“We don’t know what it means for the long term. But we’re riding high on Hanukkah,” says Deborah Johnson, book buyer at 27-year-old Barstons Child’s Play, which has five book and toy stores (four in the Washington, D.C., area, and one in Baltimore). The holiday started the evening before Thanksgiving, fueling “Thanksgivukkah” hype and perhaps goosing sales. “We’ve been going on steadily in November, but the week of Thanksgiving, I feel like it’s December 24. We always have a lot of business in November, but it just was great.” New children’s bookstores like year-old Addendum Books in St. Paul, Minn., also had a strong start to the holiday selling season, with a doubling of sales over the previous year, according to co-owner Katherine Warde. “We participated in Indies First and had 26 authors at the store, and two authors who participated long distance [by signing nameplates], for a total of 28. It was an incredible day, and we would absolutely do it again,” she said.

Sales were also up for Leslie Hawkins, owner of Spellbound Children’s Bookshop in Asheville, N.C., who moved the store for the third time in nine years in October. She saw an increase of more than 26% on Small Business Saturday. Between October 25, when the store re-opened in its new space, and December 1, sales have been up just over 20%. “I’m not confident that holiday sales will be record-setting,” she said, “though I do expect [them] to be up from last year’s, just enough to make me completely breathe easy through the winter.”

At G. Wilikers Toyshop in Portsmouth, N.H., co-owner Jody Breneman said that the store’s Plaid Friday had generated higher sales than Small Business Saturday, even though her town offered free parking on Saturday. She and her co-workers donned plaid pajamas, put on soft music, and opened the doors at 6:30 a.m. Although there were no door busters, just local coffee and pastries, mothers who were up early with young children appreciated having a chance to have a place to go early in the morning. “We had a lot of parents comment, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to do this monthly?’ ” said Breneman. “We’re considering.” Her store holds a big pre-holiday sale in October and discounts books and toys 20%. On Plaid Friday it launched a 10% storewide sale that goes through Christmas Eve for purchases of $50 and up.

Both Brilliant Books, which opened in Traverse City, Mich., in October 2011, and 17-year-old Skylight Books in Los Angeles reported their best days ever on Small Business Saturday, which also marked the launch of Indies First, with authors handselling favorite titles at hundreds of stores. “The weekend was fantastic, the best we’ve ever had,” said Skylight manager Mary Williams. “We were up 50% over last year.” Her store, unlike many stores PW contacted, also participated in the American Booksellers Association’s Thanks for Shopping Indie discount program. “Ordinarily we can’t discount books like that. But the support from the publishers helps and the program is valuable,” Williams added. At Brilliant, Black Friday sales topped last year’s Christmas Eve, and Saturday exceeded that by 18%, according to store owner Peter Makin. His sales for the weekend were up, he said, 67.5% over 2012. Overall sales are up year-over-year between 20 and 30%.

Hicklebee’s in San Jose, Calif., has had a good year to date. “Sales are up 7%,” says manager Anne Seaton. “I’m not worried about how Christmas will go, because of the stellar November we had.” To get those sales Hicklebee’s made several changes over the summer, including expanding its adult section and making it more browsable in the wake of a nearby Barnes & Noble closing. The store also expanded its YA offerings and redesigned other sections with Common Core in mind. Staff painted the interior with different colors for alcoves holding different sections. “This has made it easier to direct customers to certain books and sections,” Seaton said.

What’s Selling?

So far this season no book has emerged as the must-have holiday title, but general bookstores and children’s specialty stores alike are doing well with the latest Wimpy Kid installment. “Of course it’s number one,” says Johnson at Barstons. “But it’s selling differently this year.” Typically the store sees a huge jump when a new Wimpy Kid is released and then sales drop dramatically. This year it’s stayed high. Other hot titles at her store are Star Wars: Jedi Academy (Scholastic); the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth (HarperCollins/Tegen), which has also appeared on previous holiday lists; and Andrea Beaty’s picture book Rosie Revere, Engineer (Abrams). Because the store has sold “a ton” of the Rainbow Loom kits, it’s also doing really well with Loom Magic (Sky Pony Press). “We like it because it goes beyond jewelry,” said Johnson.

“It’s a good time of year,” said Valerie Koehler, owner of Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston. “People are coming in, but it’s not a crunch.” Her store, which is events-driven, is expecting a big sales boost this coming weekend when it hosts blogger Ree Drummond (The Pioneer Woman Cooks). Koehler anticipates sales being up for the year, but not as much as in 2012. “Last year we had a phenomenal event with a huge institutional buy,” she said. Among non-event titles, Susan Cooper’s Ghost Hawk (S&S/McElderry) has already become one of the store’s “go-to” books, and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief (Knopf) is benefiting from the recently released movie. “This year there’s no one picture book that we’re always chasing,” said Koehler. “There are a lot of picture books out there. I tell my staff that the best book we have in the store is the one on the shelf.” Hicklebee’s has already seen strong sales for several picture books, including Jon and Tucker Nichols’s Crabtree (McSweeney’s McMullens), Mike Twohy’s Outfoxed (S&S/Wiseman), and Samantha Berger’s Crankenstein (Little, Brown).

At Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Ariz., one of the few stores in our survey that did not get a boost from Black Friday weekend, series books sold “like crazy,” according to co-owner Gayle Shanks. Not just Wimpy Kid and Divergent, but Dork Diaries as well. Shanks was heartened that customers didn’t seem to be factoring in cost. “[They] were just interested in hearing about titles we think are good,” said Shanks. Spellbound’s Hawkins observed a similar phenomenon. “So far this season shoppers are a little bit more relaxed with their spending than in the last couple of years. They don’t seem to be agonizing as much in the store over whether to go ahead and purchase, as opposed to ‘maybe we’ll get this now and come back for that later’ or waiting for the paperback or a sale,” she said.

At Brilliant, the movie helped push sales of The Book Thief, but typically, books by local Michigan authors tend to be particularly strong in both the adult and children’s categories. Although he hasn’t run out of it, Makin worries about getting a steady supply of inventory for Michigan illustrator Glenn Wolff’s A Child’s Christmas in New England by Robert Sullivan (Bunker Hill). Like many stores, Addendum reported continuing strong sales for John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park (St. Martin’s Griffin). New middle-grade standouts for Addendum this year include Kate DiCamillo’s Flora & Ulysses (Candlewick) and Anne Ursu’s The Real Boy (HarperCollins/Walden Pond).

Even though the mood was upbeat at most stores over Black Friday weekend and even though the shopping season is more compact that previous years, as Michael Herrmann of Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord, N.H., pointed out, “It’s still too early. It’s the last 10 days that tell the tale, no matter how strong the start.” But he couldn’t resist making an upbeat prediction: “It’s going to be a great year.”