A mild winter in many parts of the country coupled with a six-year low in unemployment and significantly lower gas prices combined for a strong holiday season at most independent bookstores, and sales gains for the year. Or as Steve Bercu, CEO of BookPeople in Austin, put it, “People are just back into books. There was just tons and tons of stuff getting sold.”

BookPeople was one of several stores to report strong holiday sales and its best year ever in 2014, in its case for the fifth year in a row, as part of PW’s informal survey of more than two dozen stores. Children’s books outperformed adult titles at the store – up 10% – compared with an 8% increase overall, according to Bercu. “Our sales in both stores were really strong this holiday,” said Christine Onorati, owner of WORD Brooklyn and Jersey City. “In Brooklyn, we ended the year up over 5%, making it our best year ever.” That’s after moving WORD’s book fair operation to its year-old Jersey City store, which surpassed projected sales figures thanks in part to its school business. The children’s category has been so strong there that WORD recently hired a third children’s specialist.

Many stores easily beat the National Retail Federation’s prediction of a 4.1% increase during November and December. Long-time bookseller Shirley Mullin, owner of 29-year-old Kids Ink in Indianapolis, described it as “the best holiday season we’ve ever had.” At Hicklebee’s in San Jose, sales were up 9.5% in December and 6% for the year, according to manager Ann Seaton, who has seen a resurgence in teens in the store thanks to its two-year-old Teen Advisory Board. “We were thrilled to have such a robust [holiday] season,” said children’s buyer Carol Moyer at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh. “I kept hearing from customers that they wanted their children to have real books.” The store was up 6% for December, through Christmas Eve.

A Strong Finish

As in years past, holiday sales picked up at the end. “It started a bit slow, to be honest, and I was a little bit worried about whether we were going to have the holiday season you’d expect to get you through the year,” said Leslie Hawkins, owner of Spellbound Children’s Bookshop in Asheville, N.C. “I feel pretty sure that when I do add it up, I will find it’s probably the best December we’ve ever had. It’s definitely been the best since the recession.”

At Children’s Book World in Los Angeles, the mid-December start of Hanukkah also led to a slow build up. Last year, when Hanukkah was earlier, sales started earlier. “[It] made for an anxious start to the season, though with a happy ending,” said owner Sharon Hearn. Her holiday sales were even with last year, while year-over-year sales while good were slightly down.

The Shop Local message continues to resonate with shoppers. “Although I still hear a lot of talk about Amazon Prime,” said Steven Salardino, manager of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, “it seems that our community realizes what they are contributing to when purchasing a book from Skylight. Book buyers may use Amazon for other things, but are finding that the experience of a bookstore is a worthy expense.”

Book buyer Deborah Johnson at Barston-s Child’s Play – which has four stores in the greater Washington, D.C. area – notes, “People do say, ‘I don’t want to be shopping at Amazon.’ There’s been enough bad publicity about Amazon that people are thinking twice.”

The long-term viability of children’s bookselling was evidenced by one recent and one forthcoming sale of specialty children’s bookstores. Last May, Carol Chittenden, owner of 28-year-old Eight Cousins in Falmouth, Mass., announced that she would retire and had found a trio of new owners for the store, which was founded by her mother, Betty Borg. This week the sale to booksellers Sara Hines and Mary Fran Buckley, along with Eileen Miskell, went through. Magic Tree in Oak Park, Ill., which went on the market last summer, is about to be sold; co-owner Rose Joseph told PW that she plans to sign a contract with a long-time customer for the 30-year-old store soon. The closing is slated for early spring.

What’s Selling

For the first time in several years, there was no must-have YA title. Instead one middle-grade book and one picture book dominated the conversation and lists: the ninth book in Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, The Long Haul (Abrams/Amulet), and B.J. Novak’s The Book with No Pictures (Dial).

At Barstons, Diary of a Wimpy Kid was the top seller, followed by Mo Willems’s Waiting Is Not Easy! (Hyperion), which it placed at the registers. They were one of several stores to report that Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers’s The Day the Crayons Quit (Philomel) shows no sign of letting up. As a toy store, Barstons got extra sales from Shannon Hale’s The Princess in Black (Candlewick), which it paired with a little black mask. A favorite handsell, and the retailer’s #3 title for the holidays, was 642 Things to Write About (Chronicle). It first took off at the store in McLean, Va. Then the other stores quickly adopted this collection of writing prompts that also keep kids entertained on trips.

Jon Sciezcka’s backlist title Truckery Rhymes (Simon & Schuster), from his Trucktown series, continues to be a favorite handsell at Monkey See, Monkey Do in Clarence, N.Y., near Buffalo. The store is also doing “incredibly well” with anything Frozen, says co-owner Kim Krug, and the craze hasn’t yet peaked for her. Monkey See held Frozen camps during the holiday break and is gearing up for more in February. “We [had] a really strong list of preorders for the new chapter books, [the first books in the Anna & Elsa series (RH/Disney)],” noted Krug, who is also seeing a resurgence in picture books. That includes Uni the Unicorn by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated by Brigette Barrager (Random House); and The Boy in Number 4 by Kara Koostra (Dial), about legendary hockey player Bobby Orr.

Hardcover picture books like Andrea Beaty’s Happy Birthday, Madame Chapeau (Abrams) fared well at Children’s Book World, which sold books across a range of categories, including nonfiction. “Children’s stores depend upon bookseller recommendations and backlist, so not having breakout books doesn’t have as much of an effect,” said Hearn. Other strong sellers were Jacqueline Woodson’s National Book Award-winning Brown Girl Dreaming (Penguin/Paulsen) and the young reader’s edition of I Am Malala (Little, Brown) by Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai. Many undecided shoppers chose gift certificates, which were up 43% over the 2013 holiday season.

Customers at Kids Ink were in a “really good mood,” Mullin reported. One even left the store and came back with gift cards to Starbucks for all the booksellers. An October appearance at the store by author Mac Barnett and illustrator Jon Klassen for Sam and Dave Dig a Hole (Candlewick) fueled sales of their picture book through the holidays. In middle grade, Ann M. Martin’s Rain Reign (Feiwel and Friends), well, reigned. No surprise for the top titles in YA: two books from the Ashfall trilogy (Tanglewood) by owner Mullin’s son, Mike Mullin, Ashfall and Ashen Winter. Although both are dystopian novels, she has observed a move away from dystopia; even her son’s next book will be a standalone YA mystery/thriller.

Minecraft books continue to be popular and sold especially well for Magic Tree. Joseph said that everything in the Association of Booksellers for Children’s catalog did well across the board. As other children’s booksellers reported, picture books were strong at her store, including Jenny Broom’s Animalium (Big Picture Press) and Raina Telgemeier’s Sisters (Scholastic/Graphix). One other picture book that was mentioned frequently, especially by booksellers in the Northeast and the Midwest, was Jan Brett’s The Animals’ Santa (Putnam), her most recent wintry themed title.

Overall, booksellers expressed satisfaction with last year’s sales. “It was a great year for books,” said Kramerbooks & Afterwords head buyer Jake Cumsky-Whitlock. “A positive year for change. I hope 2015 is the same.”