“Indie bookselling is back,” Vivien Jennings, owner of Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kan., proclaimed after a “wonderful” holiday season with sales up 11%. She’s not alone. “We had a very good season. We were up quite a bit over last year,” said Peter Moore, owner of Blue Marble Children’s Bookstore in Ft. Thomas, Ky. Holiday sales were up more than 10% over those in 2014 and year-to-date sales were up 4%.
Mr. Mopps’ children’s bookstore in Berkeley, Calif., the two-year-old bookstore associated with the popular specialty toy store founded in 1962, was one of many indies that benefited from the shop local movement. “A lot of people who come in make a point of telling me they want to shop local. They want us to succeed and keep their money in the community,” bookseller Kelly Wiggin said. The store got a number of customers who also specifically wanted to give books as gifts.
“People weren’t coming in to buy just one book,” said Suzanna Hermans, owner of Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck and Millerton, N.Y. “They came in to buy several. This is a wonderful trend, and I hope to see it continue.” As a result the 40-year-old bookstore had “an exceptional” holiday season, with sales for the year up nearly 10% over 2014.
In addition to shopping locally, good (almost tropical) weather in many parts of the country and a strengthening economy contributed to a jump in sales for many stores. Sales rose close to 4% for the year but profit margins were even better at 4Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, an Indianapolis suburb, according to owner Cynthia Compton. Women & Children First in Chicago had its highest sales day since the store’s founding in 1979. Overall sales were up 20% from last year. Co-owner Sarah Hollenbeck attributed that partly to social media. The store garnered 3,000 new likes on Facebook and created active Twitter and Instagram accounts.
The Reading Bug in San Carlos, Calif., was one of a few bookstores to report flat sales as part of PW’s annual post-holiday survey of two dozen bookstores. “We have been on an upward trajectory for the past six years since we opened, and we have plateaued a bit,” owner Lauren Savage said. Her area is doing well economically, which has meant increased costs for rent and health insurance.
Harry Potter, Movie Tie-Ins, and Coloring, Oh My
In a year with no single must-have title, the tried and true, along with movie tie-ins and adult coloring books – which have spilled over into kids’ – were top sellers. Nor were children’s booksellers immune from the self-publishing trend. When the Ink kids’ group, ages 8-14, at Book Passage in Corte Madera, Calif., decided they wanted to write a book, the store published it. The resulting Dragon Mist went on to become Book Passage’s children’s bestseller.
J.K. Rowling was back with the illustrated edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Scholastic/Levine), illustrated by Jim Kay. At Lift Bridge Book Shop in Brockport, N.Y., it was the store’s bestseller across the board, co-owner Cody Steffen said. Stores also reported strong sales for the Harry Potter Coloring Book (Scholastic). Other familiar authors hit bestseller lists again, including Jeff Kinney for the 10th book in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, Old School (Abrams/Amulet); Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers for The Day the Crayons Came Home and their earlier “crayons” collaboration, The Day the Crayons Quit (both Philomel); and last year’s bestselling author B.J. Novak for The Book with No Pictures (Dial).
The force was with many bookstore/toy shops, which sold Star Wars movie tie-in titles as well as light sabers and pens. “It is rare that the same film/property can generate sales from the board book, picture book, leveled reader, early chapter, middle grade, and toy sales,” 4Kids’s Compton said. Over the summer Minions and Inside Out paraphernalia and junior novelizations also “drove a lot of register tape.” Another type of “junior” adaptation that did well was a children’s edition of an adult bestseller. Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat young readers’ edition (Viking) was a top seller at a number of stores, including Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vt.
The Sweet Spot: YA, MG, or Picture Books?
“We had a wonderful Christmas season. Every single day in December was unbelievable,” said Taysie Pennington, who oversees the kids’ section through intermediate. In part that was due to a decision to expand the store’s section for baby books. Although board books are typically the section’s bestsellers, this year price-sensitive customers were willing to spend more for hardcovers such as Jan Brett’s The Turnip (Putnam), Lora Koehler and Jake Parker’s The Little Snowplow (Candlewick), and Nathan Lane and Devlin Elliott’s Naughty Mabel (S&S). The store, which is becoming known as a baby-book destination, is contemplating adding even more space to the section in the coming year.
A locally published book by graphic designer Beth Gully was the biggest seller at Blue Marble Children’s Bookstore, called The Other Side of Christmas (BT Graphics). Owner Peter Moore called the flip-book, which tells both the secular and religious story of Christmas, “fantastic.” He also did well with local author Loren Long’s Little Tree (Philomel), as well as with autographed copies of the 30th anniversary edition of Chris Van Allsburg’s The Polar Express (HMH). “We actively support our local authors and illustrators,” Moore said. The store had a local author appearance every weekend from Thanksgiving through the end of the year.
“Middle grade was fabulous,” Terri Schmitz, owner of the Children’s Book Shop in Brookline, Mass., said. “There were some excellent things like The Thing About Jellyfish (Little, Brown), The War That Saved My Life (Dial), and Echo (Scholastic Press).” Even so, more expensive titles like Brian Selznick’s The Marvels (Scholastic Press), which has a suggested retail price of $32.99, and the illustrated Harry Potter, with a suggested retail price of $39.99, were “huge disappointments, because everybody went online.” As for YA, Schmitz has cut back. “It’s so adult, or new adult. The characters are all post-high school, and they are all doing things that we as a children’s bookstore can’t recommend.”
At McLean & Eakin in Petoskey, Mich., co-owner Matt Norcross found YA customers reaching for books from well-known authors and series. Book #4 in Marissa Myers’s the Lunar Chronicle series, Winter (Feiwel and Friends), was the top-selling children’s book. Other strong-selling YA titles included two more in the series, Scarlet (Square Fish) and Fairest (Feiwel and Friends), while John Green’s Paper Towns and Looking for Alaska (both Penguin/Speak) continued to sell well. Learned Owl Bookshop in Hudson, Ohio, was one of the few stores to report strong preorders during the holiday, in its case for the first book in Ohio author Cinda Williams Chima’s forthcoming Shattered Realms series, Flamecaster (HarperTeen, Apr.).
Just before the holidays Skylight Books in Los Angeles completely tore out and rebuilt its children’s section. “Thought it’s too early to determine the effect that’ll have on sales over time,” said general manager Mary Williams, the section had a strong Christmas and we’re definitely optimistic.” Kids’ bestellers included Innosanto Nagara’s picture book A Is for Activist (Triangle Square) and two middle grade books: Kate Schatz’s Rad American Women A-Z (City Lights) and IC4DESIGN’s Pierre the Maze Detective (Laurence King).
Like all booksellers, children’s booksellers expressed concerned about Amazon and about increasing costs. “There’s no question we have a big tiger in our room,” said Petrocelli at Book Passage, about Amazon opening a bookstore in Seattle.
Gayle Shanks, co-owner of Changing Hands in Tempe and Phoenix, Ariz., added that shopping online lures away customers because it’s so easy. “One-click shopping with extraordinary discounts are hard to pass up for many stressed-out buyers,” she said.
And then there’s the impact of increases in minimum wage. “While I’m in favor of L.A.’s move to a $15 minimum wage,” Skylight’s Williams, said. “I can’t pretend that it won’t be a challenge to accommodate a jump in our payroll.”
Still, most agree with Herman’s assessment. “I look forward to 2016,” she said. “I anticipate it to continue to be a great time to be a bookseller.”