PW’s annual post-Christmas survey of two dozen bookstores across the country didn’t turn up any blockbusters on a level with last year’s Hunger Games trilogy; instead, shoppers gravitated to a mix of children’s books. Those included series titles like Hard Luck (Abrams), book #8 in Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, and Allegiant (HarperCollins/Tegen), the final volume in Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy. For the younger set, Drew Daywalt’s debut picture book, The Day the Crayons Quit (Philomel), illustrated by Oliver Jeffers, reigned at a number of stores, so much so that at the Bookbug in Kalamazoo, Mich., co-owner Derek Molitor proclaimed Jeffers the “champion of the holiday season for children’s books.”
Children’s was a bright spot at a number of general bookstores, including Greetings and Readings in Hunt Valley, Md., just outside Baltimore. Co-owner Steven Baum said that the one category that hasn’t been hit hard by e-books and showrooming is children’s. Kids’ books of all ages continued to sell well at his store over the holidays and contributed to his sense that the 2013 holiday season and the year overall were “excellent.” Looking ahead, Baum, who has not been given to optimism over the past few years, said that for the first time since the recession hit and the rise of e-books, he was in fact hopeful about the year ahead: “We’re going into 2014 optimistic.
At Strand Book Store in New York City, which was up 10% over 2012 for the last 10 days of the holiday selling season, the Saturday before Christmas beat the store’s previous single-day record by 12%. Strand general manager Eddie Sutton told PW that “Christmas Eve was 25% stronger than any other Christmas Eve on record.” The additional hour the store stayed open didn’t account for the strength of the day or the overall holiday mood, which he described as “terrific.” In addition to the Divergent trilogy, his customers gravitated toward John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (Dutton) for the second year in a row, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince (Harcourt), and Miroslav Sasek’s This Is New York (Universe).
The shop local movement played a key role at a number of stores, starting with the inaugural Indies First initiative on Small Business Saturday, during which authors handsold their favorites at indie bookstores. “Customers were intentionally supporting local business,” said Sarah Bagby, owner of Watermark Books in Wichita, Kans. “[People] were buying in stacks for everyone on their lists, rather than coming in for a specific book for one person.” The store also saw a 24% increase in gift cards.
Sam Droke-Dickinson, co-owner of eight-year-old Aaron’s Books in Lititz, Pa., which had its best holiday season ever, benefitted from a similar phenomenon. “Instead of buying two books,” she said, “they bought five or seven.” The store, which is named after her son, does especially well with children’s titles like the Indestructible series for very young children (Workman). Popular holiday picture books included Nick Bruel’s A Bad Kitty Christmas (Roaring Brook/Porter), James Dean and Eric Litwin’s Pete the Cat Saves Christmas (HarperCollins), and Jan Brett’s picture books, including her newest one, Cinders (Putnam). In YA, local author A.S. King’s Reality Boy (Little, Brown) performed well.
Not every bookseller was able to make up for the compressed selling season coupled with a sluggish economy or to capture the attention of shoppers drawn to the ease of purchasing online. According to comScore, desktop spending through the final weekend before Christmas was up 10% over 2012 and the holiday shopping season had 10 billion-dollar spending days, led by Cyber Monday for the fourth consecutive year. Amazon reported that it sold enough copies of the books in the Divergent series to wrap around Chicago’s Pier Park Ferris Wheel 263 times. In December, Bank Street Books in New York City announced that it will downsize significantly as a result of increasing rent and a years-long slide in sales. Right after Christmas Mrs. Nelson’s Toy and Book Shop in La Verne, Calif., began its going out of business sale.
Overall sales at the three Toadstool Bookshops in N.H., were down 4%, according to owner Willard Williams. “YA took a hit without the Hunger Games trilogy,” he said, estimating that 50% of the unit drop was due to the lack of those sales. He worried about further declines in YA from the encroachment of e-books. Besides Wimpy Kid, Divergent, and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief (Knopf), a holiday standout at many stores because of the movie, Toadstool did well with Loren Long’s An Otis Christmas (Philomel). A local favorite, Grandmother’s Guest by Robin Schoen (Hobby Horse) – a picture book based on the legend of a ghostly appearance in Wilton, N.H. – also did well.
Local titles were strong throughout the country. At The Bookworm in Omaha, Neb., where children’s books account for a third of sales, local author Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park and Fangirl (both St. Martin’s Griffin) were especially strong. So was Carol Bicak’s The Littlest Lion (Omaha World-Herald Co.), about the lions born last year in Omaha’s zoo, which according to children’s book manager Ellen Scott sold 600 copies. The store hosted three signings with the author and the book’s three photographers. A self-published local zoo book also took off at Octavia Books in New Orleans: What the Sleepy Animals Do at the Audubon Zoo by Grace Millsaps and Ryan Murphy, illus. by John Clark IV and Alyson Kilday.
At A Room of One’s Own in Madison, Wis., owner Sandra Torkildson said that sales were up 15% during the holiday season and were up for the year as well. Shopping the store became a political decision, not so much because customers wanted to support independents, but because of a proposed boycott by some opposed to Torkildson’s involvement with a local committee evaluating proposals for the development of Judge Doyle Square. Strong sellers included The Fault in Our Stars, Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back (Candlewick), and the first two books in the Wildwood Chronicles series by Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray).
For Bookbug’s Molitor, Journey by Aaron Becker (Candlewick) was a surprise hit. “Usually wordless picture books are hard to sell,” he said. “But this one reminded people of Harold and the Purple Crayon.” Overall sales were “brisk,” up between 9 and 10% over last year, which was up 15%. He sold Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart (Delacorte) and Susan Cooper’s Ghost Hawk (S&S/McElderry) particularly well. “[That] was easy to do,” said Molitor, “as we’d seen them at Heartland and loved them both.”
At Eso Won Books, Los Angeles’s African-American bookstore, the children’s section helped boost holiday sales, which were up 20%. Children’s accounted for 20% of total sales. The store’s top-selling children’s book was Kadir Nelson’s Nelson Mandela (HarperCollins/Tegen). Co-owner James Fugate said that for the holidays he bought children’s books in bigger quantities than ones and twos, which contributed to strong sales. He plans to make the decision to carry more children’s stock a permanent one.
Linda Devlin, owner of 14-year-old children’s specialty store Linda’s Story Time in Monroe, Conn., sold “a lot of the usual stuff” throughout the season, some for the second year in a row like R.J. Palacio’s Wonder (Knopf), Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave (Putnam), Divergent, and Rick Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus series (Disney-Hyperion). Since Monroe is right next to Newtown, her store did especially well with Patricia MacLachlan’s Snowflakes Fall, illus. by Steven Kellogg (Random House). She also sold stacks of Diane E. Moldrow’s Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Little Golden Book (Random House) to parents. The Elf on the Shelf (CCA), a holiday standard, didn’t do quite as well this year as last. Although her sales have been steadily up for the year, Devlin worries about e-books. “More kids are getting [Nooks and Kindles],” she explained, “not just teens but middle graders, too. If you’re buying 20% less books from me, I won’t be there.”
More worrisome than Kindles under the Christmas tree or Hanukkah bush were hard-to-get books, including some of the most popular. Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinska’s Maps (Candlewick/Big Picture) ran out at some stores as early as November and has been out since just before the holidays at Amazon. Like many bookstores, Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., was chasing The Day the Crayons Quit, according to general manager Dale Szczeblowski, who also had trouble keeping Hervé Tullet’s Press Here (Chronicle) in stock. Susan Hinkle, owner of Page After Page Bookstore in Elizabeth City, N.C., couldn’t get Cece Meng’s Bedtime Is Canceled by Amélie Neyret (Clarion).
Overall, for most booksellers 2013 was a good year. As Lissa Muscatine, co-owner of Politics and Prose Books in Washington, D.C., noted in an e-mail, “Shoppers seemed in a good mood and were very outwardly supportive of the store.” Plus her store got one very important shopper to kick off the holiday season, President Obama on Small Business Saturday. “As the commercial says,” she wrote, “ ‘priceless.’ ”