Notebook: Into the Heartland

by Ann Kjellberg, editor

Anne Trubek, the founder of Belt Publishing (as in, rust belt), in Cleveland, Ohio, asked a few weeks ago in her newsletter, “Notes from a Small Press,” what it might mean to try to cultivate a literary style or genre—even, a movement—through a press, rather than a group of college friends hanging out in certain zip codes or an MFA program, as seem (she observed) to be the dominant laboratories for developments in writing now.

This was such a vital question with which to approach the recent Heartland Fall Forum, the annual convention of booksellers from the Midwest and Great Lakes, held this year in Belt’s hometown of Cleveland, at which, thanks to Belt, we were happy to have a little Book Post foothold. We learned so much! The overwhelming message of the forum was one of optimism. Many who had been attending events like this for years marveled at how cheerful the mood had become. Robert Gray of Shelf Awareness recalled how dour gatherings of booksellers had been in the aftermath of the 2008 market crash, when printed books and physical bookstores seemed poised to be wiped from the surface of the earth. Several veterans remarked that everyone they spoke to in Cleveland seemed to be opening a bookstore, or another branch of their existing store.

Within that ascendancy of independence, another common theme was the strength of the small publisher. Large publishers admitted sheepishly that they are now imitating the success of houses like NYRB and Europa in producing uniform series that encourage readers to buy an unknown book on the strength of its publisher’s reputation, once thought an inconceivable goal. Our erstwhile partner bookseller Danny Caine of Raven (Heartland’s Bookseller of the Year) echoed that his own customers respond enthusiastically to uniformly designed series, noting that patrons of independent bookstores tend to appreciate how a beautiful book sits on the shelf.

Everyone marveled at the vitality of sales in poetry and translation. H. Melt of the Chicago bookstore Women and Children First offered the new, to me, theory that poetry is benefiting from the downstream influence of the spoken-word poets of the eighties (a movement born in the midwest), now teaching and bringing up a new generation of poets with a public-facing spirit. Translation, it was noted, is buoyed by the series trend, which invites readers to take a chance on an unknown foreign writer with a publisher they trust. University presses are benefiting from their long advocacy for poetry and, more recently, international literature. Also scholarly books are lifted by the preoccupation with politics that is boosting nonfiction sales generally: academics have been able to turn their historical knowledge to analysis and advice for a politically active time. Even the resident bookbinder at the beautiful bookshop Loganberry Books reported that membership in the guild of bookworkers had ballooned in recent years.

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In her keynote address, novelist-bookseller Emma Straub gave a joyous account of how she managed to open a bookstore, care for a baby, and write a novel in a single year. The motivator was the yawning vacuum in her neighborhood when a beloved local bookseller closed. The connection her effort embodied between books and place closed the circle on Anne Trubek’s question, inviting a next question: how is it that the making and selling of books—and everything this process implies about connecting people to ideas on the creating and the delivering end—arises from where you are. In a panel at our current partner bookstore Mac’s Backs, three small publishers with local roots—Microcosm, Red Giant Books, Outlandish Press, and Cleveland State University Poetry Center—and Book Post talked about how small publishing is about finding, capturing, and conveying what might otherwise go unheard—close to the ground, where people live. Microcosm founder Joe Biel said that he began his work because he felt that no one was speaking either to the underground punk community or the neuro-atypical community in which he lived and to which he had an atuned ear. (He said, “I’m told that I said that I was going to make the publishing version of punk rock,” an anti-establishment mission if there ever was one.) He celebrated that Cleveland is still a town where you can do “flyer stops” and generate interest in books. All around us in Mac’s Backs were books and customers testifying to this intimate connection. 

Heartland also brought into focus how vulnerable these ecosystems are. The Book Industry Charitable Foundation (BINC), whose work is providing for booksellers in distress, received the convention’s Voice of the Heartland Award. BINC representatives told me that the two greatest threats to the security of booksellers are overwhelming medical costs (even among the insured) and the danger of becoming homeless in a moment of financial duress. In a panel on the economics of publishing, Brendan Curry of stubbornly independent W. W. Norton observed that one the sensitivities most menacing to the margins of publishers are overhead and personnel costs, especially health insurance, the burdens of which he argued are driving conglomeration.

All of which is to say, policies that effect small business—particularly health care and housing costs, as well, obviously, as anti-trust—have a profound effect on the vitality of ideas on the ground in book-making and bookselling. I asked a round table of booksellers talking about “Being an Ally in Your Community” whether changing their inventory and the display of books affected who came into the store, and the answer was an overwhelming yes. One bookseller recounted how when she created a section for LGBTQ teens she overheard a customer in the aisle say, “I’m alive.” They described ways booksellers reach underserved communities by offering programs and bulk discounts to schools and libraries in neighborhoods where people rarely enter a bookstore. When Midwestern booksellers think about what political books to stock, and where to shelve romances and Christian books, and whether to isolate or combine books by authors of different ethnicities, and what books to highlight with their recommendations, they are asking some pretty profound questions about how our culture is communicated and to whom.

Dan Wells, founder of Biblioasis in Windsor, Canada, which had a breakaway hit this year with Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, once suggested I consider how publishers in places with low overhead are able to pursue more adventurous ideas than conglomerates in high-cost cities. He said an employee in his outfit can make enough money to buy a house in Windsor, not easy to imagine in New York City. The research firm Civic Economics does studies in partnership with the American Booksellers Association to establish how much money local retailers recirculate into local economies—currently, on average 47.7 percent of revenues, compared with 13.6 percent for national chains. Civic Economics helps booksellers communicate these realities to customers. What does the gutting of Main Street, we wonder, have to do with the alienation and polarization of our moment? What do we lose when mass virtual connection (economic and otherwise) replaces actual human connection?

Ann Trubek said at a Heartland party she threw for Belt authors (she invited all of them) in a Cleveland community motorcycle garage: “We may not have the means of production, but we have the means of reproduction. We own it. It is a creative act.” When you create conditions that allow book making and selling to thrive, you nourish communities, in all their gritty singularity—nourish them economically, intellectually, emotionally, and, yes, politically.


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Image: Mac’s Backs Books on Coventry, October 5, 2019. Cleveland, Ohio