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Books: Heartland Fall Forum 2012

Reports on the state of book publishing in the Midwest.

A look inside the hall at the Heartland Fall Forum in Minneapolis
Photo by John Toren

“Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,” Mark Twain once remarked, and today’s independent booksellers could take that same line as their motto, to judge from the energies on display at the recent Heartland Fall Forum in Minneapolis. Now that the Great Lakes folks have joined forces with the Upper Midwest contingent, the forum can lay claim to being the largest regional book convention in the US.

Old-timers are still waxing nostalgic about how big it used to be, twenty years ago: “The Random House booth alone took up an entire aisle! And their tables were stacked high with freebees!”

Well, there used to be a lot of tractors on display at the state fair, too.

My own perspective on the event, which I was privileged to attend as a representative of Nodin Press, is flavored by the fact that I’m not there to sell books (like a publisher) or to find out about the newest releases, with the end in mind of placing an order (like an independent bookseller) or to “snatch” books to pad my online sales catalog or personal library (“Who are those guys?”). I’m there to help set up the booth, answer an occasional question, run errands…and catch up with old friends in the book industry.

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I had a ball.

The Nodin booth was perfectly situated in a corner location, looking out on the floor in two directions, and beyond through the tall windows of the retrofitted Old Milwaukee Railroad depot to the golden leaves of the locust trees and the skyscrapers downtown. Nodin’s distributor, Adventure Publications, was to our right; the U of M Press was to our left, with their latest crop of sparking regional titles; and old pals from the Wisconsin Historical Society were right across the way.

I enjoyed seeing that welcoming smile from Ryan Jacobson in the Adventure Booth as I arrived to help Norton hang the cover posters Thursday afternoon. I get emails from him throughout the year urging me to send some cover file or promotional material ASAP, preferably in Excel format. The wording is cordial but emails tend to carry a frosty edge. (I’ve become a fan of the smiley face.)

And I wasn’t in the hall more than ten minutes before I was swapping stories with Eric Anderson, of the U of M Press’s marketing staff, about the delights and hazards of canoeing on Lake Superior.

Richard Stegal was already at the booth when I arrived Friday morning. It’s always fun to hear what he’s been up to in the previous year, and he keeps in better touch with former colleagues at Bookmen than I do. (I missed the midsummer reunion.)

The U of M Press had set up several of their authors for morning signings, including Mary Casanova and the ageless Brenda Langton. This meant that there was soon a steady stream of eager booksellers passing the Nodin booth, and many of them sampled Norton’s crabapples and took a free blank journal from the box as they waited in line for signed copies of Frozen or Brenda’s new Spoon River cookbook. Due to the expanded geographic range of the show, I found myself chatting with folks from towns in Indiana and Illinois that I’d never heard of. They would say, “It’s near such-and-so,” which I’d never heard of either.

Plenty of familiar folk also passed our way, of course. Among the more interesting conversations I had was with a woman from Raven Publications in Ely who was also a firefighter. “I missed the convention last year,” she said. “I was off fighting the Pagami fire.”

“I missed it, too,” I replied. “In fact, we were camping up on Brule when the fire broke out. We had no idea what that huge plume of smoke was, spreading across the western horizon…”

Joanne was not only a firefighter but also a registered nurse, responsible for dealing with injuries and respiratory issues that came up during firefighting operations.

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“Have you ever been genuinely scared?” I asked her.

“Not in recent years,” she replied. “More often I’ve been scared for friends who are closer to the front line, in places that could get dicey if the wind shifts.”

We talked about the return of vegetation to the area, she filled me in on the sad fate of the man who’d started the Ham Lake fire a few years ago, and I mentioned how excited geologists were after that fire had been brought under control to find quite a few newly exposed pieces of debris from the meteorite that created the Sudbury Basin (five hundred miles away) some 1.8 billion years ago.

Then I asked her: “Don’t you think it’s time they dropped the concept of  ‘unsullied wilderness’ and do more controlled burning in the BWCA?”

“Oh, they’ve been doing that for a while,” she replied. “But we no longer call it ‘controlled’ burning. We call it ‘prescribed’ burning.” We both laughed.

And thus, we finally brought our conversation around to the order of the day—the proper use of words.

At one point Linda Koutsy, the cheery designer at Coffee House Press, came over to say hi. Last spring we exchanged a flurry of emails, getting the files ready for Writes of Spring, an Nodin Press anthology for which Linda did the cover and layout. (She also contributed a story to the collection.) It was nice to do some chatting face-to-face.

I also enjoyed “catching up” with Annie Klessig, a very old friend who now works at St. Thomas. I told her about a book I was putting together for a local big-game hunter, and she replied: “I have the guy for you, if you and Hilary ever get a hankering to go to Africa. He’s from Uganda. He’s setting up a travel agency there…”

At some point in the conversation the co-owner of Howard Street Books shuffled by, in line to score a signed copy of Thirty Rooms to Hide In at the U of M booth next door. Annie took one look at her nametag and said, “Hey! I’m from Hibbing.”

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The woman took one look at her nametag and said, “Your father taught me everything I know about grammar.” (Annie’s father, who died after a bout with cancer last summer, taught English in Hibbing for many years.) A sweet conversation ensued.

On my occasional rambles out and about across the floor, I had the good fortune to run into Sybil Smith, still best known for her fishing guides, perhaps, though she’s also become an expert on ebooks. She told me she still had a few lakes on her list to fish this year, but was having trouble getting chores done around the house, and I ended up volunteering to help her get her window air conditioner put away. (Those things are heavy.)

“Oh, I couldn’t ask you to do that. The neighbor kid is going to come over…”

In the next aisle I ran into Tripp Ryder and got an update on the bike trail they’re building along the Cannon River from Cannon Falls though Northfield to Faribault. I also bent the ear of  the young fellow in the School Zone booth with tales of how we used to unload 28-foot trailers of his publications and bring them up the back elevator at Bookmen. Easy money—and very few returns!

“Well, we know our niche—grades one to three—and we keep to it,” he replied with an ingenuous smile.

I complimented him on the paper quality of his workbooks and slunk away to the Rain Taxi booth, where I was greeted by Robert Martin with “It’s nice to finally put a face to a name.”

“I’ve seen your name on a few emails myself,” I replied as we shook hands. I’ve written thirty-odd reviews for Rain Taxi in recent years—everything from French Gastronomy to Heidegger’s Confusions to A Literary History of Travel—but only rarely make contact with the staff. Robert hails from Oregon, came to Minnesota when his wife got a job here, and was astounded by all the things going on in the local literary scene.

I expressed a twinge of regret that the upcoming RainTaxi bookfest was leaving the lobby of the Minneapolis Technical College, with its urban vibe, sunny southern exposure, and bustling—if crowded—atmosphere, for the Siberian expanses of the state fairgrounds. But Robert did a good job of pointing out all the interesting things they were going to be able to do for the first time ever at the new venue. (Kelly Everding later added “better food options” to the list.)

At Fulcrum I chatted for a bit with publisher Sam Scinta, to whom I’d been introduced earlier in the day. Quite a few of his titles carry a Native American flavor, and when he told me he lived in Onalaska I couldn’t help bringing up the subject of burial mounds.

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“The ones on the bluffs in St. Paul are huge,” I said. “You can go past them all your life, and get pretty blasé about it, almost forgetting they date back a thousand years or more—and some of the artifacts that have been unearthed are exquisite.”

“Some of the mounds near Onalaska date back twelve thousand years,” he replied.

That seemed a bit doubtful to me–perhaps I misheard him. For some reason, I felt I couldn’t leave it at that, so I said, “Have you ever been to Poverty Point, Louisiana? It’s a good ways inland now, but it used to be right on the banks of the Mississippi. Six concentric half-circles with dwellings on top and a huge spirit-bird mound in the middle. It dates back nineteen thousand years.” (Totally impossible. Try 3,500 years ago.)

I was about to enter into a description of the fancifully decorated clay balls they’ve unearthed there…but it seemed we were getting off the track. After a brief exchange concerning Native American philosophers Vine DeLoria, Jr. and Charles Eastman, I plodded on.   

It was quiet at that end of the hall, and I spent some time chatting with the rep for Columbia University Press about the series of books they were putting out on the science of food and cooking. Even more interesting, to my mind, was the book he had on display about the history of re-forestation in the eastern US.

“Come back when I’m packing up and you can have it,” he offered.

Back in my own neighborhood, I finally (after several near misses) succeeded in corralling Kathy Borkowski, one of the festival’s dynamo organizers, at a moment of relative calm, and she pulled out her iPad to show me some pictures of her recent trips to Morocco. We’d looked at only three or four when she was called away on yet another errand, but I kept flipping the screens. Mosques, beaches, tiles and fabrics everywhere, camels, souks, tasty-looking food, blue skies—the photos were vivid and the appeal unmistakable, even without Kathy’s commentary.

At other idle moments during the afternoon Kate Thompson and I evaluated the design features of a few of the Wisconsin Historical Society Press’s recent publications, and she gave me a copy of Bark River Chronicles, a book she’d edited during the summer that she thought I might enjoy. We also spent a minute or two pondering the “tension zone” that arches across central Wisconsin, and wrangled with the issue, apropos her press’s recent book on Wisconsin breweries and taverns, of why that state has so many of both.

It was approaching 3 pm, the energy on the floor was on the wane, when Kate and her colleague Kristin began pulling boxes of their brewing book, Bottoms Up, from under the table. The caterers appeared as if by magic, stacks of genuine glass glasses rose to precipitous heights, and the beer began to flow.

The line for the book was long; the line for the Leinenkugel was short. I got in the second line. Once again, lively conversation filled our corner of the hall.

As the hour of 4 approached, Norton asked me to make an announcement about the cake he was serving to celebrate the 45th anniversary of Nodin Press. Not wanting to flub the address, I passed that duty on to the woman who’d been doing the announcing throughout the afternoon. To tell you the truth, I couldn’t understand a word she said. The turnout was meager—well, maybe cake isn’t as exciting as beer at that time of day—so I went back down to the other end of the hall and repeated the announcement. I was on the verge of following that up with a Bing Crosby impersonation (it might have been the beer) but at the last minute I held back.

Soon enough, well-wishers were stopping by the Nodin Press booth, and it wasn’t long before Norton had broken into the second cake.

This post was written by John Toren and originally published on Macaroni.

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