Clearly, 2011 will not be considerered a stellar year for a wide swath of bookselling: Borders is in the midst of closing its remaining stores; Books-A-Million has had two disappointing quarters, and Barnes & Noble’s growth is coming primarily from e-books and the Nook, while print, as everywhere, declines. Newer independents have had trouble gaining traction, like five-year-old Red Fox Books in Glen Falls, N.Y., which closed last month. Some older indies have 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: one 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,” said Atlantic co-owner Mark Simon.

Still, it’s not all bad for booksellers The closing of Borders outlets, ironically, has provided a boost for independent bookstores located near them. On average, sales for surviving indies rose 20%. At Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord, N.H., which is near a Borders that will soon reopen as a Books-A-Million, sales were down in the first half of 2011 but are turning around. “Our August by itself put us decisively up for the year,” said 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, N.C., which no longer has to compete with a Borders or a Joseph-Beth in its backyard, also experienced a sales gain, up at least 20% this summer. “The past couple of years have taught us to look at things differently,” said co-owner Sally Brewster. “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.” For Chuck Wilder, owner of Books on Broadway in Williston, N.D., the state’s oil boom pushed up sales “significantly”—into the double digits. Wilder said he doesn’t even think about making his numbers; he’s too busy.

Even without the advantages of an oil economy or reduced competition, some bookstores fared well this summer. At Once Upon a Time Bookstore, a children’s bookstore in Montrose, Calif., sales were up 6% over last summer. “The trend had been going that way all year,” said 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.” 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 her decision to order multiple copies of titles instead of ones.

Children’s books in general tended to be a bright spot. Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., budgeted for a relatively flat year. “We had a mini-trend over the summer, where sales nudged their way up,” said children’s book buyer and co-owner Carol Stoltz. For children’s specifically, sales were even better, up in the double digits. The Hunger Games series has been selling consistently there, and the Harry Potter movie pushed up the J.K. Rowling series.

Luan Stauss, owner of Laurel Bookstore in Oakland, Calif., attributed a 22% increase this summer to several big orders from her local school district. Kids books are also “huge” at the 13-store Books Inc., headquartered in San Francisco, reported 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 Borders’s closing. “People are still looking for bookstores,” said Tucker.

Rainy Day Books in Fairway Kansas, less than two miles from a Borders, expects to be up 12% over last year for its fiscal year ending September 30; 20% for the summer, according to founder and president Vivien Jennings. The store continues to rely on big events to attract customers—and sell books. Attendees at events have to buy a book, so Julie Garwood’s first appearance in 10 years, to promote The Ideal Man (Dutton), sold more than 250 copies; Jim Butcher’s for Ghost Story (Roc) moved more than 650. But Rainy Day has changed up some things over the past few months. It now has more face-outs for nonfiction and displays with shorter stacks of books, three instead of six. No tinkering was necessary for children’s books, which surpassed adult books in unit sales in the spring, said Jennings.

Summer sales have been on par with last summer in many tourist spots. “Business held up very well,” said Ray Nurmi, owner of Snowbound Books in Marquette, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. His customers came in asking for books with local flavor, like Steve Hamilton’s mystery Misery Bay (St. Martin’s), which is set in the Upper Peninsula. And he presold two dozen copies of Joseph Heywood’s Force of Blood (Lyons), a mystery also set there. Like all booksellers PW contacted, Nurmi did well with Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, which got a boost from the movie and continues to sell in print despite selling more than a million Kindle editions.

Local was the theme at Baker Books in Dartmouth, Mass., on Buzzards Bay. “Summers tend to be good for us. We do pretty well with summer reading for the schools, and we sell a lot of bestsellers,” said manager/buyer Mimi Powell. This year several local authors were in-store bestsellers: Basketball Junkie (St. Martin’s), a memoir by Chris Herren, who grew up in Fall River, and Bill Reynolds; Game of Secrets (Random House), set in New England, by Dawn Tripp; and The Last Fling: Hurricane Carol 1954, also set locally and self-published by John Cummings Jr.

Local is also part of this summer’s equation at 11-year-old Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine. “We’ve had an amazing year for local stuff,” said co-owner Stuart Gerson, who cites titles like Crash Barry’s self-published Sex, Drugs and Blueberries (Maine Misadventures); The Foremost Good Fortune (Knopf), a memoir by Susan Conley; and the YA paranormal Fury (Simon Pulse), written under the pseudonym Elizabeth Miles. J. Courtney Sullivan’s Maine (Knopf), which is not by a local author, also keeps on selling, said Gerson.

As for the coming holiday season, it’s still anyone’s guess, particularly with the threat of a double-dip recession. “In these heady times, I don’t anticipate anything. How can anyone?” asked Sarah Pishko, owner of Prince Books in Norfolk, Va. Similarly, Joan Grenier, co-owner of 48-year-old Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Mass. said that she’s “hopeful.” But in her community, she added, “there’s an economic uneasiness. Congress mucking around with the debt ceiling didn’t help.” Undaunted, Herrmann at Gibson’s stated: “We think the independent bookstore is the model for the future. It’s going to be very, very interesting what happens this December.”

What's Borders?

What was hot in hardcover at Borders the week before Labor Day? Not many current bestsellers. The most recent title to hit high on the fiction list was David Baldacci’s One Summer, which was released in June. Most fiction bestsellers that were part of the going-out-of business sales were released last fall or earlier. Of the top 20 bestsellers only One Summer was published within the last five months.

It was similar in nonfiction, where almost all the top sellers were at least six months old. The only title published this year that landed in the top 10 hardcovers in the week was David McCullough’s Greater Journey, which was released in May.

Borders Hardcover Bestsellers, Fiction

Title Author Pub Date Publisher
Cross Fire James Patterson Nov. 2010 Little, Brown
One Summer David Baldacci June Grand Central
Dead or Alive Tom Clancy Dec. 2010 Putnam
Christmas Sweater Glenn Beck Nov. 2008 Threshold
Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk David Sedaris Sept. 2010 Little, Brown
Left Neglected Lisa Genova Jan. Gallery
Halo Cryptum Book One Forerunner Saga Greg Bear Jan. Tor
In the Company of Others Jan Karon Oct. 2010 Viking
Midnight and the Meaning of Love Sister Souljah April Atria
Getting to Happy Terry McMillan Sept. 2010 Viking

Borders Hardcover Bestsellers, Nonfiction

Title Author Pub Date Publisher
Decision Points George Bush Nov. 2010 Crown
The Secret: Rhonda Byrne Aug. 2010 S&S The Power
Greater Journey David McCullough May S&S
A Course in Weight Loss Marianne Williamson Nov. 2010 Hay House
Pinheads and Patriots Bill O’Reilly Sept. 2010 Morrow
America by Heart Sarah Palin Nov. 2010 Harper
Broke Glenn Beck Oct. 2010 Threshold
Guinness World Records 2011 Craig Glenday Sept. 2010 Guinness
Obama’s Wars Bob Woodward Sept. 2010 S&S
Straight Talk, No Chaser Steve Harvey Dec. 2010 Amistad