To get a sense of how children’s books in particular are doing this holiday season, PW contacted two dozen bookstores of various sizes around the country in the week following Black Friday and Small Business Saturday, the traditional start of the holiday selling season. Unlike the National Retail Federation survey, which found that fewer people shopped and those who did spent less than last year, the booksellers we spoke with were for the most part happy with the season’s start. In one way the two surveys were similar, most booksellers anticipate up sales for the holiday season as a whole. NRF predicts annual holiday sales coming in at 4.1% above last year’s.

Square Books, Jr. in Oxford, Miss., was one of many children’s specialty stores and general stores with strong children’s sections that are off to a good start despite, or maybe because of, this year’s compressed 27-day holiday selling season. The store had its best November in the past four years, boosted in part by its best Black Friday ever, according to co-owner Robert Howorth. Store sales benefitted from an Ole Miss home football game on the last Saturday in November. And, yes, Square Books has a book for it, Laurie G. Fischer’s Where Do They Go on Game Day? (Mascot Books), which includes a stop at the bookstore.

“It has been a fantastic year,” notes Heather Hebert, manager of Children’s Book World in Haverford, Pa. Although the holiday season has been off to a good start with signings by authors like Jan Brett (The Animals’ Santa, Putnam) and Sara Shepard (Pretty Little Liars, HarperTeen), Hebert attributes the store’s up sales to the excitement generated by its ongoing 25th anniversary celebration.

Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville, N.C., was up 46% for the month of November going into Thanksgiving weekend. “Asheville has been very busy,” comments events coordinator Alsace Walentine. Although the numbers aren’t in yet, she expects store sales for Small Business Saturday, when 18 authors handsold books, to beat last year’s numbers.

For some stores football and weather proved more of a deterrent. A football game on Small Business Saturday coupled with balmy weather on the last Sunday in November tempered sales at Carmichael’s Bookstore. Still, co-owner Carol Besse estimates that sales were up 7 or 8% over last year’s Thanksgiving weekend and could go up as much as 10% for the year.

Carmichael’s newly opened children’s specialty store is more than holding its own for its first Christmas. “Our sales have been higher than we anticipated,” says children’s buyer and store manager Kelly Estep. To indicate the increase she points to the store’s neighboring Highlands location where children’s were previously 20% of Small Business Saturday sales. This year they were closer to 50%.

Snow, not sun, was a concern in parts of the Northeast for the first full holiday weekend. Willard Williams, owner of three Toadstool Bookshops in the Monadnock region of New Hampshire, and the force behind Cider Monday, said that neither the latter nor Plaid Friday, his community’s shop local day, could counter a winter storm that lured skiers with a foot of snow and caused power outages on the day before Thanksgiving. Toadstool was forced to close early, and lost sales to Thanksgiving celebrations that were postponed until power returned.

“When you lose a couple of days, it’s hard to make it up,” says Williams. At this point, he is hoping for a flat year. One bright spot he points out is: “We feel more and more confident that books are here to stay.”

Getting in the Spirit

At Once Upon a Time Bookstore in Montrose, Calif., the mood is more positive this year than last, according to owner Maureen Palacios. “The fact that there are still people out of work makes it a little uncertain,” she adds. But uncertainty did nothing to diminish the holiday kickoff in her community, White Friday, when shops “white out” the sales tax. Her store, which has been up year-to-date, was up 12% that day.

Blue Marble Books in Ft. Thomas, Ky., a Cincinnati suburb, offered 10% discounts on Indies First titles and gave away American Express Small Business Saturday bags on Thanksgiving weekend. When those ran out, it gave away its own store totebags. “Customers loved it,” says book buyer Dave Richardson, who has organized a number of in-store author events and special pricing throughout the holidays. Overall sales for the first holiday weekend were up 35% over last year. The 40-year-old bookstore is coming off of one of its best summers ever in terms of foot traffic and new customers. Richardson’s biggest concern is whether the store will have enough staff for last-minute shoppers, since the selling season is so short.

“I think people are really liking independent bookstores lately, especially in the Bay Area. Independent stores are underdogs, and everyone likes to root for the underdog,” says Devin McDonald, co-owner of year-old Mr. Mopps’ Children’s Books in Berkeley. He’s particularly optimistic about this year’s holiday season because the store’s “normal” days have doubled in sales over last year. The store’s customers aren’t all coming in because of its 53-year-old sister business nearby, Mr. Mopps’ Toys. The bookstore is gaining its own following.

The new owners of 21-year-old Main Street Books in St. Charles, Mo., which changed hands in February, created a Young Readers Room, which is paying off. “I think it has definitely increased the overall sales of early chapter books, middle grade, and YA. We’ve got books on every wall, great MASL [Missouri Association of State Librarians] nominee shelves over the fireplace, awesome face-out displays in the middle of the room, [and] comfy seating,” says co-owner Emily Hall.

What’s Selling

“It’s very challenging right now and very difficult to compete against all the guys giving it away,” says Kenny Safrin, owner of Books & Greetings in Northvale, N.J., referring to large discounts on both Amazon and To try to stay competitive he relies on events year-round to keep store numbers up, like an upcoming one with New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia for CC Claus (Ecco), a baseball Christmas story. “Events used to be our gravy,” says Safrin. “Now they’re our bread and butter. They really help.” So do perennial favorites like Elf on a Shelf (CCA&B) and Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid 9: The Long Haul (Abrams/Amulet), as well as everything Frozen. The latter may be doing well this Christmas, but sales reps are already telling Safrin to get ready for 2015: a [Frozen Fever short film] has been announced for next spring.

For the first time in several seasons, sales of John Green books have begun to slow. Saturation may have been reached for the moment, but will likely pick up again when the movie of Paper Towns comes out next June. No particular title is currently taking its place, although Jacqueline Woodson’s NBA-winning Brown Girl Dreaming (Penguin/Paulsen) appeared on President Obama’s shopping list for Small Business Saturday, and garnered several mentions from booksellers we surveyed.

While no book has yet emerged as this year’s “it” book, Hebert of Children’s Book World says that B.J. Novak’s picture book, The Book with No Pictures (Dial) is probably the one book people are coming in for or coming in knowing. Not counting books by authors who did store signings or handsold books on Small Business Saturday like Amy Ignatow (Popularity Papers #7, Abrams/Amulet), the Novak title was among her top four sellers for the start of the season, along with Cece Bell’s El Deafo (Abrams/Amulet), which is a favorite handsell, as well as Shannon Hale and Dean Hale’s The Princess in Black (Candlewick) and Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods (Disney-Hyperion). “We seem to be seeing a resurgence with picture books,” says Hebert. “But middle grade is definitely [our] bestselling category.

Carol Stoltz, children’s books manager and buyer at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., agrees that “there’s really no blowout book” so far this season. She, too, has had “tremendous” success with The Book with No Pictures and continues to sell Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers’s The Day the Crayons Quit (Philomel), a bestseller last holiday season. “Our new discovery,” notes Stoltz, “is [Dennis Nolan’s] Hunters of the Great Forest [Roaring Brook/Porter]. We’ve been pushing it.”

For the most part Porter Square hasn’t run out of any books yet. There have been temporary glitches for books like The Polar Express (HMH). By the end of last month the publisher had already blown through this year’s printing because of the 10th anniversary of the movie and author Chris Van Allsburg’s 15-city tour for his new book, The Misadventures of Sweetie Pie. There is still inventory with wholesalers.

Picture books are also hot at Blue Marble, which has seen an influx of young families in the neighborhood. Although YA can be iffy in his conservative neighborhood, he describes Laurie Halse Anderson’s books as “easy” handsells. Her The Impossible Knife of Memory (Viking) is the store’s bestselling YA title. Novak is leading in picture books and Natalie Lloyd’s A Snicker of Magic (Scholastic Press) is number one in middle grade.

Local books continue to do well at the holidays. At Square Books, Jr. that means Goodnight Ole Miss (Ampersand) and Santa Is Coming to Mississippi (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky). For two-year-old Copperfish Books in Punta Gorda, Fla., which started by selling used books online a decade ago, Florida author Carl Hiaasen’s Skink—No Surrender (Knopf) and Kevin Henkes’s Florida-themed Junonian (Greenwillow) are doing particularly well.

The upcoming movie has given a boost to the young adult adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken (Delacorte) at nearly four-year-old One More Page Books in Arlington, Va. Both the adult and the YA versions were strong sellers over Thanksgiving weekend at the bookstore, which is also known for its selection of wine and chocolate. Other strong sellers on the kids’ side, which comprises 40% of sales, were Minecraft books, and Star Wars Jedi Academy #2 (Scholastic). Oliver Jeffers’s Once Upon an Alphabet (Philomel) has been steady, according to owner Eileen McGervey. She’s also done well with the boxed set of his Once There Was a Boy (Philomel). “When people see it, they scoop it up,” she says.

But no matter how long the holiday selling season, what really counts are the final days leading up to Christmas. “It’s really the last two weeks that blow up for us,” says Carmichael’s Besse. “The first two weeks are busy, but not crazy busy like those last couple.”