Indie bookselling is back,” Vivien Jennings, owner of Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kans., proclaimed after a strong holiday season, with sales for 2015 up 11% over 2014. She’s not alone. “We had tremendous support from the community,” said Chris Curry, owner of the nine-year-old Novel Experience in Zebulon, Ga., which was up 20% for December, 10% for the year. “People would walk in and say they were going to buy all their presents here, because they wanted to support community businesses.”
The shop-local movement, good weather, and a strengthening economy boosted sales at a number of stores across the country. For the sixth year in a row, BookPeople in Austin had its best year, up 7.5% over 2014. It also recorded its best single sales day, December 23, and its best month, December, according to CEO Steve Bercu. Ann Nye, owner of Excelsior Bay Books in the Minneapolis suburb of Excelsior, hasn’t finished tallying her figures, but she anticipates that 2015 will be the store’s best; it turns 20 in the spring. Women & Children First in Chicago marked its highest sales day since the store’s founding in 1979. Overall, sales were up 20% from last year. Co-owner Sarah Hollenbeck attributed that partly to social media. The store added 3,000 new “likes” on Facebook and created Twitter and Instagram accounts.
Other booksellers, including Jonah Zimiles, owner of Words bookstore in Maplewood, N.J., were pleased to consolidate “explosive growth” in 2014, up 25%. “We have increased sales, usually substantially, in each of our seven years of operation,” he said. At Skylight Books in Los Angeles, which had its best holiday season ever in 2014, sales dipped slightly during the 2015 holiday season, but were up 4.6% for the year. “We’re really pleased with that,” general manager Mary Williams said.
Strong sales throughout the year led a number of stores, including 270-year-old Moravian Book Shop and Gift Gallery in Bethlehem, Pa., to expand last fall. Moravian added a second store in downtown Allentown, Pa., which did “very well as the newbie in town,” book department manager Janelle Lockett said. Though he described the holiday season at Village Books in Bellingham, Wash., as “bustling,” general manager Paul Hanson said that a second store in Lynden “performed as expected, but not as hoped,” because other businesses in the building were under construction. “The amount of publicity and goodwill that [opening a second store] generated can’t be measured,” he added.
New branches of established stores will also open this quarter, including South Florida’s Books & Books, which will add a store in Key West this month. Copperfield’s Books in Sebastopol, Calif., will open an eighth store in late February or early March in downtown Novato, while Third Place Books, with two stores in the Seattle area, will open a third in Seward Park in late March or early April.
Coloring and Beyond
Although there was no single must-have book this season, adult coloring books—led by Johannna Basford (Enchanted Forest, Secret Garden, and Lost Ocean) and The Mindfulness Coloring Book—arguably filled the role. “Adult coloring books were off-the-charts huge for us,” Kate Schlademan, owner of Learned Owl Bookshop in Hudson, Ohio, said.
In children’s books, many of the holiday 2015 bestsellers were by authors who were also at the top of the charts in the 2014 holiday season. Several of the more than 25 stores PW surveyed reported strong sales for the 10th Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Old School), Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers’s crayons books, B.J. Novak’s The Book with No Pictures, and titles from Rick Riordan and John Green.
“Out of our top 10 for the year, only two were published in 2015,” Claire Benedict, owner of Bear Pond books in Montpelier, Vt., said. “None of the novels that publishers thought would do well broke out in a big way.” Two of her bestsellers were the same in 2014: All the Light We Cannot See and The Boys in the Boat, the latter of which has a young readers’ edition that also appeared on many children’s bestsellers lists. One new thing that worked well at Bear Pond was Bernie Sanders paraphernalia.
Elaine Petrocelli, owner of Book Passage in Corte Madera, Calif., argued that there were a lot of newly published bestsellers, just no single standout. At her store, some books tied to in-store author events sold 1,000 copies or more, including Isabel Allende’s The Japanese Lover, Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road, and Patti Smith’s M Train. Sales of cookbooks, many featured in in-store events, were also strong.
Some booksellers were especially successful selling a variety of books. “Basically, an ‘it’ book may help drive [customers] to the bookstore, but also might make it easier to skip us altogether, as that ‘it’ book will be available online,” Matt Norcross, co-owner of McLean & Eakin in Petoskey, Mich., said. His customers snapped up Station 11, Nightingale, and Circling the Sun. At Changing Hands in Tempe and Phoenix, the lack of a single must-have meant that some books that had slowed, such as H Is for Hawk, came roaring back, while newer releases such as Cabin Porn and Rap Yearbook garnered strong sales. “We think that it was helpful to be able to appeal to a wider spectrum of interests,” said Kris Kliendienst, co-owner of Left Bank Books in St. Louis. At her store, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me topped the bestsellers list. Suzanna Hermans, owner of Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck and Millerton, N.Y., noted, “People weren’t coming in to buy just one book. They came in to buy several. This is a wonderful trend, and I hope to see it continue.” Among the books her customers sought out were Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend and Lars Muytting’s Norwegian Wood.
If shopping locally came into its own this holiday season, so did selling local books. With the lack of a big national hit, Laura Hill, co-owner of Reading Rock Books in Dickson, Tenn., said, “Regional titles stepped in and took the place.” At her store that meant retired Vanderbilt professor Susan Ford Wiltshire’s The Long View: Essays, Poems, Stories, published by the store’s year-old publishing arm Cordelia Hollis Publishing. Book Passage also had success with a store-published book: Dragon Mist, its children’s top seller, was written by the Ink group, consisting of writers ages eight to 14.
But books that were bestsellers at some stores were lost opportunities for others. While the illustrated edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone outsold all other books at Lift Bridge Book Shop in Brockport, N.Y., some stores in other parts of the country said the book did not do as well, because they couldn’t keep the book in stock. Skylight had trouble getting Notorious RBG and What Kind of Creatures Are We?, while Southern Bound in Biloxi, Miss., is still waiting for The Walking Dead: The Pop-Up Book. “It’s an expensive book, and it’s been back ordered a long time,” owner Shereen Kostmayer said. Baltimore’s Ivy Bookshop ran out of H Is for Hawk midway through the season.
Though many booksellers are upbeat about the business, they recognize that there are challenges ahead. “Amazon continues to be a huge presence in Seattle and globally,” said Janis Segress, co-owner of Queen Anne Book Company in Seattle. “I continue to be confident that independent booksellers provide something Amazon can’t, even at its first bricks-and-mortar location.”
Others are not so sanguine. “There’s no question we have a big tiger in our room,” said Book Passage’s Petrocelli, about Amazon opening a bookstore. Gayle Shanks, co-owner of Changing Hands, worries that shopping online is too easy. “One-click shopping with extraordinary discounts are hard to pass up for many stressed-out buyers, and I think these buyers are our customers sometimes,” she said. And then there’s the impact of increases in minimum wage. “While I’m in favor of L.A.’s move to a $15 minimum wage,” Skylight’s Williams said, “I can’t pretend that it won’t be a challenge to accommodate a jump in our payroll.”
Still, most agree with Herman’s assessment. “I look forward to 2016,” she said. “I anticipate it will continue to be a great time to be a bookseller.”