From Feb. 11 through Valentine’s Day, a mix of 900 independent booksellers, publishing professionals, and authors will gather in Cincinnati for workshops, presentations, tours of independent bookstores, and a chance to connect with like-minded book people from across the country.
It’s a “third time’s a charm” situation for Cincinnati, after the Queen City was slated to host in both 2020 and 2021, but had to cancel due to the onset of Covid on the first occasion, and a surge in the virus the next year.
“We are looking forward to hosting literary enthusiasts from far and wide for the American Booksellers conference,” says Julie Calvert, president and CEO of Visit Cincy. “Our city has a rich literary history, and this conference will help showcase that.”
Visit Cincy estimates this bookish group will share the love with an estimated direct spend in the greater Cincinnati area of $1.6 million.
Indie bookstores are booming in Greater Cincinnati
Richard Hunt, president of AdventureKEEN publishing house and independent bookstore owner of the Roebling Bookstores
in Northern Kentucky, says the timing for the event finally coming to Cincinnati is nothing short of poetic. “Living in Cincinnati for 25 years now, I can say without reservation that right now, 2024, is the zenith of vibrant and vital indie bookstores in our area,” he says. “It’s an astounding moment for spectacular independent bookstores here in town. It reminds me of seeing the great book congregations in Berkeley, Boston, New York City, and Chicago back in the '80s, when I was over the moon to walk into 350 bookstores during the course of one year.”
Downbound Books, Northside
Part of Cincinnati’s Winter Institute will include a bus tour of the area’s many independent bookstores, from classic standards like Ohio Book Store
on Main Street downtown, to newcomers on the scene, including Downbound Books
in Northside. Touring the host city’s bookstores is always a highlight of the conference for attendees.
Booksellers connect in a new city each year
Hunt attended his first Winter Institute in Louisville in 2008. “Since then, I’ve probably been to half a dozen conferences, and like children, I’m not allowed to say if there’s been a favorite. That’s not a dodge — it’s always so refreshing to reconnect, so stimulating to hear the speakers, greet all publishers in attendance, and most of all, listen to the booksellers share their stories of struggle and success,” he says.
Shifting to a different venue each year allows attendees to explore unique shops all across the country, returning home with inspiration and fresh ideas they can implement in their indie bookstores. It’s an incredibly collegial and friendly community, equal parts passionate and respectful.
“Independent bookstores feel like they’re representing their local communities, so it’s like a pep rally/lovefest, but, as book people tend to be quieter and largely introverted, sometimes there’s just a lot of smiling, nodding, and shuffling around. But it’s all heartfelt,” Hunt says.
And despite their reserved natures, you’re not likely to meet any more staunch protectors of the rights of their community members. “Woe to anyone who’d suggest we’re not fierce in our support of our customers, the freedom of speech, authors everywhere — they’ll be buried under an avalanche of heavy hardcover volumes, quietly and respectfully, of course,” Hunt says.
The majority of the Winter Institute’s events will take place at the Duke Energy Convention Center, where topics covered will include hot-button issues like the current conservative movement toward book banning and the usage of artificial intelligence.
Which authors will attend the convention?
If you’re a book lover, you might be wondering if any of your favorite authors will be in town, especially as a few of them also own their own independent bookstores. In particular, that small crowd includes Louise Erdrich, author of 28 books, including "Love Medicine," and more recently, "The Night Watchman," and "The Round House." Her bookstore, Birchbark
, in Minneapolis, sells a carefully curated collection of titles, as well as Native art and jewelry.
Or maybe you’re a devotee of Ann Patchett, whose latest novel, "Tom Lake," is a beautifully rendered love letter to the special (if complicated) relationships between mothers, daughters, and sisters, and the influence of the past on our present. All Ann’s books on sale at her bookstore, Parnassus
, in Nashville, are signed!
Other authors who own bookstores include Judy Blume (Books & Books
in Key West), Emma Straub (Books Are Magic
in Brooklyn) and Alex George (Skylark Bookshop
in Columbia, Mo.).
Which, if any, of these, might be in attendance, is a mystery. And it's part of the draw to attendees — you never know who you might meet at the Winter Institute. One of Hunt's best memories of a past Winter Institute included a dinner held in Ann Patchett’s honor. The restaurant where the dinner was hosted was celebrating Garlic Week, so everything on the menu included garlic, from appetizers through to the dessert. “I always wondered if the booksellers we met later in the evening smelled our group as a storm of garlic fumes coming in,” he laughs.
Booksellers are a big family who support each other through tough times
At this year’s Winter Institute, one evening event will raise money for the Book Industry Charitable Foundation
(Binc). The nonprofit supports independent booksellers who might need a loan to recover from trauma or tragedy, whether mental health, physical injury, housing, or weather-related damage. The evening at Second Story in Covington is being co-hosted by Hunt’s publishing company, AdventureKEEN, PGW, Consortium, Two Rivers and Ingram Academic.
It's a lovely illustration of the warm support that characterizes the tight-knit community of indie booksellers across the country — truly united in their love of books.
“Without hyperbole, I do believe that indie bookstores serve as sanctuaries of civility and culture in society today. As indies aren't cookie-cutter chain stores, you get to see the uniqueness of the staff picks and quirky design. Maybe this is where the big family element really shines — when someone is welcomed through the front door, it should always be ‘Come on in, make yourself comfortable and let us find something here that we hope you’d like to read,’” Hunt says.