The closing of hundreds of Borders bookstores in September was one of the best holiday gifts that independent bricks-and-mortar bookstores received this year. That coupled with good weather, American Express’s Small Business Saturday, and exclusive arrangements with A-list authors like Michael Moore for signed books made for a strong holiday season. Three stores in PW’s informal coast-to-coast survey of bookstores—Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass.; Beaverdale Books in Des Moines, Iowa; and Skylight Books in Los Angeles—called it their best holiday season ever.

But just because December was up doesn’t mean that stores finished ahead of 2010 or that there aren’t many uncertainties in the future, including both economic and those caused by Nooks, Kindles, and iPads under Hanukkah bushes and Christmas trees. How much of a negative effect Amazon’s price check app promotion early in the season had isn’t clear. As one bookseller pointed out, although a lot of customers said they were “disgusted” by it, no one said they would stop shopping at Amazon. Charles Robinson, manager of Eagle Eye Book Shop in Decatur, Ga., on the other hand, used it as an opportunity to talk with customers about the importance of buying books locally. “I wrote out a pretty long e-mail to all our subscribers, and I got a really good response back from that,” said Robinson. “The Atlanta Journal-Constitution actually picked it up and used it for an article. So I think that definitely helped us with awareness.”

Old School Shopping

At Diesel Books, where sales were up 20% at the flagship store in Brentwood, Calif., co-owner John Evans observed a return to “old school practices,” with customers commenting that they were going to buy everything local this year. On the publishing side, old school meant reps volunteering to work in the stores during Christmas, something that hasn’t happened in a long time. “The story that bookstores won’t survive, that story is over,” Evans said. “Now bookstores have to figure out where they fit in the community.”

“We had a huge year,” says Charles Napoleon, general manager of Tatnuck in Westborough, Mass., which benefited from the closing of two nearby Borders stores. “You have to remember that last year everything was down. This year we had strong sales across the board in books, gifts, and toys.” Over the past five years, the store has shifted its inventory mix and now is 50/50 books and nonbook items. On the adult side, Tatnuck did particularly well with Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s Killing Lincoln, Chris Matthews’s Jack Kennedy, and Stephen King’s 11/22/63. In children’s, the latest addition to the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, Cabin Fever, was #1.

“It was absolutely amazing,” said Sarah Goddin, general manager of Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh, N.C. “We’ve been down over the past year, but from December 1 through 24 we were up 19%. This was our best December since 2006. The trend has been [for sales to take off] later in the [holiday] season. This year was the exact opposite. We were busy early and stayed busy the whole time.” Four Borders stores closed nearby, and several hundred customers accepted Quail Ridge’s offer to turn in their Borders’ membership cards and join Quail Ridge’s reader program. Among the store’s top sellers were John Feinstein’s One on One, which ran out occasionally, and Steve Jobs, which most stores reported being out of in the days leading up to Christmas. Quail Ridge was one of the few stores to not have problems getting P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley. “We’d get piles of it in, and they’d just keep melting down,” said Goddin. In addition to Wimpy Kid, the Hunger Games trilogy, Shel Silverstein’s Every Thing on It, and Rick Riordan’s Son of Neptune, Quail Ridge had one surprise, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, due out in mid-January. Because of an upcoming event, advance sales put it on the store’s bestsellers list.

Skylight Books in Los Angeles also had a “fabulous” Christmas, with sales up 30% over last year. General manager Kerry Slattery attributed it in part to having much better stock on hand and running out of fewer titles, although like everyone else she ran out of The Art of Fielding and couldn’t get copies of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret after the movie opened. Skylight’s new membership program helped boost sales, with some customers buying memberships as gifts. Skylight also benefitted when McSweeney’s allowed it to sell Grantland, which McSweeney’s produced in conjunction with the eponymous ESPN Web site and which had originally only been available at

Peter Makin, who opened a second branch of Brilliant Books in Traverse City, Mich., in October following the closing of a Borders, also used the word “fabulous” to describe sales at the new store. Brilliant got an additional boost from its Web site, where it sold 3,000 copies of Michael Moore’s books, including 500 copies of Here Comes Trouble it shipped on the Monday before Christmas. Makin also did well with signed first editions of Diane Keaton’s Then Again and hand-sold copies of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. At Village Books in Bellingham, Wash., holiday sales were up 15%, but when co-owner Chuck Robinson backed out sales for cards, gifts, and holiday decorations, book sales were down 4%. He hasn’t run the numbers for the holiday pop-up store at the mall yet. “We’re still not certain,” said Robinson. “The landlord made us open early in October and the store was dead. Sales did pick up after that, but they weren’t great.” The pop-up store will be open through January. In addition to many of the same books that sold at other indies, Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken had legs. In fiction The Art of Fielding and in nonfiction Thinking, Fast and Slow also did exceptionally well.

Selling Local

That some bestsellers are local was evidenced by regional twists in many stores’ lists. “We always have books from local authors. That’s the kind of thing people expect to find here, unique things,” said Maureen Corcoran, owner of Breakwater Books in Guilford, Conn. Home for Christmas by New England author Jan Brett did well in her store, as did a poetry book available only at Breakwater.

At Square Books in Oxford, Miss., in addition to Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, Robert K. Massie’s Catherine the Great, and Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, John Grisham’s The Litigators did well. The store also sold Sid Salter’s Jack Cristil: The Voice of the MSU Bulldogs, which sold out, and a coffee-table book on Mississippians, edited by Neil White. In children’s, Eric Litwin’s Pete the Cat series, illustrated by Georgia artist James Dean, beat out Wimpy Kid. And at Eagle Eye The Help just keeps selling. “We’ll never stop selling The Help,” said Robinson. “Whenever we get more in, we take them over to Kathryn Stockett’s house and she signs them for us.”

A letter that Hardwick, Vt., Galaxy Bookshop owner Linda Ramsdell wrote explaining why the store is moving to a smaller space in the center of town—Amazon, the economy, and the shifting place of physical books in people’s lives—brought many customers back and dozens of offers to help with the move. “That letter really reconnected us with our customers and made people consider what the bookstore means to the community,” said Ramsdell, who distributed it at the December 3 anniversary party. People not only shopped local but bought local works. Galaxy’s top three sellers on the adult side were David Budbill’s poetry collection Happy Life; Ben Hewitt’s The Town That Food Saved, about Hardwick; and the second volume of Megan Price’s Vermont Wild, stories of fish and game wardens.

The 10-year-old Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore was one of several stores that benefited from media attention, in its case because of a successful sale that took place at the end of December. “We were up maybe 15% or 20% above last year,” said former owner Darielle Linehan. “Physically, I don’t think we could have done any more business.” She attributed the increase to the publicity the store has also garnered as the last general bookstore in the city. Among the store’s top sellers were The Sense of an Ending, Catherine the Great, as well as Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts and David McCullough’s The Greater Journey. “Last Christmas was the iPad Christmas,” said Linehan. “This Christmas we’re starting to carve out our niche and see where independents fit.”

Still, booksellers like Jon Platt, owner of Nonesuch Books & Cards in South Portland and Biddeford, Maine, are not quite so sanguine about e-reading devices. “I’m mostly concerned that the bestseller readers are using it, and they used to be our best customers,” he said. Looking ahead, Platt singled out showrooming as the biggest issue facing bricks-and-mortar booksellers: “We’re at a disadvantage because of the rent, salaries, heat, lights, and local taxes. Anybody who has books on a sales floor, we’re all supporting Amazon and not getting any benefit out of it.” For now, though, business is good, and the South Portland store had a very strong holiday season without Borders. Despite reduced traffic in Biddeford, where a 200,000-sq.-ft. Lowe’s closed in the same mall, Nonesuch finished even with last year.