Although retail sales over the Thanksgiving weekend often receive a lot of attention, the fourth quarter as a whole continues to be vital for independent bookstores. Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., for example, does as much as 40% of its sales for the year during that three-month period, and Antigone Books in Tucson, Ariz., significantly more, closer to 60%. And not all of those sales come in December. At Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, which is evenly split between adult and kids’ titles, October is its biggest month, when it sponsors a Tweens Read Book Festival. A Children’s Place Bookstore in Portland, Ore., has its strongest sales on the days when it holds school fundraisers throughout November and early December.
Still, the Thanksgiving weekend remains the unofficial start to the holiday shopping season, and with Small Business Saturday (the Saturday after Thanksgiving) gaining more traction among consumers, most booksellers reported solid sales over the Thanksgiving weekend, according to PW’s annual holiday survey of two dozen bookstores.
Heidi Lange, owner of the 10-year-old Sandman Book Company in Punta Gorda, Fla., gave her all-volunteer staff the day off on Black Friday, but an expansion over the summer meant their sales on Small Business Saturday this year were more than twice what they were in 2014. In recent months the store has also drawn more kids and parents with Princess Storytime with professional storytellers and actors dressed as “real” Disney princesses, such as Cinderella and Belle.
At Battenkill Books in Cambridge, N.Y., owner Connie Brooks attributed a 30% rise over the weekend to its newly renovated children’s section, a year-long project that it was able to complete thanks to a James Patterson grant. Local children’s author Anne Hunter painted a mural for the space. The store also moved up an event with local author Will Moses (Fairy Tales for Little Folks, Viking) to Small Business Saturday-Indies First Day and gave out cookies and hot cider.
“Our core business is birthday party gifts, so we do have some pretty big Saturdays,” said John Derr, owner of Fairytales in Nashville, Tenn. But this year’s Small Business Saturday was the biggest since the bookstore opened in 2008. An uptick in tourism helped boost sales, but many came to show their support after the death of Derr’s wife, store founder Tammy Derr. “We had our biggest November on record,” he said. Sales were nearly double last year’s, and the store is up 25% for the year.
For Small Business Saturday, Children’s Book World in Haverford, Pa., featured Amy Ignatow, cartoonist and author of the Popularity Papers (Abrams) in the morning and capitalized on the adult coloring book craze by having costumed characters from The Day the Crayons Came Home (Philomel) greet children and invite them and their parents to join in coloring activities. “Our sales were consistent with last year’s,” said manager Heather Hebert. “The holidays never ‘make or break’ our store. Because our community involvement is so great, particularly with schools and libraries, we really are consistent in our earnings year round.”
It’s not just strong events and/or e-book fatigue – which several booksellers cited as a reason for higher sales – that have customers coming back to indies. It’s also having the right books – and in some cases, having the right markers and colored pencils. “[Adult] coloring books, in general, are doing amazingly well,” said Kate Randall, co-owner of Antigone, who has seen the full force of the coloring book craze. She’s been doing especially well with Enchanted Forest by Johanna Basford, whose Secret Garden helped launch the trend. While some stores classify these as children’s titles, there’s no doubt about the intended audience for one book that booksellers like Ally-Jane Grossan, events director for WORD Bookstores in Brooklyn and Jersey City, N.J., worry might run low: Harry Potter Coloring Book (Scholastic). Others are already finding another Harry Potter title hard to get, the new illustrated edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Scholastic/Levine), with illustrations by Jim Kay.
Beside coloring books, no single big national book has yet to emerge, although book 10 of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, Old School (Abrams/Amulet) is on many in-store bestseller lists, as are the first volume in Rick Riordan’s Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard series, The Sword of Summer (Disney-Hyperion), and both Crayons books from Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers. As Emily Crowe, manager of the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Mass., noted, “I don’t see any front-runners in terms of big books this holiday season.” At her store, The Story of Diva and Flea (Disney-Hyperion) by the local writer/illustrator team of Mo Willems and Tony Di Terlizzi is doing well along with Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson’s Last Stop on Market Street (Putnam) and Ali Benjamin’s The Thing About Jellyfish (Little, Brown). For most stores, sales for Dr. Seuss’s What Pet Should I Get? (Random House) peaked this summer.
Perhaps it’s only to be expected that local bookstores would do best with local books and books that the store has made their own. Michael DeSanto, owner of Phoenix Books with three stores in Vermont, said, “We have a local children’s book that’s gone crazy that was picked up by Hachette, [The SheepOver] (Sweet Pea & Friends) by John and Jennifer Churchman.” The authors are long-time customers, and DeSanto has sold cards designed by John Churchman. Petunia’s Place Bookstore kicked off the season with a Festival of Local Authors on Small Business Saturday, which included children’s authors Linda Lee Kane (Cowboy Jack and Buddy Save Christmas, Krullstone Publishing) and Jennifer Chow (Dragonfly Dreams, Booktrope Editions).
YA continues to sell, but not in the same quantities as in years past when John Green led the pack. At Minneapolis’s Magers & Quinn, Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On (St. Martin’s Griffin), Jesse Andrews’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Abrams), and Ransom Riggs’s Library of Souls (Quirk), the third book in his Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series, are all strong sellers. But as co-owner Mary Magers pointed out, “if the top sellers are an indication, it is middle grade and picture books that are outselling YA.”
Although many bookstores have ceded online sales to Amazon, a number continue to offer books and gifts over the Internet, and some see a lift at the holidays in gift cards and in-store pickup. San Francisco’s Green Apple Books has been experimenting with 99¢ shipping this year for items purchased online. According to co-owner Pete Mulvihill, online sales are usually six times higher in December than the rest of the year. Customers shop the store’s website for gift cards, Green Apple shirts, and fiction subscriptions. At Magers & Quinn, 23% of the store’s sales are online, according to co-owner Magers, who also sees an uptick online during the holidays.
Other indies, however, are not enthusiastic about online sales. Dragonfly owner Rattenborg described online sales at the store as “tepid.” Sandman, which began selling books online for four years before opening a physical store, continues to shift its balance from online to in-store sales. “We’re actually at the point where the store supports itself,” Lange said. Website sales have now dipped below 50% and fluctuate with Florida’s tourist season. They can be important during the slow months before the snowbirds arrive.
As for the holiday season as a whole, most stores are optimistic. “For us, I think December’s going to be good,” said Blue Willow owner Valerie Koehler. “Our numbers are going to come in well ahead of last year. People are coming in and shopping, and we’re wrapping a lot of gifts.”
With additional reporting by Anisse Gross, Claire Kirch, Tiffany Razzano, and Natasha Gilmore.