The Canadian Booksellers Association’s National Conference held in Toronto from May 28 to 30 expanded upon its first effort at creating a national industry event last year following the closure of BookExpo Canada. But its growth was modest and it remains an intimate gathering.

Fourteen publishers set up exhibit tables, about twice as many as in 2009, and about the same number participated in the publisher-bookseller speed-dating luncheon. Last year, Penguin Group (Canada) was the only multinational house participating, but this year HarperCollins Canada and Simon & Schuster Canada also set up tables. Although some said they miss the fun and social side of a big event like BEC, no one said they missed the expense.

“To be able to talk one on one like this with customers from across the country for us is invaluable. We don’t get a chance to do it that often with the demise of BookExpo Canada, which was a good opportunity to do that. This is a good alternative,” said Tom Best, v-p of marketing for H.B. Fenn and Key Porter Books. “The problem is the sheer numbers. It’s not big enough. Unless we can add other voices to the discussions we’re having here today, then it makes it very hard. There are a lot of key booksellers and key publishers who are missing from this room today…. but it’s going to take time. It’s not going to happen overnight.,” he said.

Graham Fidler, executive v-p of Publishers Group Canada, also said it was a good opportunity to mend some fences between publishers and distributors and the CBA. Publishers and distributors were recently dismayed to learn that the CBA, upset about the Canadian government’s approval of Amazon’s application to build a distribution facility in Canada, asked that the government to lift restrictions on buying directly from U.S. distributors. “I’m relieved that it seems very positive. [The CBA] were very nice and said how grateful they were that we are here,” Fidler said.

The number of booksellers attending was up slightly from last year’s 82, but there was not a big jump in that number. They came from about 50 bookstores across the from coast to coast and as far north as Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. Tough economic times and a slow start to sales in 2010 may explain some of the absences. The CBA tried to keep costs down by selecting the Delta Toronto Airport West Hotel in part for its reasonable rates and free parking for guests. Organizers timed the conference to allow people attending BookExpo America in New York to come to the CBA event on their way back into Canada from New York to save on air fares. Publishers such as Raincoast Books took advantage of that, but for a struggling bookseller the cost of traveling to Toronto may have been prohibitive, attendees speculated. And that same location may have also been a disincentive for those from Toronto. Halfway between the city and Pearson International Airport, the suburban Mississauga hotel was not easily accessible except by car and was a $35 cab ride from the end of the subway line and a $30 cab ride from the airport.

Booksellers who attended, however, said it was well-worth the trip. The speed-dating luncheon was popular, and BookManager president Michael Neill’s seminar and software demonstration on the first day got especially rave reviews. Slated to go from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., it stretched on until 5 p.m., yet Heather Kuipers, owner of Ella Minnow bookstore in Toronto said “it could have been longer” because she learned so many practical applications of the system.

“This is intimate, practical, grass-roots, real skills oriented,” said Liz Crocker, owner of P’lovers. “[You have] intimate conversations and therefore you go away with a very meaningful experience,” she said, adding that meeting authors and coming away with lots of advance reading copies from BEC was exciting, but this was more useful “in terms of the nuts and bolts of running your business and being successful.”

In addition to the opportunity to talk with publishers, many booksellers underlined how much they valued the opportunity to talk with each other. “I prefer to actually sit down with reps,” from the publishers to order books, said Christopher Clarke of Argo Bookshop in Montreal. “But this is nice because you are with other booksellers. I find normally it’s really isolated. All you read about is e-books and we’re all screwed and Amazon’s going to win and then you come here and there are other people who care.”

The decision to celebrate the CBA’s Libris Awards with a dinner and ceremony (sponsored by Random House of Canada) instead of a cocktail reception added a sense of occasion to the event. Linden MacIntyre, author of the Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning The Bishop’s Man, who won both fiction book of the year and author of the year offered an eloquent tribute in his speech: “I have the deepest respect for independent booksellers who open the place up every morning and wait for people to come in and buy the paper or the latest McEwan or whatever, and keep us all alive.”

The 2010 Libris Award winners are:

Chase Paymentech Young Bookseller of the Year

Mandy Brouse, Wordsworth Books, Waterloo, Ontario

Specialty Bookseller of the Year

Woozles Ltd, Halifax, Nova Scotia

Sales Representative of the Year

Rorie Bruce, Kate Walker & Company

Distributor of the Year

Raincoast Book Distribution

Nonfiction Book of the Year

The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World by Wade Davis (House of Anansi Press)

Fiction Book of the Year

The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre (Random House Canada)

Campus Bookseller of the Year

The Book Store at Western, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario

Children’s Picture Book of the Year

When Stella was Very, Very Small by Marie-Louise Gay (Groundwood Books)

Young Reader’s Book of the Year

Vanishing Girl: The Boy Sherlock Holmes, His Third Case by Shane Peacock (Tundra Books)

Editor of the Year

Marc Côté, Cormorant Books

Author of the Year

Linden MacIntyre

Small Press Publisher of the Year

Coach House Books

Publisher of the Year

House of Anansi Press

Bookseller of the Year

Bookmark II, Halifax, Nova Scotia