The Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association held its annual meeting at the Renaissance Hotel-Central Park in Denver, Colo. Sept. 28-Oct. 1. Even though the organization was one of two that hosted an in-person gathering last fall, it was just as joyous of a reunion between booksellers and publishers’ reps has were the other regionals that met this past month for the first time since 2019. Nicole Magistro, the publisher of Read Island, and a former Colorado indie bookstore owner, summed it all up succinctly, declaring, “it feels like a party.”
“What I appreciate is our authors who were resilient and continued to push through the process [during the pandemic],” declared E. Jean Pemberton Jones, the owner of Enda BOOKtique in Duncanville, Tex., “We’re here today and we’re able to celebrate each other.”
Recalling that last year's in-person show had about 10% fewer attendees than usual and that some of the major publishers skipped it, MPIBA executive director Heather Duncan assured the 212 attendees, including 192 booksellers from 10 states -- with a contingent of first-timers from Oklahoma bookstores -- that “everything is back to normal” this year – although some people remained masked and attendees once again were required to show proof of vaccination with their registrations.
MPIBA booksellers, Duncan noted, want the fall conference to emphasize “meeting the authors, talking to the authors, and networking” – and with 90 authors and illustrators on hand, MPIBA more than delivered for the next three days. This year’s gathering officially kicked off Thursday with the Children’s Author and Illustrator Keynote Breakfast with presentations by eight authors and illustrators; the luncheon that day featured 11 novelists taking turns introducing themselves and their latest releases to the booksellers. Saturday’s two author events -- the Nonfiction Author Breakfast and the Young Readers Round-Up Authors Speed Dating each also featured 11 authors.
The Bestsellers for Breakfast Keynote on Friday was a highlight for many booksellers, who packed a hotel banquet room to meet four adult novelists, one nonfiction chronicler, and one children’s novelist: Justin Cronin (The Ferryman); Kate Manning (Gilded Mountain); Lydia Millet (Dinosaurs); Matthew Quick (We Are the Light); Craig Childs (Stone Desert); and Brian Selznick (Big Tree). Although writing in different genres and with different styles, a common theme emerged during the authors’ passionate, often moving disclosures about their lives and work: the interplay between humans and our environment, and our enduring impact upon the physical world. As Cronin put it, “the world needs saving now more than ever; it’s the new reality we live with,” prompting him to write “a ‘holy shit’ novel about my kids and your kids and how we might do right by them.”
“These authors aren’t public speakers,” Jeanne Costello, the book buyer at Maria’s Bookshop in Durango, Colo. pointed out afterwards, “They’re storytellers who are sharing something personal and making themselves vulnerable. They’re not presenting: they’re sharing. [They] are rising to the moment as we start to process what's happened to us."
Doing Business is a Pleasure
The exhibit hall, which opened for two hours on Thursday evening and all day on Friday bustled the entire time, with booksellers browsing 100 displays staffed by 145 exhibitors, including IPG’s nine tables of offerings from its imprints as well as client publishers. Penguin Random House was one of several major publishers exhibiting after being absent last year. “I love it,” declared Valerie Whalley, PRH regional sales manager since 2006, “I’m so happy; I’ve never had so much fun working a show in my life. There’s such great energy in the exhibit hall.”
Torrey House publisher Kirsten Allen also expressed her delight at returning to the show – although Torrey House did exhibit last year: one of its Denver-based authors staffed the booth for the Utah publisher of books about the West that emphasize environmental themes. “I’m thrilled to be back here,” Allen said, “I’ve been to other shows and events, and there’s none like Mountains and Plains. There’s consistently energy and enthusiasm here and we just love it. We’re thrilled to see all the new faces, all the new booksellers who have bought old bookstores – even though we miss the previous owners.”
Allen noted that the last two years have been “very successful” for Torrey House, “due to the people in this room.” Backlist sales rose during the pandemic and remain up, and the press, which typically has released eight to 10 titles every year since 2018, published 11 in 2021. Due to the paper shortage, Torrey House has gone back down to publishing eight titles in 2022, including its first SFF title, Turnback Ridge by Gerri Brightwell. “We were going to publish 10 books, but the printer’s turn-around time was 20 weeks,” she said, “now it’s down to 12 weeks – which is still twice what it used to be.”
If the exhibit hall crackled with energy as the exhibitors claimed it did, it’s due to optimistic booksellers. Every bookseller PW spoke to reported that sales are up from 2019. Susie Wilmer, the owner of Old Firehouse Books in Ft. Collins, Colo. said that sales at her store “are setting records,” even during the typically quiet summer months. She is buying five copies of books at a time and “selling them, not returning them.” While other downtown retailers are having problems hiring and retaining employees, Wilmer says she has no such problems, as the local university “keeps pushing out M.F.A.s” who take jobs at the store.
Like other bookstores in tourist destinations across the region, Maria’s Bookshop’s Costello reported that sales are up – 30% over pre-pandemic levels-with “an explosion” in the popularity of manga and genre fiction. But while an influx of wealthy new residents who have moved to Durango since the pandemic has pumped up the store’s customer base and boosted sales across the board, it’s also raised housing costs. Rents are spiking in the mountain town and Maria’s is experiencing difficulties in hiring and retaining employees -- even though it has raised wages twice this past year. Costello also expressed concerns over supply chain disruptions and increases in both book prices and freight costs, noting that “things take longer, things are out of stock, there are more mistakes.” But she added, despite all these hiccups, “it still does work.”
Catherine Weller, the owner of Weller Book Works in Salt Lake City, agreed. Even while expressing concerns about inflation and the supply chain, she still is excited going into the holiday season. “The lists are strong and we have great books to sell,” she commented. Plus, she added, new bookstores of all kinds have been popping up in Salt Lake City in the past two years. “It’s nice to have that energy again,” she said.