This fall’s regional bookseller trade shows, which kicked off in early August with the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association and the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance joint show in Arlington, Va., and concluded last week with another joint trade show—the Midwest Independent Booksellers and Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Associations’ Heartland Fall Forum—saw strong attendance and diverse attendees. Sandwiched between them were four other gatherings of the indie bookseller associations in the Pacific Northwest, California, Mountains and Plains, and New England regions.
Publishers sent scores of authors to the gatherings, and exhibitors made the rounds too, with a few intrepid individuals appearing at show after show. Indie publishers and alternatives to online retail giants, including Bookshop.org and Libro.fm, were on hand at various shows. The Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association invited the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon to staff a table at its event in Portland, to provide information for booksellers encountering censorship and other attacks on the freedom to read.
This year’s six shows celebrated several milestones: it was SIBA and NAIBA’s first in-person event and the New England Independent Bookseller Association’s 50th anniversary. Opening nights raised the bar for future gatherings. PNBA members had their choice of receptions, including tours of Tin House Books, the night before the trade show started. Heartland’s opening night reception moved from the conference hotel to Third Man Records, owned by Jack White of the White Stripes, where White engaged in conversation with author and music critic Hanif Abdurraqib. GLIBA executive director Larry Law described the music and books–themed evening as “literally one of the coolest events I’ve ever been a part of.”
The 2023 gatherings were marked by upward trends in attendance. PNBA reported that 96 stores, 17 of them new, sent a total of 235 attendees. The California Independent Booksellers Association reported that 230 booksellers came from 82 stores. The Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association had 201 booksellers in 2023, a 5% increase over 2022’s 192 booksellers. NEIBA’s 272 booksellers also represented a 5% increase over last year. Heartland’s numbers were eye-popping: there were 285 booksellers in Detroit, up 36% from 2022; 114 of this year’s booksellers were first-timers. And the inaugural in-person New Voices New Rooms event bodes well for SIBA and NAIBA’s partnership, drawing 278 booksellers to the Washington, D.C., metro area in August. (The 2024 NVNR show is already set to return to Arlington, Va., Aug. 8–11).
MIBA director Carrie Obry attributed Heartland’s spike in attendance to a number of factors: people wanting to visit Detroit, a significant easing of the pandemic, and the fact that “BookExpo is long gone.” Obry also pointed to the continued growth in the number of new bookstores as a factor. “Just speaking for MIBA, our membership is up 27%,” she said.
As for GLIBA, its membership has doubled in the past five years, from 130 stores in 2018 to 261 in 2023. “All these new stores are excited to meet each other and experience Heartland,” Law said.
Not only does there seem to be a rise in the number of bookstores opening across the country, but many of this year’s first-time attendees at the various shows were nontraditional booksellers. In the Pacific Northwest, Cierra Cook is preparing to open Milwaukie, Ore.’s Spoke & Word Books, so named because Cook’s husband, Casey Cook, will operate an adjoining mountain bike repair shop.
David and Dara Landry operated a pop-up bookstore, CLASS, in Houston during the pandemic and moved into a physical space almost a year ago, where they sell books and clothing. Since the two hold full-time jobs, CLASS is open only on weekends, but it has attracted a following; their monthly open mic poetry nights are drawing crowds.
After a brief stint as an attorney in Philadelphia, Courtney Bledsoe moved back to her Chicago hometown three years ago, where she now sells books by BIPOC authors online and operates a pop-up, Call & Response Books. She is currently looking for a storefront on the South Side and said she intends to “integrate the bookstore with a community space.”
In New Ulm, Minn., Brie Taralson is operating a pop-up, Lykke Books, while renovating a 1,500-sq.-ft. building that she will move into in March 2024. Besides new and used books, Lykke Books will feature an art gallery, a café, a multipurpose gym/studio, and a youth center. “New Ulm is a regional hub, and the nearest indie bookstore is 30 minutes away,” Taralson said. “We want this bookstore to be a community center.”
After operating a pop-up, Next Chapter Books, inside the historic Alger Theater in Detroit’s Eastside neighborhood from Thanksgiving 2022 until April, Sarah Williams and her husband, Jay Williams, moved in September to a permanent location a block away. The couple shares an approximately 2,000-sq.-ft. building with Eastside Roasters—which intends to open a coffee shop in the back of the building.
Looking around her in Heartland’s crowded exhibit hall, Williams said that though the gathering “was a lot to take in,” she was glad to be there. “It’s lovely to be reminded that we’re not an island of bookselling,” she said.