Despite the difficult economic climate, children’s booksellers nationwide expressed cautious confidence in the upcoming holiday sales season in our pre-Christmas survey, though they were less certain about the prospects for early 2009. And several felt that children’s books, as a category, might fare better than adult.

That theory might be easiest to test at Square Books, Jr. in Oxford, Miss., which is separate from the main Square Books store. “I think that people are going to continue to spend money here when they might not across the street,” said children’s buyer Jilleen Moore. “This season, what we’re trying to do as buyers is limit buying to really special titles.”

Several booksellers said that parents, eager to support their kids’ reading habits, are more likely to invest in their children before spending money on themselves. “The love of reading, the educational component, that’s not optional—that’s always going to be a necessity,” said Mark Bradshaw, lead bookseller at Watermark Books in Wichita, Kan. Will Peters, book buyer at Annie Bloom’s Books in Portland, Ore., agreed, though he also thought consumers were waiting to see “how the economy is going to play out” before spending big. “Obviously everybody’s being cautious now,” he said. “I wouldn’t expect it to be a great Christmas, sales-wise.”

“I think this Christmas will be not quite as strong but still strong, with signs of weakness in the winter,” agreed Dara La Porte, manager of the children’s and teen department at Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C, adding, “I don’t think we’re going to have a weak, weak Christmas and all go home crying.” Josie Leavitt, co-owner of the Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, Vt., had a similarly hopeful outlook. “I’m trying not to be doom and gloom about it, because every time I think business is off and the numbers are off, we are actually doing well, especially compared to last year when we had a Harry Potter,” she said. “I’m actually pretty psyched.”

While a number of retailers said that it was still a bit early for holiday sales, a few were already seeing shoppers tackling their gift lists. At Inkwood Books in Tampa Bay, Fla., children’s buyer Laura Emden was starting to see Christmas sales beginning in late October, which she said is unusual. “We don’t usually get them this early. I’ve had a couple of people say they are buying books for Christmas presents because they’re not spending a lot of money this year. Books are a happy medium.”

Several survey respondents cited community support as key to a good holiday season. “In our location, people are very supportive of independents,” said Leavitt at Flying Pig. “The folks who shop here for Christmas are always going to buy books. They may be buying fewer books, but they’ll still be buying.” Diane Capriola, co-owner of Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, Ga., said the situation is much the same in her store’s neighborhood, adding, “In the community we live in, people are more likely to buy their children a quality hardcover book than a toy that gets played with on Christmas and then forgotten about.”

Booksellers nationwide are using a variety of methods to attract shoppers in a tough economy. At Politics and Prose, La Porte said the store’s October sales were buoyed by a packed events schedule. “We have just been overwhelmed with events,” she said, listing visits from Robert F. Kennedy Jr., David Macaulay, Adam Rex, Jon Scieszka, Mem Fox and Helen Oxenbury, among many others. “It’s really carried us along. This October is going to turn out to be better than last October, because of these events.”

In terms of holiday traffic, Politics and Prose uses in-store book fairs for schools and a sale for members in early December, to increase sales. At Little Shop of Stories, Capriola stocks the cash wrap area with impulse buys including “gifty” books and sidelines such as finger puppets and book-related plush—quick stocking stuffers that “bring up the price of a sale.”

At Titcomb’s Bookshop in East Sandwich, Mass., manager Vicky Uminowicz said she is making sure the store has price-friendly items in stock. She was among several booksellers who pointed to attractive price points as being crucial this season. J.K. Rowling’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard ($12.99), Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Do-It-Yourself Book ($10.95) and The 39 Clues books ($12.99 each; the second title, Gordan Korman’s One False Note, arrives December 2) were widely expected to be strong holiday sellers.

What other books might be this season’s big winners? Among Christmas-themed titles, booksellers mentioned Amazing Peace by Maya Angelou; Hurry! Hurry! Have You Heard? by Laura Melmed, illustrated by Jane Dyer; and John Grogan’s A Very Marley Christmas, as well as the Christmas book cited most often, Loren Long’s Drummer Boy.

Among non-holiday titles, Diane Mangan, director of children’s merchandising for Borders, cited four picture books that she expects to stay strong through the rest of the year—Big Words for Little People by Jamie Lee Curtis, illustrated by Laura Cornell; Laura Numeroff’s If You Give a Cat a Cupcake, illustrated by Felicia Bond; It’s Time to Sleep, My Love by Eric Metaxas, illustrated by Nancy Tillman; and My Little Girl, by Tim McGraw and Tom Douglas, illustrated by Julia Denos. “Those four picture books are all really strong for us,” she said.

Borders will also offer a proprietary picture book, Chaucer’s First Winter by Stephen Krensky and illustrated by Henry Cole, which Simon & Schuster published exclusively for the chain. The book will be part of its annual holiday bear purchase promotion, along with an ornament and a plush bear from Ty. “That’s our biggest picture book buy of the year,” said Mangan.

Mangan also noted that How to Talk to Girls by Alec Greven and Burning Up: On Tour with the Jonas Brothers should do well during the holidays, as well as movie-driven properties. “With the Twilight, Marleyand Me and Tale of Despereaux movies coming out, I expect Christmas, particularly in the kids’ area, to be strong,” she said.

Perennial holiday favorites also were expected to perform. “We tend to be more of a classic Christmas picture book shop,” said Capriola at Little Shop of Stories, adding that the store does well with The Polar Express, Twas the Night Before Christmas and Holly Hobbie’s Toot and Puddle Christmas books. Capriola said her staff also handsells “new classics—books we think every kid should read and have in their library,” such as Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwicks novels.

At Watermark in Wichita, Bradshaw said gift books and hardcover collectables make easy “one-stop” gifts. Last year, he highlighted Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking, illustrated by Lauren Child, and he plans to feature Child’s Clarice Bean boxed set this season. “This is the one time of the year I really like boxed sets,” he said.

As for early 2009 sales, overall, booksellers were less confident. “For next year I’m being cautious,” said Uminowicz at Titcomb’s. “We’re going to work really hard to make sure we hold our own. We’re watching our inventory and trying to have what our customers want.” At The Flying Pig, Leavitt said that the early winter months are often slow, adding, “January and February in Vermont can be somewhat bleak.” She noted that the arrival of credit card statements can be “a real wakeup call” and that many consumers try to start the New Year on a budget. “By February, they realize that is not going to work.”

Emden at Inkwood hoped that books might be seen as an affordable form of entertainment during tight times. “I think books are an inexpensive and easy recreation,” she said. “Instead of going out to movies every week, it seems like if you don’t have a lot of money, books last longer for entertainment.” While Peters at Annie Bloom’s agreed that children’s books might be a “recession-proof” commodity, he was willing to take that idea only so far. “We’ll see if they’re depression-proof—that may be another story.”