Hands down, the presidential election was the biggest factor in holiday sales last year. But while it affected when during the year people shopped, it didn’t change how much they bought, noted Molly Olivo, book buyer at Barstons Child’s Play with four stores in the Washington, D.C. area. “We had a strong holiday season,” said Olivo, who had some customers who shopped at the beginning of October, others in December. “With Christmas and Hanukkah on the same day, it was a little more crazy,” she added.
“A lot of people were shopping early, which is different for us,” said Shirley Mullin, owner of Kids Ink in Indianapolis. After an “exceptionally strong” November, sales at her store were flat in December. Ellen Richmond at the Book Cellar in Waterville, Maine, was surprised by flat sales over the holidays, which she attributed to reaction to the election. “I made up ground earlier in the year,” she said. “So I’m up marginally for the year.”
For most stores holiday sales came even later than the usual final 10 days before Christmas. “Overall, people were not in the shopping spirit until the last second possible,” said Christine Onorati, owner and buyer at WORD Bookstores in Brooklyn and Jersey City, N.J. “It was a cliffhanger,” agreed Dana Brigham, general manager of Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, Mass. Sales were down at her store in the double digits for the first three weeks of December, then rose 37% the last week. In the end, Booksmith finished the holiday season “a tiny bit” above 2015’s record-breaking season.
Although middle grade and YA series have frequently topped in-store bestsellers lists for the holidays, sales at indies for the two biggest long-time franchises, Wimpy Kid (Abrams/Amulet) and Harry Potter (Scholastic/Levine), were mixed. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: Parts 1 and 2 was the number one bestseller for 2016 at Brookline Booksmith. At Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Ore., two Harry Potter titles—Cursed Child and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them—and Wimpy Kid #11, Double Down, took three of the top four spots in children’s holiday bestsellers.
But many smaller stores reported softer sales for both the latest Jeff Kinney book and for the Fantastic Beasts screenplay. That was the case at 10-year-old Harleysville Books in Harleysville, Pa., which gets 60% of its sales from children’s books. “This year’s Wimpy Kid was the slowest one we had. In years’ past, I ordered by the case,” said owner Stephanie Steinly, whose customers also had trouble with the format of Fantastic Beasts. By contrast, the two Harry Potter books illustrated by Jim Kay were “successful”—last year’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and October’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
With no single “it” book, a mix of titles did well. At Kids Ink, Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney’s 2005 picture book The Old African (Dial) was one of Mullin’s big books of the season. She also did particularly well with books by authors who had visited the store. Gingerbread Christmas (Putnam) by Jan Brett, who drew 400 people for an event during the holiday season, was her top seller. Inkwood Books in Tampa, Fla., which is more than half children’s books, had strong sales for picture books over the holidays. Owner Stefani Beddington sold “a ton” of The Story Book Knight (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky). She noted that it is written by the same authors, Helen Docherty and Thomas Docherty, as The Snatchabook (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky), which continues to do well.
The bestselling kids’ book at Lemuria Books in Jackson, Miss., was also a picture book by an author who visited the store—twice: William Joyce’s Ollie’s Odyssey (S&S/Atheneum/Dlouhy). “We had some amazing turnouts for our children’s events,” said Clara Martin, children’s buyer for the children’s section, which is known as OZ. Other top sellers included the Fan Brothers’ picture book The Night Gardener (Simon & Schuster), which was a pick for the OZ First Editions Club, and two middle-grade novels: Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Secret Keepers (Little, Brown, and Kate Beasley’s middle-grade novel Gertie’s Leap to Greatness (FSG).
Andrea Beaty and David Roberts’s picture book Ada Twist, Scientist (Abrams) appeared on a number of in-store bestsellers lists, including Skylight in Los Angeles, where manager Steven Salardino reported that it was the fourth biggest-selling children’s title. Jon Klassen’s We Found a Hat (Candlewick) was an “expected” hit, said Salardino, who called Klassen’s hat trilogy “amazing.”
Ada Twist, Scientist was number one at Children’s Book World in Los Angeles, where picture books are usually the biggest sellers, said owner Sharon Hearn. It was followed by Barney Saltzberg’s Would You Rather Be a Princess or a Dragon? (Roaring Brook/Porter) and Jason Reynolds’s middle grade novel Ghost (S&S/Atheneum/Dlouhy). In nonfiction, the store did well with Rad Women Worldwide (Ten Speed) and I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark (Simon & Schuster).
Movie tie-ins did well for both adults and kids at Humpus Bumpus Books in Cumming, Ga., where Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children (Quirk) was particularly strong. “Holiday sales were busier and busier,” said bookseller Karina Horton, noting that sales in general have picked up this year. “Some of that is because we are in one of the fastest growing cities in Georgia and are getting a lot of [immigrants] from India and the Middle East. But it also has to do with the fact that we talk to the teachers at the schools and know what the students will be reading for the year and stock it.”
At Bookazine in Bayonne, N.J., one of the last remaining regional wholesalers, the holiday season was solid. “We had a modest gain in the mid to upper single-digit percentage over 2015,” said COO Richard Kallman. On the children’s side Ada Twist was strong, as was Rick Riordan’s second Magnus Chase title, The Hammer of Thor (Disney-Hyperion). But Scott Cawthon’s YA novel Five Nights at Freddy’s: The Silver Eyes (Scholastic) outsold both by nearly five times. And Sarah Dees’s Awesome Lego Creations with Bricks You Already Have (Page Street) sold nearly 1,300 copies despite being out of stock for most of November and December.
Many stores reported strong sales for local titles and regional presses. At The Book Cellar, Richmond generally does well with books from Maine presses, including Islandport, Down East, and Tilbury House, and Maine authors like Dahlov Ipcar and Ashley Bryan. This holiday season Mainer Melissa Sweet’s biography of E.B. White, Some Writer! (HMH) was among the store’s top sellers, in part because of its crossover appeal to adults. “I would like to see that book win both a Caldecott and a Newbery Award. It really conveyed the essence of E.B. White beautifully,” said Richmond.
For the second year in a row local author Paul Aertker and his independent published Brainwashed series (Flying Solo) was one of the top sellers at The Bookies in Denver. “It shows the power of handselling and local promotion,” said manager Larry Yoder. It was one of a handful of books that stood out at the store. “We sold good amounts across much of our inventory,” he added.
At Scout & Morgan Books in Cambridge, Minn., owner Judith Kissner said that the lack of a blockbuster enabled the store to sell a lot of books with a regional connection. On the children’s side that translated into strong sales for Aimee Bissonette and Claudia McGehee’s North Woods Girl (Minnesota Historical Society); Phyllis Root’s One North Star: A Counting Book (Univ. of Minnesota), and the new Loren Long board book, An Otis Christmas (Philomel).
As for the year ahead, “I am cautiously optimistic,” said Booksmith’s Brigham. “Fortunately  was a good year,” said Children’s Book World’s Hearn. “But I think Internet sales with quick delivery and discounts are going to continue to make things challenging.” That said, Hearn believes that with more community outreach 2017 can be “stellar.”