This year’s holiday selling season at independent bookstores hews closely to the opening of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Some stores, especially those near closed Borders, reported sales for Black Friday weekend up between 30% and 40%, while others have seen flat sales or even a dip. As Scott Meyer, owner of Merritt Bookstore in Millbrook, N.Y., who closed a store in Red Hook this summer and his store in Cold Spring a couple years ago, notes, “I’m still here.” This was as much a comment on sales as the effects of the late October snowstorm that dropped 22 inches of snow over parts of the Northeast and brought Meyer’s first visit from FEMA. By contrast, Michael Herrmann, owner of Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord, N.H., saw sales go up and stay up in healthy double digits beginning this summer when the Borders half a mile away closed.
For many stores, American Express's Small Business Saturday enhanced sales. “We got a lot of calls Friday to see if we accepted American Express,” says Land Arnold, co-owner of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, N.C. At Green Apple Books in San Francisco, co-owner Pete Mulvihill pronounced the promotion “great,” although, ironically the store doesn’t use Amex because its processing fee is almost double the cost of other credit cards. “Still,” he says, “all the promotion they did drove lots of people into the store.”
Plaid Friday, intended to promote shopping local, had much less of an impact nationwide. Many booksellers were either unfamiliar with it or simply donned plaid shirts in solidarity. At Laurel Book Store in Oakland, Calif., owner Luan Stauss started participating in Plaid Friday several years ago. This year she gave a free used book to anyone who wore plaid, which many of her customers did. The promotion helped her move the needle for sales a bit, although Saturday was down slightly. This could be a tough holiday season for Stauss, who hasn’t taken a full salary since the spring. Many of her customers are feeling the pinch from lost jobs or taking in adult children, who need to move back home.
Holiday travel helped raise some stores’ sales, particularly in hardscrabble areas like Maine. “The people who were shopping were the people who were visiting,” says Susan Porter, owner of Maine Coast Bookshop and Café in Damariscotta, Me. “They’re much more extravagant than the people who live here, who are poor.” Tourists also made her summer the best in three years. A different type of tourism, for the Duke-UNC home football game, boosted sales for two-year-old Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, which was up 35% for the weekend. Diana Abbott, manager of The Bookworm in Omaha, Neb., noticed a lot more people driving to visit friends and relatives for Thanksgiving. With more space to bring home gifts, they stocked up. And price seemed less of a problem. One California couple spent $300 on books.
Unseasonably mild temperatures coupled with sunny weather helped booksellers throughout much of the country. Sales at McLean & Eakin in Petoskey, Mich., were up 30% over last year, which co-owner Matt Norcross attributes to weather. After a shaky start to the year, sales have been strong all fall, in part due to heavy promotion for the store’s Web site, which is offering free shipping during November and December. While 60-degree weather helped the Concord Bookshop in Concord, Mass., manager John Netzer doubts that book sales will ever be truly “great” again. He was pleased to have good steady sales over the weekend: up on Saturday, even on Friday, and slightly down on Sunday. “I can’t complain,” says Netzer, who anticipates being even with last year.
Several stores have been so encouraged by sales this year that they are planning to expand to fill the void left by Borders. “We’ve had an excellent year,” says Gladin Scott, manager of Maple Street Books in New Orleans. “Our sales are up tremendously, and we anticipate that continuing over the next year. I would say that we’re at least 15% over last year, because our business increased about 30% over the summer.” In September, Maple Street opened a store on the other side of the French Quarter; on Saturday it will open a third store in a mid-city location. Although he hasn’t signed a lease yet, Michael DeSanto, co-owner of four-year-old Phoenix Books, Cafe & Gallery in Essex, Vt., plans to open a second location in Burlington, where a Borders closed. “We had a kickass October and November,” says DeSanto. “We’ve already exceeded last year’s November; our sales were up by 30% over the three-day weekend.” To raise money for the new venture, DeSanto is using a model based on community-supported agriculture and has had a “good” initial response.
No one book has taken the place of the University of California’s Mark Twain last year for driving sales, although several booksellers, including Norcross at McLean & Eakin, view Robert Massie’s Catherine the Great as this year’s Cleopatra. Suzy Takacs, owner of the Book Cellar in Chicago, says, “I’ve sold a little bit of everything. I’ve been looking for that one book, and it hasn’t declared itself in my store yet.” Still, she’s done well with Megan McKinney’s The Magnificent Medills, Roger Ebert’s Life Itself, and Haruki Murakami’s IQ84. In children’s, Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy continues to sell along with Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. His newly released Cabin Fever was cited by every bookseller PW contacted.
At Mendham Books in the affluent community of Mendham, N.J., owner Tom Williams has seen sales rise close to double digits in part because of a much increased events schedule. Although his holiday sales don’t won’t take hold until next weekend, he’s already sold a couple copies of Phaidon’s $200 The Art Museum. Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs is doing well as is Elf on the Shelf in children’s. For Meyer at Merritt Bookstore, knitting books led by Stephanie Pearl McPhee’s latest collection of essays, All Wound Up, are doing particularly well, and he’s still moving a lot of copies of The Help.
Flyleaf was one of several stores to single out pseudonymous author Ann Droyd’s parody Goodnight iPad. At Concord Bookshop, Netzer has been handselling his personal favorite, Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, to just about every customer. The store has also done well with Diane Keaton’s memoir, Then Again, and Joan Didion’s Blue Nights. So far the only book he’s worried about publishers running out of is The History of the World in 100 Objects.
Eso Won Books in Los Angeles, which saw sales rise 50% on Friday, when it served fresh turkey sandwiches, and 40% on Saturday, has done well with Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, Condoleezza Rice’s No Higher Honor, and Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s Life Upon These Shores. Still, co-owner James Fugate, thinks that Ronin Ro’s biography of pop-star Prince could be a surprise break-out title for Christmas.
While local books have been strong, especially big names like Stephen King’s 11/22/63 throughout New England, university press titles and self-published books with a particular regional interest are taking off this season. Two top sellers at Phoenix Books are: Stephen Russell Payne’s novel, Cliff Walking (Cedar Ledge Publishers), and Megan Price’s two volume Vermont Wild (Pine Marten Press), which gathers tales from the state’s fish and game wardens. Wordsworth Books & Co. in Little Rock, Ark., is doing particularly well with a book on the new Crystal Bridge Museum in Springdale, Celebrating the American Spirit (Hudson Hills), and a World War II memoir, Dearest Letty: The World War II Love Letters of Sgt. Leland Duvall (Univ. of Arkansas Press), edited by Ernie Dumas.
What a strong or slow start on Black Friday will mean for the holiday season overall is still uncertain. At Eso Won, which has struggled for several years, Fugate is optimistic. “Christmas won’t be a deal breaker for us,” he says. “We’ll make it.” At Page & Palette in Fairhope, Ala., owner Karin Wilson relies on the last six weeks of the year for over 20% of her annual sales. With new displays using Borders’s fixtures and more store events, November sales are already up 20%, so she’s hopeful that the store will better last year. For other stores like Bank Street Books in New York City, the holidays don’t start until next weekend, plus a late Hanukkah can affect sales. Still manager/buyer Beth Puffer is “very hopeful for the year. So far sales are up.”