As Heartland Fall Forum wound down on Friday afternoon, Sarah High, senior partnerships manager at Bookshop.org, who has exhibited at five of the six trade shows this fall, declared that while she enjoyed all of them, “the warmth and energy of this show is palpable. I think it’s because of all of the new booksellers here. Meeting so many people who are opening bookstores or have opened them within the past year is so encouraging.” Ruth Liebmann, PRH v-p, account marketing added, “the new bookstores I talked to have a strong vision of how they want to connect to their communities. Their enthusiasm for bookselling is contagious."
The Midwest Independent Booksellers and Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Associations 10th anniversary joint show brought 209 booksellers and 144 exhibitors to St. Louis; Close to 60% of the booksellers in attendance were first-time attendees.
The innovative young entrepreneurs who created such excitement among veteran booksellers and exhibitors alike also made this regional the most diverse gathering of Midwestern booksellers this reporter has seen in 25 years. They included Ymani Wince, the owner of The Noir Bookshop in a racially mixed neighborhood on St. Louis’s South Side. Prompted by the 2016 police shooting of an 18-year-old Black man in Ferguson, Mo. and her own “obsession” with the Black authors and books she discovered as a young adult, Wince opened the store four months ago to “create a community space that supports St. Louis.” She is committed, she said, “to put Black books into the community by any means possible.”
Sisters Barbara Cerda and Valeria Cerda launched La Revo Books in Milwaukee last year “to lift up Latinx literature.” The inventory of their “traveling bookstore” focuses on Spanish-language books, “not Huckleberry Finn in Spanish: nobody wants to read that,” Barbara said, explaining that their business model is inspired by their Mexican heritage and emphasizes family, community, and collaboration. Their ultimate goal, they told PW, is to convince publishers to publish and promote more Latinx books. “We’re advocating for our customers and for our community,” Barbara said; Valeria added, “We’re directly asking the publishers here for Latinx books. They’re going to remember us, and they know we’re going to ask for it again next year.”
Ren Dean, whose background is in urban planning and whose interests include environmental justice, intends to open Skunk Cabbage Books in northwest Chicago in early spring of 2023. She decided during the pandemic, she says, “not to stay in the background anymore: I want to be on the front lines,” creating a community hub in which she also can host people from the neighborhood to share their skills with others. Heartland, she noted, “is a different experience from conferences I’ve done in the past. It’s a new world for me: intimidating, but really exciting.”
With panels on alternative bookstore models, mission-driven indie presses, manga, and TikTok, Heartland’s topical programming contributed to the show’s energy. Thursday morning, three St. Louis booksellers – Wince; Jeffrey Blair, co-owner of EyeSeeMe African American Children’s Bookstore; and Grace Hagen, director of operations and inclusion at the Novel Neighbor – along with Lecia Michelle, author of the White Allies Handbook, were on a panel entitled, “Belonging: Bringing Anti-Racism to Your Bookstore,” that was moderated by another local bookseller, Left Bank Books event coordinator Shane Mullen.
Wince and Blair both explained that each launched their bookstore so that BIPOC readers would have access to literature that reflected their lives and experiences as people of color. Wince said that she wasn’t exposed to books written by Black authors until she was in college, while Blair and his wife opened EyeSeeMe in 2015 because they had such difficulties finding books for their four children that had characters that looked like them. EyeSeeMe, Blair noted, is committed to a broad inventory “that is inclusive in all ways -- not just race.”[
Expressing cautious optimism that “we’ll turn around this country if we start holding honest discussions,” Michelle urged a zero-tolerance policy for both employees and customers when it comes to racist words or actions. Besides having “honest conversations” with employees regarding the store’s environment for them and working with them to “address micro-aggressions and anything that is making people not want to come in to work," she advised that bookstore owners/managers call out micro-aggressions when they see or hear of them and to “have an immediate conversation with the person who did it” – whether it be an employee or a customer. Michelle also suggested that owners/managers bring in a professional to “start things” by providing anti-racism training to employees.
Hagen urged white booksellers to “practice anti-racism with humility and with curiosity." Like Michelle, she urged honest discussions with BIPOC employees about the bookstore’s culture, as “silence sends a really loud message” and a “happy staff will result in the store making more money.”
Three-Day Author Lovefest
Of course, bookseller gatherings are about the authors and their books, and Heartland was no different. There were 61 authors in attendance, and the show kicked off Wednesday evening with the Heartland Awards ceremony, followed by signings by 20 authors. It ended with the Authors Feast of 38 authors introducing themselves and their books to tables of booksellers. While Friday morning’s multi-author breakfast featured such heavy hitters in the book world as Roshani Chokshi, Veronica Roth, and Timothy Egan, it was Ross Gay who most excited booksellers. Booksellers buttonholed him before the event began and afterwards, waited in a long line to meet him and have him personalize pre-signed copies of his recent release, Inciting Joy. When Gay walked the show floor later, both exhibitors and booksellers thanked him for the books he has written, and some asked to take selfies with him.
“I’m excited to sell every one of these books by this morning's authors,” declared the Friday breakfast host, Javier Ramirez, the co-owner of Exile in Bookville in Chicago, “But I’ve never seen an author have such an impact on booksellers as Ross Gay.” Mary O'Malley, a bookseller at Skylark Bookshop in Columbia, Mo. concurred, explaining, "Ross Gay reminds us that without sorrow and heartache and struggle, it's not possible to know joy. I told him that his writing healed parts of me I didn't even know were broken. He reminds us that there is light, even in the darkest days. We just have to look for it."
Heartland Fall Forum next fall will take place in Detroit, Oct. 18-20, 2023.