Children’s specialty stores and general stores with large children’s sections reported solid sales for picture books, middle grade, and young adult titles this holiday season, according to a recent phone survey by Children’s Bookshelf. “The holiday was great. Sales were up in every category,” says Joanna Parzakonis, co-owner of five-year-old Book Bug in Kalamazoo, Mich., a children’s specialty store that saw its sales rise 20% for the holidays and 70% year over year. She attributes the store’s big gains to more programming, a focus on outside sales, and the addition of adult titles to its inventory mix in 2011.

Other children’s stores were more than satisfied to have held on to increases from last year when Borders closed. “We didn’t have any spectacular days, but every day in December was a good day,” says Cathy Anderson, owner of the Briar Patch in Bangor, Me. She was pleased that sales were comparable with last year, given that the fourth quarter in 2011 was the store’s best in four years. Anderson had worried about a possible drop in sales in December because of media focus on the fiscal cliff and the opening of a new toy store nearby. She bolstered sales throughout the year with a 25% off promotion for a different category each month to celebrate the store’s 25th anniversary.

At HugoBooks, with four stores in Massachusetts – Andover Books in Andover, the Book Rack in Newburyport, the Spirit of ’76 Bookstore and Card Shop in Marblehead, and Spirit of ’76 (Squared) in Swampscott, which opened late last year on the site of a former Borders – children’s book sales were down but store sales were up overall at the three more mature stores; the Swampscott store is too new to compare. “We had lots of kids’ sidelines this year and probably took some sales away from books, but [sidelines] helped overall,” says co-owner John Hugo. Sales rose nearly 8% over the holidays, although children’s books as a category dropped 20%, even with the Book Rack recently opening a children’s room.

Some specialty stores that are over reliant on school sales were not as fortunate. Sales at A Children’s Place Bookstore in Portland, Ore., were down slightly from 2011, but down “a lot” for the year, according to manager Kara Porton. “We do so much business with the school district, and last year there were huge budget cuts. We lost a good chunk of business to that,” she says.

Weather was not a factor for most bookstores in the run-up to the holidays, despite destruction from Superstorm Sandy in the Northeast. “It has been a good year, even taking into account that we were closed for two weeks with the hurricane,” says Karen Rumage, co-owner of River Road Books in Fair Haven, Ct. At Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, which is split evenly between children’s books and adult titles, temperatures were mild much of the season, and in the 70s on Christmas Eve. “We have been very fortunate,” says owner Valerie Koehler, whose sales were up between 10 and 15% for the year.

However, other events made their presence known. The Newtown shootings, for example, reverberated at many bookstores last month. Several retailers across the country say the shootings cast a pall over the retail atmosphere for the week that followed, and traffic in their stores was a little slower, with booksellers speculating that customers were opting to stay home with their families.

What’s Selling?

Although Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Third Wheel continued to sell briskly through the holidays, it wasn’t the nearly universal number one bestseller for general bookstores and children’s bookstores that it was for Black Friday and Small Business Saturday weekend. If nothing replaced Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy, last year’s must-have title, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (Dutton) came close. “I still cannot keep it in stock,” says Emily Grossenbacher, children’s manager of Lemuria Bookstore in Jackson, Miss. R.J. Palacio’s Wonder (Knopf) was also frequently mentioned as a bestseller at bookstores large and small. But so were a number of picture books. All three categories helped booksellers make their numbers this year.

Although the Briar Patch expanded the space it devotes to YA, it did particularly well with picture book hardcover classics like the Curious George series, Goodnight Moon, and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel this holiday season. Local Maine authors are particularly strong, and, according to owner Anderson, Chris Van Dusen (If I Built a House, Dial) now surpasses Robert McCloskey in popularity at her store.

“We had a terrific year. Sales were better than we expected after a slow start to the fall. Even book fair sales exceeded last year by 15% plus,” says Jill Stefanovich, co-owner of bbgb tales for kids in Richmond, Va. “For picture books, I remember looking at our stock at the end of November and wondering, what will we do with all these books? And we sold them.” Her customers were looking for eerie and scary, like Aaron Arnold’s Creepy Carrots! (Simon & Schuster), illustrated by Peter Brown, and Jon Klassen’s This Is Not My Hat (Candlewick).

At the Book Bug, where picture books always “fly out the door” during the holidays, Philip C. Stead’s Bear Has a Story to Tell (Roaring Brook/Porter), illustrated by Erin Stead, did particularly well. It’s their first book together since they won the Caldecott for A Sick Day for Amos McGee and the authors are local to Michigan. Eric Litwin’s Pete the Cat Saves Christmas (HarperCollins), illustrated by James Dean, was popular at Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, and was mentioned by stores in the north as well as the south, where the Pete the Cat books first broke out. In terms of YA, owner Koehler says that they – like many – did well with Laini Taylor’s latest in the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, Days of Blood and Starlight (Little, Brown), and Ally Condie’s Matched trilogy (Dutton).

Classics like The Wizard of Oz and The Little Engine That Could were popular at Water Street Bookstore in Exeter, N.H., which revamped its children’s section for the fourth quarter, and put classics face out. The children’s area, which has a separate storefront, is about to undergo more change. According to children’s events coordinator Heather Robicheau, the store is phasing out the name for its children’s area, currently known as Time of Wonder.

“We specialize here. Each person has a handselling favorite,” says Robicheau, whose own pick was Gennifer Albin’s Crewel (FSG). Water Street also did well with middle-grade titles like Steve Cotler’s Cheesie Mack books (Random House), illustrated by Adam McCauley, and Jacqueline West’s The Books of Elsewhere series (Dial).

Lemuria tried splitting its middle grade books into two sections. Stand-alones like Wonder and Newbery Medal books are in one section; series like Harry Potter in the other. “We use [the latter] as a crossover to YA, and it’s where I put some of the younger YA, unless we read and handsell it,” says Grossenbacher. Standout YA at her store included Wonder, Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy series (Bloomsbury), and Barry Wolverton’s Neversink (HarperCollins/Walden Pond Press).

“Diary of a Wimpy Kid and all Rick Riordan series were by far our biggest sellers,” says Alise Hamilton, manager of Andover Bookstore and events and marketing coordinator for HugoBooks. “Aside from The Fault in Our Stars and The Perks of Being a Wallflower [by Stephen Chbosky, MTV Books], our bestselling YA and middle reader books are the ones we have as staff picks and handsell.” They include Wonder, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown), David Levithan’s Every Day (Knopf), and Julianna Baggott’s Pure (Grand Central).

Local books were strong at the Blue Manatee Children’s Bookstore and Decafé in Cincinnati, where holiday sales were “exceptionally good,” according to assistant manager Andrea Pfeiffer. Nadine Hufman and Marilyn Lebhar’s A Cincinnati Night Before Christmas (Orange Frazer) was a surprise seller. Other strong local titles included Judi Barrett’s Santa from Cincinnati (S&S/Atheneum), illustrated by Kevin Hawkes, and one published by the store’s press, Blue Manatee Books: Louise Borden’s Cincinnati: Our City, Our Story, with local artists Loren Long, Will Hillenbrand, and C.F. Payne collaborating on the art. All sales of the latter support a local charity for high-risk families.

Every year, there are a few difficult to find books. This year A Children’s Place’s Porton had two that were out-of-stock at the publisher: Wildwood, the first book in Colin Meloy’s Wildwood Chronicles (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray) and LEGO Ninjago: Character Encyclopedia (DK).

Many booksellers agree with the assessment of Blue Willow’s Koehler: “[2013] will be equally strong. I think we found what we do well, and I am just looking forward to a great year.” But others have concerns about the digital future. Briar Patch’s Anderson found that the first day of sales for Rick Riordan’s The Mark of Athena (Disney-Hyperion) weren’t as strong as in year’s past. “I think it’s kids downloading at midnight,” she says. She’s planning to be more cautious in her ordering. “I really don’t know what effect the e-readers will have,” Anderson says. “I’m cutting back and not taking as many chances.”

With reporting by Claire Kirch, Wendy Werris, and Paige Crutcher.