Maybe Trish Tieger said it best: "There are fewer people here this year, but the folks who are here are really here." The co-owner, with her husband, Bernard, of Village Books in Tivoli, N.Y., concurred with practically all the exhibitors and booksellers at the 11th Chicago International Remainder and Overstock Book Exhibition (CIROBE) held November 2-4: there were bargains aplenty at the Chicago Hilton and Towers, and serious order-writing was going on. Naturally, the aftermath of September 11 was in the air, but the show's prevailing mood was upbeat.

CIROBE cofounder Brad Jonas reported that attendance was down "barely 10%, and a lot of that shortfall was spouses and partners who decided not to come--the major people were all here." Forty states were represented, Jonas added, in addition to 25 foreign countries. One of those "major people" present was bargain-book veteran Mel Shapiro of Book Sales Inc., who's been at it for "37 years this December. When I start something I stay with it," he said. This year's attendees, he observed, "really came to buy; they made up their minds what they needed and they're here with their pens ready." Perhaps reflecting the current climate, Shapiro reported strong sales in history, books on wars and spiritual titles. The first group, he felt, was also "getting a boost from the History Channel and the Discovery Channel." At the University of Southern Illinois Press booth, Gordon Pruett was doing well with "military and art history, better reference titles in theater and film, and architecture, especially Frank Lloyd Wright." Like many exhibitors, Pruett observed some caution in this year's buying patterns. "People are more careful in what they buy for all sorts of economic reasons."

Like most attendees, however, Matthew George, bargain book buyer for the Harry W. Schwartz Bookstores in Milwaukee, Wis., was decidedly optimistic. "I'm not really buying any differently this year. I don't want to be overly cautious, buy too little and put myself in a situation where the business can't be good." Bruce Moyer, president of Buck-a-Book in North Dighton, Mass., said, "I think this will be an excellent Christmas, and not everybody can say that. But people in the off-price business this year are in a better position than ever." Kudzu Book Traders president Stina Forsell added, "Adversity is when discount business does the best." CIROBE cofounder Marshall Smith, noting that many of the CIROBE attendees own used bookstores, said, "They're going to come through this okay because of the increased margin, whereas dealers in new books are having a problem selling at 40%." Not surprisingly, several people PW spoke with were anticipating that many of the current new books--both bestsellers and general titles--would turn into a larger-than-usual supply of remainders in the coming months.

One measure of CIROBE's ongoing success has been the continual presence of new exhibitors--about 10 this year, reported Jonas. "Though I'm more impressed," he added, "with the second-timers. A lot of folks can come to the show, to any show, and decide that maybe it's not for them. But practically all of our first-time exhibitors keep coming back." One of this year's newbies was Backbeat Books, whose publisher, Matt Kelsey, told PW, "We've read about the show for several years and decided to give it a shot. We've taken some really good orders, and it's a terrific way to connect with buyers that we don't normally deal with."

Back for a second year was retailer Roberta Rubin, owner of the Book Stall at Chestnut Court in nearby Winnetka, Ill. "We picked up such good deals last year," Rubin enthused. "We look for a small but very targeted group of remainders, which have lately become a wonderful adjunct to our business." Another second-year attendee was Judy Lamb of the two Joe's Bookstore locations in Norfolk, Va., which were definitely feeling the effects of September 11. "We're doing good business [at the show]," she said, "but we're much more price conscious these days, because 20,000 of our customers are gone--they're at sea aboard three aircraft carriers."

Kudos All Around

As usual, the show itself got rave reviews. Don Sturtz, president of Chicago's Fujii Associates, told PW, "This is still the best run of all the book shows. It's the only one where I write solid business from a broad range of customer types, from independents here to independents in Australia." Kelsey at Backbeat added, "It's really refreshing to see the focus on order writing and making connections--more than at any other trade show."

In American Book Company's bustling break-out room, president Bob Walker told PW, "This year's orders have dramatically increased. This is the most important show of the year for us, and every year here we've doubled our sales. We come with an order pad and plan on going back with a lighter pocket." Lighter pockets were the order of the day at Kudzu Book Traders, too, where Forsell got down to some impressive brass tacks. "With 10 to 12 people here, we'll do over 10% of our projected annual gross in five days."

Even this year's less crowded show floor seemed to have a positive side. "It's certainly easier to get around and make sure we see everything," said Lamb from Joe's Books. And at Texas Bookman, Robert Wilkie remarked, "It was frenetic last year, and there are sacrifices that come with that. This year people took advantage of the extra time available in some booths; they didn't feel as rushed and I think we all got better orders." And there were, as always, the customary pleasant surprises. As the show was drawing to its close, Don McGee of Courage Books remarked, "Just when I was thinking Sunday afternoons were dead, a customer came by and bought 500 copies each of three $9.98 titles."

Though order writing was the show's primary thrust, it wasn't the only one. In addition to "many nice orders," Ron Prazuch, sales rep for the Wybel Marketing Group of Barrington, Ill., noted the opportunity for "really terrific networking--the swapping of business cards at this show is important. It really helps to be here every year and build relationships." As Denny Magers of Magers & Quinn Booksellers of Minneapolis put it, "Each year you find someone new here, and I found a couple of contacts this time that are extremely helpful."

At the show's close, Jonas sounded an optimistic note: "In these uncertain times there's a faith about what's coming next. Whether it's the terrorists or the economy, there's been a lot of talk about getting back to work, about returning to normal. I was happy to see that people here really were getting back to work." And those folks can take comfort from the words of Walker at American Book Company: "The bargain book business is about as recession-proof as you can get."