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Bigger, better, more diverse than ever

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As the Heartland Fall Forum wrapped up Friday afternoon, Sarah High, Senior Partnerships Manager at Bookshop.org, who exhibited at five of the six shows this fall, said that while she enjoyed them all, “the warmth and “The energy of this show is palpable. I think it’s because of all the new booksellers here. To meet so many people who are opening bookstores or have opened bookstores in the last year is so encouraging.” Ruth Liebmann, PRH vice president, account marketing, added, “New bookstores I’ve spoken to have a clear vision of how they want to connect with their communities. Their enthusiasm for the bookstore is infectious.”

Midwest Independent Booksellers and Great Lakes Independent Bookseller Associations jointly present 209 booksellers and 144 exhibitors in St. Louis; More than half of the booksellers present were newcomers.

The innovative young entrepreneurs who have created such a buzz among seasoned booksellers and exhibitors have also made this region the most diverse gathering of booksellers in the Midwest this reporter has seen in 25 years. They included Ymani Wince, the owner of The Noir Bookshop in a racially mixed neighborhood on the south side of St. Louis. Spurred on by the 2016 police shooting of an 18-year-old black man in Ferguson, Mo. and her own “obsession” with 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 getting the black books out into the community in any way possible.”

Sisters Barbara Cerda and Valeria Cerda started La Revo Books in Milwaukee last year “to elevate Latinx literature.” Their “traveling bookstore” inventory focuses on books in Spanish, “not Huckleberry Finn in Spanish: Nobody wants to read that,” Barbara said, explaining that their business model is inspired by their Mexican heritage and puts l focus on family, community and collaboration. Their ultimate goal, they said PT, is to convince publishers to publish and promote more Latinx books. “We stand up for our customers and our community,” Barbara said; Valeria added, “We’re asking publishers here directly for Latinx books. They’ll remember us and they know we’ll be asking for it again next year.

Ren Dean, who has a background in urban planning and whose interests include environmental justice, plans to open Skunk Cabbage Books in northwest Chicago in early spring 2023. She decided during the pandemic, says- her, “to no longer stay in the background: I want to be on the front line”, creating a community hub in which she can also welcome people from the neighborhood to share their skills with others. Heartland, she said noted, “is a different experience from conferences I’ve done in the past. It’s a new world for me: daunting, but really exciting.”

Programming Highlights

With panels on alternative bookstore models, mission-driven indie presses, manga, and TikTok, Heartland’s themed programming contributed to the show’s energy. Thursday morning, three booksellers from Saint-Louis – Wince; Jeffrey Blair, co-owner of the African-American children’s bookstore EyeSeeMe; and Grace Hagen, Director of Operations and Inclusion at Novel Neighbor – with Lecia Michelle, author of the White Allies Handbookwere part of a panel titled “Belonging: Bringing Anti-Racism to Your Bookstore,” which was moderated by fellow 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 reflecting their lives and experiences as people of color. Wince said she wasn’t exposed to books by black authors until she was in college, while Blair and his wife opened EyeSeeMe in 2015 because they had so much difficulty finding books for their four children that had characters that looked like them. EyeSeeMe, Blair noted, is committed to broad inventory “that is inclusive in all respects – not just racial.”

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Expressing cautious optimism that “we will change this country if we start having honest discussions,” Michelle urged a zero-tolerance policy for employees and customers when it comes to racist comments or actions. In addition to having “honest conversations” with employees about the store environment for them and working with them to “deal with microaggressions and all the things that people don’t want to come to work,” she has advised bookstore owners/managers to call micro-attacks when they see or hear about them and “have an immediate conversation with the person who did it” – whether that be an employee or a customer. Michelle also suggested that owners/managers hire a professional to “start things off” by providing anti-racism training to employees.

Hagen urged white booksellers to “practice anti-racism with humility and curiosity.” Like Michelle, she urged honest discussions with BIPOC employees about bookstore culture, as “silence sends a very strong message” and “happy staff will result in the store making more money.”

Three-day Lovefest for Authors

Of course, bookseller gatherings are about authors and their books, and Heartland was no different. There were 61 authors in attendance and the show kicked off Wednesday night with the Heartland Awards ceremony, followed by the signings of 20 authors. It ended with the Fête des Auteurs where 38 authors showed up and presented their books at the booksellers’ tables. While Friday morning’s multi-author breakfast featured book heavyweights such as Roshani Chokshi, Veronica Roth and Timothy Egan, it was Ross Gay who got booksellers most excited. Booksellers put him through his paces before and after the event started, lined up to meet him, and had him personalize pre-signed copies of his recent release, Encourage joy. When Gay walked the fair later, exhibitors and booksellers thanked him for the books he wrote, and some asked to take selfies with him.

“I’m thrilled to sell every one of these books from this morning’s authors,” said Friday breakfast host Javier Ramirez, co-owner of Exile in Bookville in Chicago, “But I’ve never seen a author have such an impact on booksellers like Ross Gay.Mary O’Malley, bookseller at Skylark Bookshop in Columbia, Mo. agrees, explaining, “Ross Gay reminds us that without heartache, grief and struggle, there is no impossible to know joy. I told him that his writing had healed parts of me. I didn’t even know they were broken. He reminds us that there is light, even in the darkest days. dark. Just look for it.

Heartland Fall Forum next fall will be held in Detroit, October 18-20, 2023.