Despite ongoing economic woes and talk of a double-dip recession, children’s books were a bright spot for many retailers this summer. At Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kans., less than two miles from a closing Borders, unit sales of children’s passed those of adult books in the spring and combined sales were up 20% this summer, according to founder and president Vivien Jennings. Kids books are also doing well at Books on Broadway in Williston, N.D., where all sales are way up due to an oil boom and resulting population explosion. “We’re in an economic bubble,” says owner Chuck Wilder. “While the rest of the country is teetering, we’re booming. We’ve got a younger population here now. I’ve noticed a huge increase in sales of board books and cloth books.”
Independent booksellers in many areas picked up sales from closing stores. At Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord, N.H., which is located near a Borders that will soon reopen as a Books-A-Million, sales were down in the first half of 2011 but turned around last month. “Our August by itself put us decisively up for the year,” says owner Michael Herrmann. “It just shows us what we could have been doing without a chain store a half mile away. We took this as an opportunity to re-examine everything and to make our case to everybody in our area that they should give us a shot.” He added more magazines, for which Borders was known, and new sections, including Graphic Novels.
Park Road Books in Charlotte, which no longer has to compete with a Borders or a Joseph-Beth in its backyard, experienced up sales of at least 20% this summer. “The past couple years have taught us to look at things differently,” says co-owner Sally Brewster, who does nearly 40% of her business in children’s. “Everyone on staff knows how much we need to keep the doors open, and everything beyond that is gravy. I just decided we were beating ourselves up [focusing on numbers] and not concentrating on what we can be doing. Now we have reality-based expectations.”
Not all stores with large children’s sections were so lucky. Some newer stores like five-year-old Red Fox Books in Glen Falls, N.Y., couldn’t get the sales increases needed to keep the business going and closed in August. Older indies also ran into trouble. Thirty-six-year-old Atlantic Books, headquartered in Conshohocken, Pa., closed eight of its 12 stores, mostly in high-rent resort communities. It will continue to operate four year-round bookstores: in South Jersey, two in Delaware, and one in suburban Philadelphia. “The major problem is there’s not enough margin to run these small chains anymore and pay the overhead,” says co-owner Mark Simon.
Even without the advantages of oil or reduced competition, some bookstores fared well. At Once Upon a Time Bookstore, a children’s specialty store in Montrose, Calif., sales are up 6% over last summer. “The trend had been going that way all year,” says owner Maureen Palacios. “I was a better buyer, and it paid off. I bought less and displayed more. Being able to face out more titles increased sales, because kids really look at the covers.” Among the standouts this summer were John Stephens’s The Emerald Atlas (Knopf) and Frans Vischer’s Fuddles (Aladdin).
Three year-old children’s bookstore Mockingbird Books in Seattle also reported increased sales, up more than 15%. Owner Alyson Stage attributed the shift to a rainy summer, an expanding customer base, and changes in buying, multiple copies of titles instead of ones. Over the summer she did particularly well with Stephanie Barden’s debut novel, Cinderella Smith(HarperCollins), illus. by Diane Goode, and Mem Fox and Judy Horacek’s Where Is the Green Sheep? (Harcourt).
Children’s books sold better than adult titles at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., which budgeted for a relatively flat year. “We have a mini trend over the summer, where sales are nudging their way up,” says children’s book buyer and co-owner Carol Stoltz. On the children’s side, sales were even better, up in the double digits. The Hunger Games series has been selling consistently at Porter Square, and the Harry Potter movie pushed up sales of the J.K. Rowling series.
Luan Stauss, owner of Laurel Bookstore in Oakland, Calif., attributes a 22% increase this summer to several big orders from her local school district. Big orders and students attending Johns Hopkins’s Center for Talented Youth (dubbed “Nerd Camp” by the New Yorker) also helped move sales in the right direction in July for children’s bookstore Hooray for Books! in Alexandria, Va. “Overall we’re close to 8% up YTD over 2010,” says co-owner Ellen Klein. Although Hooray for Books! didn’t see its sales rise as much as other stores near a closing competitor, in its case Books-A-Million, “it did make us take a look at our adult books to see if we could be a one-stop shop,” says Klein. She’s even employing some of the same tactics she uses with kids to get recommendations on what to buy by asking parents to read ARCs and write a review on a 3x5 card.
Kids' books are “huge” at the 13-store Books Inc., headquartered in San Francisco, says co-owner Michael Tucker. In fact they’re so strong that the indie doubled the space devoted to children’s at its Laurel Village store and increased it by a third at its Compass Books store in terminal 3 at the San Francisco International Airport. Overall sales for Books Inc. are up 7% over last summer, in part due to the demise of Borders. “People are still looking for bookstores,” says Tucker.
Summer sales have been on a par with last summer in many tourist spots. “Business held up very well,” says Ray Nurmi, owner of Snowbound Books in Marquette, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Like many bookstores Snowbound continues to do well with Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy. Not only are they still selling to kids, but schools have begun ordering sets for classrooms. “It’s edgy, but I think it will do well,” he says.
Ellen Davis, owner of Dragonwings Bookstore in Waupaca, Wis., saw sales dip 25% in July, because of a drop in tourism. August, however, picked up and was even with 2010. “It came as a surprise,” says Davis, because 2009 and 2010 were “very good years” with sales up 10 to 15%. The store also had to contend with a drop in teacher and librarian purchases at the start of the summer because of job uncertainty when the state slashed school and library budgets. “Now they know,” Davis says, “and the purchase orders are starting to come in.”
In addition to The Hunger Games series, which continues to be Dragonwings’s top seller, Davis says that the store has done well with The Scorch Trials (Delacorte), the second book in James Dashner’s Maze Runner series, which has just come out in paperback. Catherine Fisher’s Relic Master series for Dial has also sold strongly. Davis attributes that to the fact that the volumes in the quarter were released in quick succession so that kids could read them one after the other and not outgrow the series. Lincoln Peirce’s Big Nate series (HarperCollins) is also taking off. “We’re getting more and more kids coming in and looking for them,” she says.
Big Nate was also a favorite at Square Books, Jr. in Oxford, Miss., according to buyer Jill Moore, and sales for John Grisham’s Theodore Boone books (Dutton) have been constant. “That’s just a given. Kids are loving it. In fact, adults really like the series, too. It’s not only adventurous but has really good morals,” she notes. On the picture book side, she’s been handselling lots of copies of regional favorite Monkey See Monkey Draw (Abrams) by New Orleans artist Alex Beard, and of Eric Litwin’s Pete the Cat (HarperCollins) with art by James Dean. With football season starting and “really big Saturdays” because of it, she’s encouraged about the fall. “We’re just keep our heads up and doing what we do best,” says Moore, “reading books and getting people hooked on them.”
Summer is always tough for Odyssey Books in South Hadley, Mass. When school is out for the year, many of the store’s regulars head for the Cape or other vacation destinations. This year children’s buyer Marika McCoola tried adding more events to get people in the store. On Wednesdays she held story time, and every Thursday she hosted Camp Workman, which involved a different project tied to a Workman title. She also set up a dedicated summer reading section, which included titles for all the area’s schools, with an additional shelf of the Odyssey’s favorite summer reading. Brian Castleforte’s Papertoy Monsters (Workman) sold especially well during heat waves and in the days leading up to Hurricane Irene. At Odyssey, and throughout New England, Northampton writer Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwicks series (Knopf) continues to sell briskly. In YA, the paperback of Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why (Razorbill) did well and was on several high school reading lists. Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens (Scholastic) was one of McCoola’s personal favorites.
The Blue Manatee Children’s Bookstore and Decafé in Cincinnati also had a tough summer. Assistant manager Andrea Pfeiffer described store sales as “down a bit, nothing drastic,” due to nearby construction. Like Odyssey it tried to counter summer doldrums with a robust events schedule, which included book signings and art classes. “We want people to come in and enjoy the store,” says Pfeiffer. Rick Riordan’s Red Pyramid series (Hyperion) continues to be one of the store’s hottest sellers. They also did well with Pete the Cat, Anna Dewdney’s Llama Llama Home with Mama (Viking) and Judy Schachner’s Skippyjon Jones, Class Action (Dutton).
As for the holidays, given the current economic uncertainty, many booksellers find it too hard to predict. “In these heady times, I don’t anticipate anything. How can anyone?” asks Sarah Pishko, owner of Prince Books in Norfolk. Similarly Joan Grenier, co-owner of 48-year-old Odyssey Books, says that she’s “hopeful.” But in her community, she adds, “There’s an economic uneasiness. Congress mucking around with the debt ceiling didn’t help.” Undaunted, Herrmann at Gibson’s predicts, “We think the independent bookstore is the model for the future. It’s going to be very, very interesting what happens this December.”