“We’re definitely up, busier than we’ve been, maybe ever,” says Krista Gilliam, manager of Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, Ga., about the 2011 holiday season. And she’s not alone. The closing of hundreds of Borders bookstores in September and a strong list of new children’s titles as well as perennial favorites, including Harry Potter, made this one of the best holiday seasons in recent memory for many bricks-and-mortar children’s specialty bookstores. That coupled with good weather and a boost from American Express’s Small Business Saturday that got many holiday shoppers thinking about shopping locally right after Thanksgiving combined for strong sales at many stores, according to an informal coast-to-coast survey by PW’s correspondents.

Like their general bookstore counterparts, many children’s specialty bookstores had sales that were way up. Little Shop topped most with an increase of 40% in November followed by 50% in December.

But just because December was up doesn’t mean that stores finished up for the year or that there aren’t many uncertainties ahead, including both economic and those caused by Nooks, Kindles, and iPads under Christmas trees and Hanukkah bushes. Some independents didn’t make it through 2011, including the Curious George store in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Mass. Others are looking for more synergistic arrangements, like Spellbound Children’s Books in Asheville, N.C., which will move into a space with ZaPow, a comics and illustration art gallery nearby (see story here).

At Hicklebee’s in San Jose, Calif., “sales were up significantly,” says manager Anne Seaton. “People really understand the importance of buying locally and how it impacts the whole community.” Like Little Shop, Hicklebee’s saw up sales starting at the beginning of November. “We were very happily surprised,” says Iris Yip, co-owner of Magic Tree Books in Oak Park, Il., whose sales rose 38.4% in December. “December was tremendous. It started out good and kept on going.”

Strong sales didn’t hold at all stores. Children’s Book Shop in Brookline, Mass., had trouble shaking off the doldrums that struck booksellers around the country during the first quarter of 2011. "It was just a tough year all around," says owner Terri Schmitz. "We didn’t have more customers. I think things just cost more, and they were spending more per capita. It’s been stressful."

June Hargrove, co-owner of Black Forest Books & Toys in Charlotte, N.C., hasn’t finished her final tally yet, but she anticipates that Christmas was down a little bit. Sales for the year were down, too , in part because the store closed for two weeks at the end of September to move to a new, slightly larger location. Unlike the Children’s Book Shop, Hargrove says that customers spent less per gift than last year.

And at Lake Forest Books in Lake Forest, Ill., which had flat holiday sales, owner Sue Boucher was the only bookseller in our survey to experience a softening in children’s overall. Not that she didn’t do well with the two Meloy books: Maile Meloy’s The Apothecary (Putnam) and Colin Meloy’s Wildwood (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray), illustrated by Carson Ellis.

How much of a negative effect Amazon’s price check app promotion early in the season had isn’t clear. As one bookseller pointed out, although a lot of customers said they were "disgusted" by it, no one said they would stop shopping at Amazon. Charles Robinson, manager and co-owner of Eagle Eye Book Shop in Decatur, Ga., on the other hand, used it as an opportunity to talk with customers about the importance of buying books locally. "I wrote out a pretty long e-mail to all our subscribers, and I got a really good response back from that," says Robinson. "The Atlanta Journal-Constitution actually picked it up and used it for an article. So I think that definitely helped us with awareness."

But Kindles and other e-readers are starting to have an impact. Hannah Schwartz, owner of Children’s Book World in Haverford, Pa., has seen a decrease in YA sales because kids in her neighborhood kids got Kindles and Nooks for the holidays. For her, middle-grade fiction and picture books like Michael Kaplan’s Betty Bunny Eats Chocolate Cake (Dial), illustrated by Stephane Jorisch, were hot. On the other hand the closing of two Borders stores within a three-mile radius contributed to a double-digit upturn for December and weekly calls asking her to open an adult store. She has no intention of doing that, but has added some adult titles, mostly IndieBound picks and PW bestsellers. "It makes sense," says Schwartz. "I’d rather they buy it here than online."

Old School Shopping

At Diesel, where sales were up 20% at the California chain’s flagship store in Brentwood, co-owner John Evans observed a return to “old school practices,” with customers commenting that they were going to buy everything local this year. On the publishing side, old school meant reps volunteering to work in the stores during Christmas, something that hasn’t happened in a long time. "The story that bookstores won’t survive, that story is over," he says. "Now bookstores have to figure out where they fit in the community."

"We had a huge year," says Charles Napoleon, general manager of Tatnuck in Westborough, Mass., which benefited from the closing of two nearby Borders stores. "You have to remember that last year everything was down. This year we had strong sales across the board in books, gifts, and toys." Over the past five years the store has shifted its inventory mix and now is 50/50 books and nonbook items. And with 35% of Tatnuck’s business coming from children’s, its number one children’s bestseller, the latest in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, Cabin Fever (Abrams/Amulet), led the way.

"It was absolutely amazing," says Sarah Goddin, general manager of Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh, N.C. "We’ve been down over the past year, but from December 1 through 24 we were up 19%. This was our best December since 2006. The trend has been [for sales to take off] later in the season. This year was the exact opposite. We were busy early and stayed busy the whole time." Four Borders stores closed nearby, and several hundred customers accepted Quail Ridge’s offer to turn in their membership cards and join their reader program. In addition to selling piles of Wimpy Kid 6, the Hunger Games trilogy (Scholastic), Shel Silverstein’s Every Thing On It (HarperCollins),and Rick Riordan’s The Son of Neptune (Disney-Hyperion), Quail Ridge had one surprise: John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (Dutton, Jan. 10). Advance sales for Green’s upcoming tour put it on the store’s bestsellers list.

Events definitely helped with a late December appearance by Gloria Houston pushing The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree (Puffin), illustrated by Barbara Cooney, onto Black Forest’s list. The store also did well with holiday titles in general like A Christmas Tree for Pyn (Philomel) by Olivier Dunrea and Mortimer’s Christmas Manager (S&S/McElderry) by Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman. “We always do big business with Trashy Town (Scholastic) by Andrew Griffing Zimmerman. We should order it by the pallet,” adds Hargrove.

Owner Alice Meyer credits events with helping to give five-year-old Beaverdale Books in Des Moines, Ia., its best holiday season ever. November was up 45%, December 30%, and Meyer expects the year to finish up 14% overall. Children’s contribute one quarter of sales. The Des Moines business district, where Beaverdale is located, held a shopping festival the first Saturday in December, which got sales moving. “It all adds up,” says Meyer, whose top three children’s titles were Sherri Duskey Rinker’s Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site (Chronicle), illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld; Eric Carle’s The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse (Philomel); and Jan Brett’s Home for Christmas (Putnam).

For Wild Rumpus in Minneapolis, Christmas sales came late, in the final two weeks, and then were "over the top," according to owner Colette Morgan. She suspects that with no snow, people were caught by surprise that Christmas was coming. "They bought everything, and now I am scrambling to restock," says the bookseller, who did especially well with Wimpy Kid as well as J. Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back (Candlewick), and both Brian Selznick books, Wonderstruck and The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Scholastic Press). She was also one of the few to have copies of the latter through the holidays. "It was touch and go, but it ended up being a go. We got everything just in time."

Many booksellers complained that they ran out of Hugo just when the movie came out and haven’t been able to get it back. In a statement Ellie Berger, president of Scholastic Trade, said, "Despite our aggressive forecasting in anticipation of the movie, consumer demand far exceeded all of our accounts’ estimates. Though it’s a complex book to reprint quickly, we expect to be back in stock as soon as the second week of January, with more books on the way shortly thereafter."

Like many booksellers, Carol Stoltz, children’s buyer and co-owner of Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., which had its best Christmas, also had trouble getting I Want My Hat Back and Hervé Tullet’s Press Here (Chronicle), which were in and out, as well as Hugo Cabret, which she called "the most disappointing." John Mendelson, senior v-p of sales and digital initiatives at Candlewick, credits booksellers with I Want My Hat Back’s strong sales throughout the fall. "Thanks to outstanding bookseller support..., demand went through the roof." he says. "To keep pace with the demand, we have ordered an additional 140,000 copies, expected to deliver in January and February."

At A Children’s Place in Portland, Ore., manager Kira Porton was disappointed with Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance (Knopf), book 4 in the Inheritance Cycle, for another reason: "We ordered the same large amount that we did of his last title," but sales were much smaller than last time. She attributes this to customers going to Amazon or downloading it on e-readers. Overall the store, which has an active business with teachers, was up 4% for the year.

That some bestsellers are local was evidenced by regional twists in many stores’ lists. At Wild Rumpus it was University of Minnesota Press’s Twelve Owls by Laura Erickson and Betsy Bowen. Morgan was also surprised by sales for a graphic Bible with Lego illustrations, The Brick Bible (Skyhorse), as told and illustrated by Brendan Powell Smith, with no local connection. "We always have books from local authors. That’s the kind of thing people expect to find here, unique things," says Maureen Corcoran, owner of Breakwater Books in Guilford, Ct. Home for Christmas (Putnam) by New England author Jan Brett sold particularly well there, too. At Square Books in Oxford, Miss., Eric Litwin’s Pete the Cat picture book series, illustrated by Georgia artist James Dean, beat out Wimpy Kid. And at Hicklebee’s one of the bestselling picture books was Inga Moore’s A House in the Woods (Candlewick), which the staff selected as its book of the year "because it perfectly illustrates friendship, cooperation, and teamwork."

Ten-year-old The Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore benefitted from media attention due to its impending sale, which took place on December 31. "It was just a phenomenal Christmas. We were up maybe 15 or 20% above last year," says former owner Darielle Linehan. “Physically I don’t think we could have done any more business." She attributes the increase to the publicity the store has also garnered as the last general bookstore in the city. Among the store’s top sellers were the new Jan Brett and Rick Riordan along with The Guinness Book of World Records for boys, and The Hunger Games for girls. "Last Christmas was the iPad Christmas," says Linehan. "This Christmas we’re starting to carve out our niche and see where independents fit."

For many stores, that fit is defined by becoming an increasingly important part of the community, with the closing of so many chain bookstores and other retailers.