Of these past two and a half years of Covid have taught people anything, it’s to value their time together, and this year’s in-person fall regional gatherings are designed to help them do just that. The overarching plans may resemble those from prepandemic times—gather as many booksellers as possible in a single location; mix in education, authors, galleys, and ARCs; add food and booze—but the biggest change is the increased level of excitement surrounding this year’s shows. As Jeanne Costello, adult book buyer and inventory manager at Maria’s Bookshop in Durango, Colo., notes, “The most important thing for me is to meet with my colleagues, get rejuvenated, hear their ideas, be together.” (For more on booksellers’ thoughts about the regionals, see "Booksellers on the Future of the Regionals"; on publishers’ perspectives, see "Publishers on the Future of the Regionals")

Of the eight regional associations, only Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association and the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association were able to hold in-person conferences and trade shows last fall before the omicron variant made gathering together too risky. Covid also interfered with in-person national programming. The pandemic not only contributed to the demise of BookExpo, which was last held in person in 2019, but also forced the temporary cancellation of a number of national bookseller events. June’s Children’s Institute in Phoenix was the first in-person ABA conference since Winter Institute in Baltimore in 2020.

Membership on the Rise

Also fueling the enthusiasm around this year’s bookseller gatherings is the sheer number of new members that each association has gained during the pandemic. “We did see a loss of members due to Covid,” says Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance executive director Linda-Marie Barrett. “But that loss has been made up for by new bookstores.” SIBA membership had held steady at 140–150 stores for a number of years before peaking at 170 at the end of 2019. In 2021, membership dipped to 160, though that figure still exceeded pre-2019 levels. Membership has begun to creep back up in 2022, and is currently at 167.

“Our store membership is quickly approaching our 12-year high, which was set last year when we offered free renewal to 2020 members and a bargain entry rate for newcomers,” says Brian Juenemann, executive director and marketing director for PNBA. He anticipates that the association will be close to even with 2021 numbers this year, without any special deals. “We must be giving stores at least a good piece of what they want,” he adds. “We certainly try.”

The New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, also saw a membership jump, in its case by 56%, to 244 stores, from the beginning of 2020 to the start of August, according to executive director Eileen Dengler. Sixteen stores opened just before and during the pandemic.

Membership also grew significantly for the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association, which went from a consistent 130 stores prepandemic to 210 stores as of the beginning of August, with new stores continuing to be added, says executive director Larry Law. “We are seeing new stores across our entire region and specifically in Michigan and Illinois,” he notes. “We are also seeing an increase in BIPOC-owned, mission-driven, women-owned, and LGBTQIA+-owned stores.”

The trend has been consistent throughout the country, with MPIBA adding 45 stores during its fiscal year, which ended in June, according to executive director Heather Duncan. MPIBA had just over 205 bookstore members, representing more than 250 physical stores, last year, and it has been continuing to add more stores. It’s the same for the New England Independent Booksellers Association, where total membership is 245, with 33 new member stores joining in the past year, says executive director Beth Ineson, who calls this an “extraordinary number” for the region.

This year’s 10th-anniversary Heartland Fall Forum, produced jointly by GLIBA and the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association, is planning to ease the way for its many new members—MIBA also grew significantly, by 35 stores last year and 38 so far in 2022, says executive director Carrie Obry—through several events. In addition to a virtual program that was held in late August on how and why to attend HFF, new booksellers will be paired with veteran booksellers at the show (see “Heartland Fall Forum Turns 10").

Meeting members where they are

Though fall regionals are one way for everyone in a given territory to get together, most executive directors of regional associations make a point of visiting stores all year long. Ann Seaton and Kristin Rasmussen, co-executive directors of the two-year-old California Independent Booksellers Alliance, which represents booksellers in the country’s most populous state, have tried to fit in as many visits as possible before CALIBA’s September Fall Fest. As of early August, they’d visited roughly 100 of 125 stores as part of road trips that also included the region’s spring forums (in Los Angeles and San Francisco).

In early August, MPIBA’s Duncan began ramping up store visits in Oklahoma, in conjunction with the region’s summer board member and staff retreat in Tulsa. She also set up a reception at Magic City Books for the book community in the area. For her, this is all part of the job, bringing together booksellers in a casual way whenever she’s on the road for the association.

However, Duncan is also rethinking the ways booksellers gather at the spring and fall shows. In addition to SpringCon in Denver this year, Duncan added a second SpringCon in San Antonio to serve Texas’s 60-plus members. For 2023, she’s looking at holding a single SpringCon in the Lone Star State while keeping FallCon in Denver, where it’s been for many years.

The future is hybrid

While MPIBA’s FallCon and SpringCon will continue to be in-person shows with virtual galley rooms, Bookseller Summer Camp and some additional education will remain virtual. “Continuing to offer virtual programming is more about catering to our bookstores and booksellers who are never able to attend an in-person event, either for staffing or financial reasons,” Duncan says. “The pandemic taught us that we can offer something for everyone.”

Virtual programming has been key for all the regionals and their stores since the pandemic began. But based on last year’s PNBA trade show, which broadcast some events via Zoom that drew very few virtual attendees, the numbers are just not there for hybrid, Juenemann says. However, he is considering livestreaming this year’s membership meeting to reach those who can’t attend the show.

By contrast, NEIBA is looking forward to making select sessions from its fall conference available after the event. “We’ve been thinking about it for a long time, and we’re excited to execute on the idea of extending the accessibility of our in-person programming,” Ineson says.

SIBA and NAIBA—which held the only virtual fall regional this year, August 8–10, as part of their joint New Voices New Rooms conference, which drew 431 registrants—value being able to offer their members both virtual and in-person gatherings. “SIBA will continue to meet booksellers where they are and in the ways they prefer,” Barrett says. “For many booksellers, for reasons that range from Covid-related concerns to staffing to financial, we will have booksellers who prefer to meet virtually.” In addition, SIBA and NAIBA have been rethinking the timing of fall conferences. They deliberately moved NVNR to August, because summer is when booksellers are focused on holiday buying.

Virtual programming can be very effective, notes Dengler, who points out that regional associations, like publishers and booksellers, have had to rethink everything during Covid so that they can serve their members best. “We were able to get more bookstores involved in publicity speed dating, for example,” she adds. “We were able to run a professional booksellers school and educate 330 booksellers, which would not have happened if we were locked into an in-person format.” Going forward, she would like to create a new line of virtual events for booksellers in conjunction with in-person events.

Read more from our Regional Trade Show 2022 Coverage:

Heartland Fall Forum Turns 10
The first in-person Heartland Fall Forum since 2019 will be used to mark the first decade of the partnership between the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association and the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association, which resulted in HFF.

Publishers on the Future of the Regionals
Large houses and small presses discuss the need for face-to-face fall bookseller gatherings.

Booksellers on the Future of the Regionals
Booksellers talk about why meeting with book people each fall matters.

Booksellers Find Ways to Connect
In the absence of in-person regional trade shows and conferences the past few years, two Midwestern booksellers who craved connection—Pamela Klinger-Horn, event co-ordinator for Valley Booksellers in Stillwater, Minn., and her “book sister,” Mary Webber O’Malley, who works as a virtual bookseller at large for Skylark Bookshop in Columbia, Mo.— began organizing in-person bookseller gatherings on their own.

Indies Expect a Happy Holiday Season—Big books of the Fall
Indie bookstores are looking forward to a strong season, with new releases from Michelle Obama and other heavy hitters.

Unique Holiday Sidelines
Sidelines are an important part of most bookstores’ inventory, particularly for the holidays.

Programming Highlights Fall 2022
This year’s bookseller gatherings offer plenty of opportunities for meeting authors and illustrators and sharing bookselling tips.