The Midwest Independent Booksellers and Great Lakes Booksellers Independent Booksellers Associations kicked off their 10th anniversary joint show Wednesday evening with a memorable awards ceremony. The Heartland Fall Forum is taking place in St. Louis, the first time the organizations have taken their annual gathering to the Show Me State. As of late September, 412 booksellers and other attendees had registered for the show, including 131 first-time attendees.

Wednesday evening’s awards ceremony, emceed by Isaac Fitzgerald and Saeed Jones, can best be described as a raucous affair, with Fitzgerald setting the tone, shouting at a packed ballroom of booksellers, “How are we doing, Heartland?” After Fitzgerald expressed his gratitude that booksellers had persevered during the pandemic and that the sales of his book, Dirtbag, Massachusetts, demonstrated their power even under the most difficult of circumstances, he turned the podium over to MIBA executive director Carrie Obry and GLIBA executive director Larry Law. Obry urged booksellers to, “make friends with strangers and get a book signed” these next few days. Obry added that the pandemic seems to have “accelerated everybody’s hopes and dreams” and that the “unprecedented growth in both associations” of member booksellers “from all walks of life and from all kinds of backgrounds” is making bookselling more inclusive.

Congresswoman Cori Bush from Missouri’s First District, a surprise guest, gave a plug for her memoir, The Forerunner: A Story of Pain and Perseverance in America, and gave a shout out to her local bookstore, Left Bank Books. “Thank you for all you do,” Bush said, “Thank you for being there for us.”

Skylark Bookshop’s “virtual bookseller-at-large” Mary O’Malley then took to the stage to present the Midwest Bookseller of the Year award to Alex George, the owner of Skylark Bookshop in Columbia, Mo., whom O’Malley described as “the best,” for founding the Unbound Literary Festival and then launching a bookstore. Accepting his award, George expressed his appreciation for being part of a community of booksellers “who lift each other up” and “come together over a love of books.”

Jones and Fitzgerald then presented the 2022 Heartland Booksellers Awards: poetry to H. Melt, There Are Trans People Here; YA/middle grade to Kate DiCamillo, The Beatryce Prophecy; nonfiction to Jeff Deutsch, In Praise of Good Bookstores; picture book to Jacqueline Woodson, The Year We Learned to Fly; and fiction to Louise Erdrich, The Sentence. While DiCamillo and Woodson accepted their awards in person, with heartfelt words of appreciation for indie booksellers, Melt, Deutsch, and Erdrich appeared via video, which included Erdrich concluding her remarks by handselling a selection of books by Indigenous authors.

Heartland Fall Forum’s opening night’s awards ceremony ended with the awarding of the Voice of the Heartland award to Kris Kleindienst, an owner of Left Bank Books for the past 45 years, and a bookseller for 48 years.

“I have to thank all the generations of booksellers ,” Kleindienst said. “I didn’t get here by myself. In almost 50 years of bookselling, if I’ve learned anything, I’ve learned this is what it’s all about: it’s not about my voice. It’s about giving voice to young people by amplifying voices that matter, voices that might not show up in searches at Barnes & Noble; voices of our elders, like James Baldwin and Octavia Butler and Leslie Feinberg; and – almost -- Jackie Woodson. And so many more."

Concluding her remarks, Kleindienst said, "The rest of what I do, which is to say all of it, including washing the grime off of bookshelves or filling two 15 cubic yard commercial dumpsters with bookstore flood debris is in the service of those voices. When I raise my voice to advocate for 10 more points, or for more financial support from publishers for the increasingly risky undertaking of putting on in-person author events, when I won’t shut up about the vital role an independent bookstore plays in its community both economically and culturally as a lynchpin of democracy, I am doing it so all of these incredible people, young, not so young and elder, will have a place where they feel like they are home."

"As a great man once said," Kleindienst concluded, " 'The greatness of humanity is not in being human, but in being humane.' Or, as I like to say in modern bookstore parlance, Literacy and Justice for All."

Heartland Fall Forum continues through Friday. Next year’s gathering will take place next year in Detroit, at the Marriott Detroit Renaissance Center, from Oct. 18-20, 2023.

This story has been updated to correct errors regarding the name of the Heartland Booksellers Awards program and the dates of the 2023 Heartland Fall Forum.