Strong early sales at children’s bookstores are pointing to an overall positive holiday season. Among stores surveyed by Publishers Weekly following the Thanksgiving holiday shopping bonanza, four titles were cited numerous times as top selling books: Jeff Kinney’s The Meltdown (Diary of a Wimpy Kid #13), J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald; Lord of the Fleas (Dog Man #5) by Dav Pilkey, and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.
“The Meltdown was our bestselling title across the [entire] chain in November,” said Kathy Doyle Thomas, executive v-p and chief strategy officer for Half Price Books, which has 126 stores across 17 states. “Since Thanksgiving was early this year, there are more shopping days before Christmas. The timing of Christmas is great, too. It’s on a Tuesday, so people will have one more weekend to get their shopping in before the big day. Weather has already hit us hard in some of our markets, but if it holds out, we think this will be a great holiday season for us.”
Overall, Thomas said sales across the chain were up slightly over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Cyber Monday proved more fortuitous, with the chain’s website reporting record sales.
Another oft-cited top selling picture book was The Snowy Nap by Jan Brett. The author read at Gibson’s Books in Concord, N.H., on Black Friday, which helped contribute to a 52% increase in sales over the previous year’s sales for the same weekend at the 120-year-old bookstore. That said, owner Michael Herrmann said there has been a general sales trend upward in recent years, well into double digits. “We are very optimistic for the season based on weekend sales,” Herrmann said, adding cautiously that “it is always weather dependent.” Overall, sales at Gibson’s are up 5.7% this year, and Herrmann said that Small Business Saturday plays a large part in that boost. “We believe that the shop-local initiative has truly made a difference for this all-important weekend.” Along with The Snowy Nap, Herrmann said weekend sales were particularly strong around other event books, including Quiet by Tomie dePaola, Good Morning, Snowplow by Deborah Bruss, illustrated by Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson, and, yes, The Meltdown.
One of the retailers citing Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald as a bestseller was Janet Geddis, owner of Avid Bookshop in Athens, Ga. Unfortunately, the store is in a college town and though the customers were in high spirits, a football game on Small Business Saturday (the day following Black Friday), meant that potential shoppers had their attention drawn away. “The bad news is that sales were down about 25% on Book—not Black—Friday and Small Business Saturday compared to the same two days in 2017.”
The sales of children’s books at indie bookstores around the holidays can often be impacted by weather, football... and parking. Holiday shopping is stressful enough without having to pay for the privilege to park or else circle a parking lot with anxious and excited kids in the car while searching for an elusive open space. At Left Bank Books in St Louis, Mo., co-owner Kris Kleindienst noted that the addition of free parking in the neighborhood where her store is located, coupled with a free shuttle, has had an impact. “It has stretched out our strip; it should make it easier for people to get around,” she said, adding, “I’m optimistic.”
Though the store has been down 10% in sales overall for the year, largely as a consequence of some significant author events inflating the numbers from last year and some nearby storefronts being left open after closures, Kleindienst said sales over the Thanksgiving holidays were up 19% over previous years. “I was astounded,” she said, adding that walk-in traffic is up 10% and online traffic is up 123%.
Top selling picture books for Kleindienst this season include The Snowy Nap, Dr. Seuss’ Are You Kind?, and P Is for Pteradactyl: The Worst Alphabet Book Ever by Raj Haldar and Chris Carpenter, illustrated by Maria Beddia. The hits in children’s fiction include Bridge of Clay by Marcus Zusak. Ransom Riggs’s Map of Days, and The Art of Fantastic Beasts: Crimes of Grindelwald by Dermot Power.
Optimistic was also the word used by Sharon Hearn, owner of Children’s Book World in Los Angeles, to describe her feelings about the season. "Our customers have a heightened awareness of the need to support independent stores if they want them to be around,” she said. “Our biggest challenge is adapting to the new retail environment where many shoppers do physical store and online buying.” She said that sales are “up from 2017” and, right now, shoppers seem eager to put this year behind them. “They are buying and reading books about effecting change.”
Some of the “must-have” titles the store is handselling for the season include the picture books Dreamers by Yuyi Morales, The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Rafael López, and Carmela Full of Wishes by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson. For middle grade readers, the store is recommending Calling All Minds by Temple Grandin; the Rick Riordan Presents series of fantasy novels, including Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi, The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon, and Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina. Finally, for older readers, the store is suggesting Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka, Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, and The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo.
Further north at Kepler’s in Menlo Park, Calif., CEO Praveen Madan said the store’s sales for this Black Friday weekend were up 9% compared to the same period last year. The total number of sales transactions was up by 4% and the average sales transaction size was up by 5%. He noted Sweep by Jonathan Auxier, Mac Undercover by Mac Barnett, and A Big Mooncake for Little Star by Grace Lin as store favorites to sell this season. The lineup of bestselling children’s titles for Kepler’s falls along the lines of several other stores surveyed by PW.
The story was somewhat different at Jack and Allie’s in Vernon, Conn., where owner Barbara Kahn went into the weekend with high expectations, expecting a bump in business from the closure of a local Toys R Us. Kahn planned similar events to last year, including a Sing-a-Long story time, crafts, and a book give-away contest. But sales were down significantly. Kahn saw a 58% drop in sales over Small Business Saturday from last year, and a 41% decline for the weekend overall.
“I am much less optimistic,” said Kahn. She attributed some of the revenue drop to vacant storefronts in the plaza where the store is located, and said that even successful events this fall had not translated into in-store sales. As last week began, Kahn said “the one bright spot” was a 28% rise in sales on Cider Monday over last year. The store offered cider donuts and coloring sheets for kids throughout the day.
Cynthia Compton, owner of 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Ind., and PW blogger, echoed Kahn’s concerns about slides in sales. “We are optimistic for the season based on early numbers, but very concerned about long-term viability of children’s stores,” she said, noting that she routinely has customers who showroom her store, remarking that they intend to buy their books from Amazon instead. She also pointed to competition from publishers, who are selling direct to consumers—with high discounts. “Email marketing from publishers during the week of Black Friday was particularly troublesome,” she said, adding, “Additional challenges are continuing increase in shipping costs for retailers, coupled with the struggle that UPS is facing to service their largest customer this holiday season, making next-day special orders for a bookstore a challenge.”
Like Kahn in Connecticut, Compton also saw the closing of her local Toys R Us as having an impact on holiday sales. Some may believe that it could serve as an opportunity to bring in more customers, though it may, paradoxically have had the opposite effect of sending them to other stores, where they can then also find the gift items they need. “The closing of Toys R Us has caused many other retailers to dramatically expand their toy sections,” Compton observed. “While these are not products that we would have carried, it has greatly increased the amount of exposure of kids’ products and gift ideas in unexpected places: Target has doubled their sections, Best Buy has toys up front, Home Depot has toys—and plush!, Costco has increased toy SKUs, and Home Goods bought up a lot of the Toys R Us shipments that needed re-assignment. Again, none of these stores is a direct competitor, but for the consumer who is just looking for stuff to put under the tree, it has made buying for kids as easy as picking up items where they get their bathtub caulk. It’s a big concern. We are going to see massive discounting, lots of product in lots of places, and a distracted public.”
Nevertheless, sales are up 12% year to date at 4 Kids Books & Toys. Compton said, “November was all about The Wonky Donkey [by Craig Smith, illustrated by Katz Cowley], Wimpy Kid, and graphic novels,” and the store’s breakout titles have been The Light Between Worlds by Laura Weymouth for YA and Sweep by Jonathan Auxier in middle grade. When it comes to picture books, she said, “The unicorn category in picture books outsells everything. Everything.”