New blood and inventive programming were two of the reasons this year’s Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association’s fall conference in Denver was so exciting, said Meg Sherman, field sales manager for W.W. Norton and a former bookseller. “Mountains and Plains this year is equal parts people who’ve been doing this for a while and new people. The elders are stepping back and sent new booksellers to Denver. One of the most exciting things about this show is that we’re meeting the next generation of booksellers. My hope is that they’re booksellers for life," Sherman said.
Not only were there 19 new bookstore members among the representatives of 72 bookstores from 12 states attending the show, but there were also about 30 first-timers from established bookstores in attendance—including Brad Dempsey, interim CEO, since July, of Denver’s Tattered Cover Book Store, an attorney whose expertise is in business restructurings. His mandate was twofold, Dempsey told PW: place Tattered Cover on a more solid financial footing and “repair relationships” with the community after a tumultuous period under the store's previous leadership. Dempsey's predecessor, Kwame Spearman, stepped down as CEO in April to pursue a career in politics, although he remains a co-owner.
Even the American Booksellers Association’s top executives, who usually attend the regionals, stepped back this year, Sherman noted: education director Kim Hooyboer, advocacy associate manager Philomena Polefrone, and member relations and registrations coordinator Cedar Fields represented the organization in the exhibit hall, and Hooyboer led Saturday’s education session on handling crises. All three were first-time Mountains & Plains attendees.
Sherman also praised MPIBA for “trying new things.” She cited as examples this year’s Exhibit Hall Walkthrough, led by MPIBA executive director Heather Duncan and geared towards first-time attendees, which took place on Thursday evening, and Friday’s "The Expert Is In: Ask An Expert" table, staffed in hour-long slots throughout the day by pairs of veteran booksellers who fill different roles: store buyers, events coordinators, and receiving/returns managers, concluding with owners.
“There was a mob of booksellers doing the tour, and people were waiting at the ‘Ask An Expert’ table this morning long before the two buyers got there,” Sherman said. Pointing to the table, situated outside the exhibit hall, Sherman explained, “[Boulder Book Store, Boulder, Colo. lead buyer] Arsen Kashkashian is sitting there right now. Arsen is one of the best buyers in the industry. You can’t just get that kind of knowledge on your own.”
Publisher Kirsten Johanna Allen at Torrey House Press also expressed excitement at the number of first-time attendees at the show, declaring that MPIBA has been “nurturing new booksellers in a way that I haven’t seen before as a publisher. Their outreach has become so robust.”
Allen said that MPIBA “has really helped us make the most of this show,” beginning with the first conference the Utah-based press attended in 2011 a year after the company's launch. Torrey House connected with a Consortium rep at that gathering and subsequently signed on as a client. This year, Betsy Gaines Quammen, the author of True West: Myth and Mending on the Far Side of America (Torrey House, Oct.), was one of the speakers at Friday’s Bestsellers for Breakfast: Keynote Authors.
“It means a lot to us as a small press to have as much care and attention as we receive here every year,” Allen said.
Books Create Buzz
Several booksellers told PW after the breakfast that they were not familiar with Quammen, but were eager to read—and then to handsell—True West after hearing Quammen relate her experiences interviewing ranchers and other men living in rural parts of the western and southwestern U.S. Navied Mahdavian also created buzz with his presentation promoting This Country (Chronicle/ Princeton Architectural Press, Sept.), his just-published debut graphic memoir, relating how he moved from San Francisco to a cabin off the grid in Idaho after the 2016 election and how he, an Iranian-American Muslim, confronted the political shifts in rural America.
Other new releases that excited MPIBA booksellers included Jesmyn Ward’s Let Us Descend (Scribner, Oct.), which Boulder Books’ Kashkashian described as “brilliant;” Ross Gay’s The Book of (More) Delights (Algonquin, Sept.); and Dan Gemeinhart’s Coyote Lost and Found (Henry Holt BYR, Mar. 2024). Julie Shimada, the children’s buyer for Maria’s Bookshop in Durango, Colo. squealed with joy as she grabbed an advance bound manuscript from the Holt rep, describing it as the ”long-awaited and eagerly-awaited sequel” to The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise, a 2020 release.
“It’s been a strong fall in a lot of categories,” noted Boulder Book Store marketing & promotions manager Stephanie Schindhelm, “It makes it easy to put together a holiday gift guide.”
Even though Mountains & Plains took place during Banned Books Week and had just kicked off when the U.S. Appeals Court for the Fifth Circuit ruled that Texas’s controversial book law, HB 900, will go into effect while the appeals process plays out, booksellers did not let the controversies roiling the world outside the Renaissance Denver Central Park Hotel dampen their spirits. A few keynote authors, however, did bring up current events during their presentations. Carl Hiaasen (Wrecker, Knopf, Sept.), who lives in Florida, speculated during his Children's Authors & Illustrators Keynote Breakfast presentation that everyone on the morning’s slate of speakers “is going to be on Governor DeSantis’s list” of books banned in the Sunshine State’s school districts and urged booksellers to “keep up the great work” of putting books in children’s hands.
During her Friday morning presentation promoting the latest romance novel in her Dark Olympus series, Katee Robert, author of Midnight Ruin (Sourcebooks Casablanca, Jan.), emphasized the essential role booksellers play in the publishing industry, but even more so, in the outside world, especially now as the cultural wars continue to escalate.
“Everyone deserves to see themselves in the pages of the books they read,” Robert declared. “And because we live in a capitalist hellscape, money talks. By putting queer books, trans books, Black books, Indigenous books, books by authors of color, disabled books into your readers’ hands, you are telling the gatekeepers of publishing that those stories are valued and that there is an audience for them.” Booksellers, she insisted, have the power to create demand for more books for readers “who aren’t cis-het-white,” adding, “In a time when so many marginalized communities are under active attack, that is revolutionary. Joy is revolutionary.”