dollar Radio), a collection of essays by the poet Hanif Abdurraqib in which he uses music as a lens through which to view his world as a young African-American man who used to identify as Muslim.
“[Abdurraqib] seems like a bright light in a difficult time. We can use his voice,” said Kris Kleindienst, the co-owner of Left Bank Books in St. Louis.
Heartland Fall Forum will return to Minneapolis next year and will be hosted by MIBA. The conference will be held once again at The Depot, October 3-5, 2018.