Neither torrential rains in Southern California nor snows in the Midwest kept shoppers away from bookstores this holiday season, especially during the all-important final week. Malaprop's Bookstore/Cafe in Asheville, N.C., saw a steady increase in sales for the entire month of December, but "the last week was giant," says general manager Linda Barrett-Knopp. "Every day was the equivalent of three or four days during the year. It was great."
Sales at Malaprop's—up at least 8% for the holidays; 4% for the year—and a number of other independents contacted by PW fit the profile of MasterCard Advisors' SpendingPulse summary of the 2010 holiday shopping season. Based on a 50-day period from November 5 through December 24, it found season-over-season growth of 5.5%, excluding autos. "If last year's holiday story was about gaining some stability, this year's is about getting back to growth," says Michael McNamara, v-p of research and analysis for SpendingPulse. Sales at Lemuria, the Jackson, Miss., indie, in general were not back to prerecession numbers for the year, but with a holiday boost from signed copies of John Grisham's The Confession and Curtis Wilkie's Fall of the House of Zeus on Mississippi politics, general manager Kelly Pickerill says, "I don't believe we're falling anymore."
For booksellers like John Evans, owner of Diesel Books in both Oakland and Brentwood, Calif., an early Hanukkah proved a boon. "People started shopping earlier this year, particularly at Brentwood, where customers were buying for Christmas before Thanksgiving," says Evans, who also found that customers were much more upbeat than in recent years. "Some referred to Diesel as a sanctuary and a relief from the atmosphere of the chain stores. There was a joyfulness that I haven't noticed in a while." Margot Sage-EL, owner of Watchung Booksellers, a suburban bookstore in Montclair, N.J., also had strong sales throughout December. "It was good to have Hanukkah early. It helps us know what's hot."
At City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, head buyer Paul Yamazaki saw a 9.5% increase for the 30 days leading to Christmas. "The importance of shopping locally and having the curatorial experience was much more prominent this year," he says. "People appreciate the indies like never before." And appreciate local books, too. Two of the store's top three adult titles were Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas and Jim Nisbet's novel Windward Passage, set partly in San Francisco.
Although the two gets of the season—The Autobiography of Mark Twain and Cleopatra—even topped the bestsellers list at children's specialty store Eight Cousins in Falmouth, Mass., a book by local author Salley Mavor outsold both. The bookstore blew through more than 400 copies of Mavor's nursery rhyme collection Pocketful of Posies, illustrated with pictures of embroidered fabric, according to owner Carol Chittenden. At the Learned Owl in Hudson, Ohio, which finished the year slightly up thanks to what owner Liz Murphy describes as a "fabulous" holiday season, the two books that sold best were both by Cleveland Plain Dealer columnists: Things I've Learned from Watching the Browns by Terry Pluto and God Never Blinks by Regina Brett. The latter sold over 650 copies, more than a third between Thanksgiving and Christmas. At Village Books in Bellingham, Wash., two of the three holiday bestsellers were self-published: Signature Tastes of Bellingham by Steven Siler and Dreams of Gold, on the history of the Mt. Baker Mining District, by Michael Impero.
That's not to say that national books weren't moving. "We sold a heck of a lot of books," says Jim Di Miero, v-p of New Jersey-based wholesaler Bookazine. "Did we sell as many as last year? Probably not. The bottom line is customers were happy we had the titles they were looking for." Among the wholesaler's biggest movers were Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken, George W. Bush's Decision Points, Patti Smith's Just Kids, Keith Richard's Life, and Jennifer Homan's history of ballet, Apollo's Angels.
"It was definitely a biography holiday," says Lanora Hurley, owner of Next Chapter Books in the Milwaukee suburb of Mequon, whose one and a half year–old store saw steady sales in December. A nearby Borders ended up sending customers to Next Chapter for Twain and Cleopatra; it was one of the few stores with plenty of inventory of both. Even so, both holiday and yearly sales were down slightly due to construction and a fire at the Starbucks across the street.
Fiction, which lagged behind nonfiction for much of the year, picked up steam during the holidays. Jonathan Franzen's late August release, Freedom, got a second wind, as did Adam Haslett's Union Atlantic, which didn't take off when it was released in March. People started asking for it during the holiday season, says Hanley, who ended up restocking the novel. At Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis, the biggest new fiction title was Steve Martin's Object of Beauty, a fact echoed by a number of booksellers. True Grit, which manager Jay Peterson describes as "perfect for our crowd," began catching on before the movie release, so much so that it's in the store's top 10 for the year. Many stores reported continuing to sell Stieg Larsson's Millennium series and Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone. At Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore, the new National Book Award winner Lord of Misrule finished well; author Jaimy Gordon grew up there.
On the children's side, one more indication that news of the demise of picture books was premature played out in children's sections and specialty stores around the country. At Children's Book World in Los Angeles, picture books outsold YA. "There was no must-have YA book for us this year like we had a year ago with Hunger Games," says bookseller Cherry O'Meara. One of her big picture books was president Obama's Of Thee I Sing. At Maria's Bookshop in Durango, Colo., perennial favorites like Chris Van Allsburg's The Polar Express and the more than 70-year-old Story of Ferdinand were especially strong.
In contrast, at Elm Street Books in New Canaan, Conn., which had a "great" holiday season, according to manager Kathleen Millard, "YA did very nicely," including Mockingjay, the final volume in the Hunger Games trilogy. Other strong sellers in YA included Ally Condie's Matched and Gordon Korman's Pop. Middle-grade fiction was also hot, particularly Rick Riordan's Heroes of Olympus series and Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, according to general manager Doug Robinson at Eagle Eye Book Shop in Atlanta.
Watchung's Sage-EL commented on a phenomenon that several other booksellers reported—children's books peaked early, because parents did most of their shopping ahead of time. She theorizes that children's book sales later in the season came from aunts and uncles. They tended to stick with the books that they grew up with, like John Knowles's A Separate Peace and Kurt Vonnegut for teen readers and Mercer Mayer for the very young.
Although many stores haven't run their 2010 numbers yet, most like Sage-EL say that they're doing "pretty well." For some that has meant not only cutting expenses but increasing sidelines. Misty Valley Books in Chester, Vt., is selling more oriental rugs. "You sell one rug, and you've sold 20 books," says co-owner Lynne Reed. "They're pretty, and we put them down on the floor, and it makes it seem like our home and not a retail establishment." The store is also expanding its language classes, adding Spanish in January and more French in addition to a Russian course during the summer. At Village Books, in Bellingham, sidelines were up, while book sales were down a little, largely because of the three Bs: Book Seats, Bananagrams, and Buckyballs.
Google eBooks came too late to help independents this year. Early adopter Village Books sold only a handful. "We'd like to hold on to our customers. It would be foolish to think that they won't buy e-books if they can't get them from us," says co-owner Chuck Robinson. For Sage-EL, the impact of e-books is still the great unknown. Last year when her customers got Kindles, sales dropped in January and February, then rebounded in March.
"We're very optimistic [for 2011], especially with the new Google partnership," says Ivy owner Darielle Linehan. "We think it will be a big boost. This has been an interesting year. Things are moving so quickly in the industry. You just have to hang in there and come up with the confidence you'll keep things moving."
Indie Bestsellers, Hardcover Fiction (Week ending Dec. 26, 2010)
1. Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris, illus. by Ian Falconer, Little Brown.
2. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, FSG.
3. The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Putnam/Amy Einhorn Books
Indie Bestsellers, Hardcover Nonfiction (Week ending Dec. 26, 2010)
1. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, Random House.
2. The Autobiography of Mark Twain by Mark Twain, Univ. of California Press.
3. Life by Keith Richards, Little, Brown.
Indie Bestsellers, Trade Paperback Fiction (Week ending Dec. 26, 2010)
1. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, Vintage.
2. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, Vintage.
3. The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, Harper.
Indie Bestsellers, Trade Paperback Nonfiction (Week ending Dec. 26, 2010)
1. Just Kids by Patti Smith, Ecco.
2. Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz, Scribner.
3. Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, Penguin.
Indie Bestsellers, Mass Market (Week ending Dec. 26, 2010)
1. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, Vintage.
2. The Lost Symbolby Dan Brown, Anchor.
3. The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson, Vintage.
Indie Bestsellers, Children's Interest (Week ending Dec. 26, 2010)
1. The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan, Hyperion.
2. The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan, Hyperion.
3. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, Knopf.