It wasn’t a single title so much as the end of the contentious presidential election that contributed to higher sales for many neighborhood bookstores at the start of the holiday selling season on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) and Small Business Saturday and Indies First day (both on the following Saturday). Participants in PW’s survey of independent booksellers from around the country said that readers still trying to absorb the election results visited their local bookstores to look for answers about what had happened or to get away from the never-ending news cycle.
After the election, a lot of customers expressed their commitment to “shopping their values,” said Sarah Hollenbeck, co-owner of Women & Children First in Chicago. Sales for November were up 50% over last year, with Black Friday sales up 52% and Small Business Saturday sales up 42%. “We’re very optimistic,” she noted. “So far we are standing in a very good position to have an amazing holiday season.”
“The election seemed to bring people out, some for retail therapy and some seeking political books to explain what is going on,” said Claire Benedict, owner of Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vt. “Based on a very strong [November], we are anticipating a great holiday season.”
Not everyone saw an immediate increase. At Bookshop Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz, Calif., sales dropped off for a couple of weeks following the election, after what owner Casey Coonerty Protti called a “blockbuster” year thanks to the store’s months-long 50th anniversary celebration. “The fact that people came back out and shopped [Thanksgiving weekend] and really paid attention to the local businesses was a nice surprise,” she said. Protti was pleased to have a 4% increase for the weekend over 2015.
At Fountain Bookstore in Richmond, Va., the election had a negative impact in late October and early November. Both sales and event attendance were “decimated,” said owner Kelly Justice. “The day after the election, we had a lot of traffic. We had a number of people come in and discuss their feelings on both sides.” Sales at her store were up 20% on Small Business Saturday over the same day a year ago.
A Likely Story Bookstore in Sykesville, Md., which is a nationally designated Main Street community, benefitted from the local merchants’ joint holiday promotions, which began on Small Business Saturday. Owner Debbie Scheller said that Thanksgiving weekend was the best in the store’s 10-year history and that the year overall has also been the store’s best ever. She is looking forward to continued sales increases, particularly on Friday, December 9, when the town celebrates Cookies on Main Street, with each store giving away a different cookie baked using a recipe from a cookbook recommended by Scheller: Rosie Daykin’s Butter Celebrates! Boswell’s Books in Shelburne Falls, Mass., in the foothills of the Berkshires, also got a big bump from a town-wide celebration, in its case a Moonlight Magic parade on Black Friday. Sales for that one day equaled four typical Saturdays worth of sales, bookstore owner Nancy Eisenstein said.
Some bookstores used giveaways to kick off the holidays. Minneapolis’s four-year-old Moon Palace Books, which has already seen sales go up since it doubled its size to 1,700 sq. ft. this summer, gave away copies of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists, which was based on her TED talk. “We got a great response. People were very emotional and grateful,” said Moon Palace co-owner Angela Schwesnedl. “It was expensive, but so worth it.” Sales for the weekend were up 30%–50% on Saturday over the previous year. “People are a little more committed to shopping local and to shopping that matters,” Schwesnedl added.
Hello Hello Books in Rockland, Maine, also tried to give customers something to shop about, donating part of its profits to the ACLU on Small Business Saturday. As a result, sales jumped 63% on Saturday over the previous year. Some customers even stopped by on Friday and asked the store to hold their books so that they could make their purchases on the following day to benefit the ACLU. Although 2015, which saw a 20% increase over 2014, was an especially strong year for the store, owner Lacy Simon said that she expects Hello Hello’s sales to grow 10% in 2016. Also on track for a banner year is 13-year-old Eagle Eye Book Shop in Decatur, Ga. “We are having the best year we ever had,” said owner Doug Robinson, who anticipates being up 25% for all of 2016. He attributed much of the growth to children’s books, especially business-to-business sales to schools, as well as sales of textbooks online.
“Right after the election, people bought tons of fiction,” said John Evans, co-owner of Diesel, a Bookstore, which has locations in Oakland, Larkspur, and Brentwood, Calif. “Everyone just wanted to escape. After a couple of days nonfiction started to pick up again. Hillbilly Elegy came out of nowhere this summer and is going really strong. It speaks to the lack of understanding historically of huge chunks of Americans’ experience in a very intelligent way.”
Evans was also one of several booksellers to single out Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark as a strong seller that is becoming hard to get. The book ran out briefly around Thanksgiving and is due back from publisher Haymarket Books this week.
There was no single book that booksellers cited as a must-have so far this year. Titles that drew the most mentions were Joshua Foer and Dylan Thuras’s Atlas Obscura (based on the eponymous website), Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, various Rick Riordan series, and J.K. Rowling’s screenplay for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
“There doesn’t seem to be one driven title,” said Todd Dickinson, owner of Aaron’s Books in Lititz, Pa. He was one of many booksellers to note that last season’s top seller, adult coloring books, has fallen off, with the exception at his store of novelty coloring titles such as Hannah Caner’s Mommy Drinks Because You Cry. Harper Perennial’s $10 Olive Editions, which Dickinson describes as halfway between a mass market and a trade paperback, are also doing well at his store. The series includes books such as Eleanor Roosevelt’s You Learn by Living and Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman.
“We really depend on our local titles to generate sales,” said Mary Emrich, owner of 15-year-old Turning Pages Books and More in Natchez, Miss. Among the store’s most popular titles are Sharon Nelson’s Devils Walking: Klan Murders Along the Mississippi in the 1960s, Michael Llewellyn’s The Goat Castle Murder about a murder in Natchez in the 1920s, and anything by Greg Iles.
At Liberty Bay Books in Poulsbo, Wash., it’s local first when it comes to bestsellers. Two of November’s big books were Craig Roman’s Urban Trails: Kitsap and his Day Hiking Olympic Peninsula, both published locally by Mountaineers Books.
On the kids’ side at Taylor Books in Charleston, W.Va., a locally published title from Quarrier Books, Marc Harshman and Cecy Rose’s Mountain Christmas, is the store’s leading holiday title. And in New England it’s Bernie Sanders’s Our Revolution, particularly at stores that held events, such as Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord, N.H., which hosted 1,300 people to see the former presidential contender.
Jan Weissmiller, co-owner of Prairie Lights in Iowa City, was surprised by how well the store has done with poetry this season. Mary Oliver’s Upstream is selling “super well,” she said, as are James Galvin’s Everything We Always Knew Was True and store co-owner Jane Mead’s World of Made and Unmade, which was longlisted for a National Book Award. Weissmiller said that people in her community are “regrouping” and don’t want to read any more books about the election. Instead, Prairie Lights is selling novels such as Zadie Smith’s Swing Time and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer and nonfiction such as Thomas Friedman’s Thank You for Being Late.
Fountain Bookstore’s Justice said that she has had a lot of requests from customers looking for comic relief. Since October she’s been “selling the daylights” out of Forrest Leo’s The Gentleman, which Justice said is “a rollicking, silly adventure story about a man who accidentally sells his wife to the devil.” For those seeking a different type of humor, Boswell’s has sold a lot of copies of Gary Trudeau’s Yuge! 30 Years of Doonesbury on Trump. It sold out so often that owner Eisenstein had to take it out of the window.
Still, as Gibson’s owner Michael Herrmann pointed out, it’s the days leading up to Christmas—and this year Hanukkah, too—that will determine how well stores do. “We had a great start,” he said. “But it’s always been true that the last 10 days make [or break] the holiday season.”