The just concluded holiday season met the modest expectations of most of the independent booksellers interviewed by PW. Booksellers used a number of different tactics to keep registers ringing, ranging from upgrading their Web sites to stocking more used books to meet the needs of a still very cost-conscious consumer. One of the most notable differences from last year is a sense of optimism expressed by many booksellers who feel they are better prepared to deal with the realities of today’s book market.

Jennifer Doucette, store manager at Books on the Square in Providence, R.I., reports that December sales rose about 5%, with sales for the full year ahead 8%. Doucette says the store received a boost from two shop-local programs, one conducted by the city of Providence and the other by the store itself. Kris Kleindienst, co-owner of Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Mo., says there was a more conscious effort among residents to shop at local stores, a trend that extended to businesses, a number of which bought books from Left Bank to support the local economy.

Consumers did appear to turn to books as gifts over the holidays, buying some higher-priced titles such as the out-of-stock Ad Hoc at Home (see sidebar) and The Jazz Loft Project, priced at $50 and $40, respectively. “This was a rough year in terms of books, but people were buying books as gifts,” says Sue Boucher, owner of Lake Forest Bookstore in Lake Forest, Ill. “This was really encouraging to me.”

Still, price was an issue for many customers. “Customers clearly wanted more for less, frequently buying one hardcover and one paperback, rather than two hardcovers in order to save money,” says Steve Salardino, manager of Skylight Books in Los Angeles. Claire Benedict, co-owner of Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vt., was frustrated that consumers are prepared to pay for high-ticket items, but balk at modestly priced books. “People shell out for technology and complain about $25 books,” she says. To accommodate shoppers looking for bargains, Benedict bought more remainders than usual, and the store did very well with them. James Fugate, owner of Esowon Books in Los Angeles, says his store’s experiment with used books and CDs was strong enough that he is likely to continue to offer used items throughout 2010. Sales were down at Esowon in the year, and Fugate says he will be returning a lot of backlist titles and restocking those shelves with remainders and instant mark-down books.

Tom Campbell’s the Regulator Bookshop in Durham, N.C., was another store that had a decline in holiday sales, but Campbell says he was prepared for it. “We way overachieved” in 2008, says Campbell. “I’d hoped to be even with last year, but we didn’t quite make it.” Nevertheless, Campbell says the Regulator is in better shape financially than a year ago. “We’re lighter on our feet,” he says, with lower levels of inventory. And while December 2008 was exceptionally strong, Campbell says during the first three months of 2009 “it was like working in a ghost town. I don’t think that is going to happen again.”

The electronic world had some impact on indies’ business this holiday. Campbell estimates that 5% to 10% of his sales were generated by the store’s Web site, with 80% of customers who shopped online picking up the book in the store. Sarah Bagby, owner of Watermark Books of Wichita, Kans., says she noticed more people than ever in her store with handheld devices. “It was like they were doing research,” Bagby says. And although many customers said they owned a Kindle, they were still in the store. “People want an option besides Kindle,” she says.

—With reporting by Judith Rosen, Claire Kirch, and Wendy Werris