Despite statistics from the National Retail Federation that shopper spending on Thanksgiving weekend was down from last year to $57.4 billion, business was more than brisk at a number of independent bookstores. Overall NRF is expecting holiday sales to rise 3.9% to $602 billion. At least to start, a number of indies more than beat that percentage increase last weekend, without opening on Thanksgiving Day or offering door busters. In an informal survey of new and established stores across the country, PW found that many are building on large sales jumps in the past two years.
Both Brilliant Books, which opened in Traverse City, Mich., in October 2011, and 17-year-old Skylight Books in Los Angeles reported their best days ever on Small Business Saturday, which also marked the launch of Indies First, with authors handselling favorite titles at hundreds of stores. “The weekend was fantastic, the best we’ve ever had,” said Skylight manager Mary Williams. “We were up 50% over last year.” Her store, unlike many stores PW contacted, also participated in the American Booksellers Association’s Thanks for Shopping Indie discount program. “Ordinarily we can’t discount books like that. But the support from the publishers helps and the program is valuable,” Williams added. At Brilliant, according to store owner Peter Makin, sales for the weekend were up 67.5% over 2012. Overall sales are up year-over-year between 20% and 30%.
At 30-year-old Learned Owl Books in Hudson, Ohio, new owner Kate Schlademan said that sales for the year have been flat but spiked Thanksgiving weekend. She, too, participated in Thanks for Shopping Indie and is discounting a selection of books 20% throughout the month. She is optimistic that the holiday season will be a good one, since the community has embraced the shop local message. “We actually had a very good Black Friday, and an even better Small Business Saturday,” said Jo Ann Bartholomew, manager of Other Tiger in Westerly, R.I. “I’m confident our season will be good, if the past few days are any indication."
“It’s a good time of year,” said Valerie Koehler, owner of Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, Tex. “People are coming in, but it’s not a crunch.” Her store, which is events-driven, is expecting a big sales boost this coming weekend when it hosts Ree Drummond, The Pioneer Woman. Like several stores, she anticipates being up, but not as much as last year. “Last year we had a phenomenal event with a huge institutional buy,” says Koehler.
Eagle Eye Bookshop in Decatur, Ga., worked hard to raise sales on Small Business Saturday/Indies First. “We had four authors and two of them I told if this book writing thing doesn’t work out, I’d hire them,” said general manager Doug Robinson, who was especially impressed with the handselling talents of children’s author Carmen Deedy (Return of the Library Dragon) and Joshilyn Jackson (Someone Else’s Love Story). He and his son, co-owner Charles Robinson, also set up a “Wheel of Deals.” Customers got to spin the wheel for an added discount of up to 25%. The store also offered to register customers’s American Express cards for them to make sure that they received $10 off their AmEx bill for shopping small on Saturday. Robinson senior attributed the increase in year-to-date sales, up 17%, to better management, along with an event with Neil Gaiman for The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which sold 1,300 books.
Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, Mass., went all out on Small Business Saturday with a banner and other signage, as did its town, which offered free parking along the city’s main street for the day. Although assistant manager Peter Win says that he’s seen Small Business Saturday build over the past few years with customers coming in and shopping with multiple American Express cards, Indies First still has a ways to go for customer recognition. “I know there was a lot of publicity in the publishing world,” he said, “but I don’t know how many people outside of it knew about it.” That didn’t stop people from shopping, and he characterized the weekend as “quite busy.” In nonfiction Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Bully Pulpit was strong as was Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land. Both Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowlands and Donna Tart’s Goldfinch in hardcover were popular.
So far this season no big book has emerged as the holiday title to have, although many stores are doing particularly well with Bully Pulpit and the Gaiman continues to sell. On the children’s side, Wimpy Kid, John Green and the Divergent series are still strong. So far only one book has been out-of-stock, including over Thanksgiving weekend, Diane Muldrow’s Everything I Know I Learned from a Little Golden Book. Some potential big titles haven’t been published or are just out. For Michael Herrmann, owner of Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord, N.H., that’s Ben Bradlee Jr.’s book on Ted Williams, The Kid, which pubbed today. His other top adult sellers include Bill Bryson’s One Summer and Andre Dubus III’s Dirty Love.
At Wisconsin’s oldest bookstore, Janke Book Store in Wausau, founded in 1874, local books continue to be top sellers. Michael Perry handsold books for three hours on Indies First/Small Business Saturday and as a consequence Janke sold dozens of his newest book, From the Big Top, along with backlist. Wausau Beautiful, an architectural guide, published by Marathon County (Wisc.) Historical Society was also strong, along with Hunger Games. A local coffee table book published by the Los Feliz Improvement Association was also one of Skylight’s top sellers, Los Feliz and the Silent Film Era. Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, based on her blog, was also strong, along with Dave Eggers’s The Circle.
On the children’s side Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Ariz., one of the few stores to report down sales for Black Friday weekend, sold series books “like crazy,” according to co-owner Gayle Shanks, including Wimpy Kid and Dork Diaries. In adult titles, Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath, Ron Burgundy’s Let Me Off at the Top, and Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project were strong. She was heartened that customers didn’t seem to be factoring in cost. “[They] were just interested in hearing about titles we think are good,” says Shanks. “This bodes well for the future.” That certainly is true at The Blue Willow, where the $50 Smithsonians’s History of the U.S. in 101 Objects by Richard Kurin has been a strong seller.
At Brilliant, the movie helped push sales of The Book Thief, but books by local Michigan authors were also strong. Jim Harrison’s Brown Dog and Michigan illustrator Glenn Wollf’s A Child’s Christmas in New England, by Robert Sullivan, along with William Olsen and Jack Ridl’s Poetry in Michigan/Michigan in Poetry did well. And at Other Tiger, local has meant continued sales for a summer title that has already sold hundreds of copies, Beatrize Williams’s A Hundred Summers, which launched at the bookstore.
But even though the mood was upbeat at most stores over Black Friday weekend and even though this year’s shopping season is more compact than in previous years, as Gibson’s Herrmann points out, “It’s still too early. It’s the last ten days that tell the tale, no matter how strong the start.” Still, he couldn't resist adding his own prediction: “It’s going to be a great year.”