“Wild and wonderful” is the way Carol Chittenden, owner of Eight Cousins in Falmouth, Mass., describes the first weekend of the holiday selling season. “Dollars were up 12%, average purchases were up 5%, and the number of customers were up 6%. People were happy to be here.” At McLean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Mich., co-owner Matt Norcross is equally enthusiastic. “People are buying strong,” he says. The store has already sold multiple copies of expensive books like The Modernist Cuisine at Home, which retails for $140, and Chris Ware’s Building Stories, priced at $50. Both Norcross and Chittenden are among two dozen booksellers who participated in PW’s informal survey of indies around the country. Based on their results it looks like most stores could match or exceed last year’s figures, which in the wake of Borders closing were particularly strong.
At Monkey See, Monkey Do in Clarence, N.Y., Kathleen Skoog, who opened the store three and a half years ago with her daughter, was scratching her head over an “extremely disappointing” Friday paired with a Saturday that was the store’s best day ever. Although the weekend was flat, sales have been up year-over-year by 30%. “I anticipate that will hold for the year,” she says. At Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, sales were down nearly 2% for the weekend, although they had been up 20% for the month. Chris Bowe, co-owner of 13-year-old Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine, was also surprised by sales, but in a good way. Saturday’s sales were up 10% to 15% while Sunday was up 30% to 40%. “Sunday shocked us,” said Bowe. “It made all of us smile.”
Diesel Books with stores in Oakland, Malibu, and Brentwood, Calif., participated in every shop indie program of the weekend—Plaid Friday, Small Business Saturday, and the ABA’s Thank You for Shopping Local. As a result, comp sales rose 10% over 2011. Others who tried Plaid Friday were disappointed. Allison Stage, owner of four-year-old Mockingbird Books, a specialty children’s bookstore in Seattle, found it “slow.” But she more than made up for lost business on Saturday and Sunday. “Customers aren’t quite as worried about spending their dollars,” says Stage, who was up 40% for the weekend, 32% year-to-date.
“The nice thing about SBS is it’s really palpable, and people respond to it,” says Tom Lowenburg, owner of Octavia Books in New Orleans. “We’re showing a different way of working with customers, and that’s why we’re here.” The store is also promoting books through the ABA’s Thanks for Shopping program and offering a free book lover’s calendar to customers who buy one of the 66 titles on display. “SBS was really successful here,” says Lesley Reiner, co-owner of Inkwood Books in Tampa, Fl. “It was fabulous.” The store has special pricing on 20 Thanks for Shopping titles this week. Customers who buy one book get 10% off; two or more, 20%.
In areas hit by the double whammy of slower sales pre-election and Hurricane Sandy, customers showed their support, SBS or no. “I simply cannot tell you how nice it is to be selling books again. The weekend was fabulous, way beyond our expectations,” says Annie Philbrick, owner of Bank Square Books in Mystic, Ct., who was forced to replace the store’s flooring and many of its fixtures following Sandy. Overall, sales for the weekend were up 20%, with Saturday’s sales being very close to the level of Christmas Eve.
It was a similar story at 47-year-old Sparta Books in Sparta, N.J., which was forced to close for a week due to the storm. Area schools were closed for two weeks. “On SBS,” says owner Donna Fell, “we did a third more business than last year.” Although Fell tried special pricing—20% off children’s hardcovers, buy one get one half off for cookbooks, and buy a hardcover adult title and get a third off a paperback—she says that what worked best was the $5-off coupon she included in the NAIBA catalog. Her store also benefited from moving to a better location in the shopping center and from a Borders and two other independents closing. Still, she says, “we’re never going to get back those two weeks of business.”
It’s starting to look a lot like a Wimpy Christmas. At stores across the country, book 7 in Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid series, The Third Wheel, seemed like it could be this year’s Hunger Games. At New Jersey-based wholesaler Bookazine, president of sales Cindy Raiton reports that Wimpy Kid tops the children’s list, and that while that Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy may not be selling the way it did this summer, it’s still moving. On the adult side, she singles out Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson, Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s Killing Kennedy, and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. “We are very positive about the holiday season. People are still recovering from the storm, but the holiday spirit is very much in the air,” she says.
At Square Books in Oxford, Miss., buyer Cody Morrison, was surprised by how well rock icon biographies are doing. “It was really a good fall for fiction,” he adds. The store has done well with Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, one of the store’s first edition club picks, and John Grisham’s The Racketeer has been “huge.” Many booksellers have also done well with Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, which appears on fiction lists alongside Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth. At McLean & Eakins, Peter Geye’s The Lighthouse Road, set in Duluth, is also doing well. But co-owner Norcross was one of several booksellers to comment, “nothing has taken a strong lead. We don’t have the Cleopatra book yet.”
On the nonfiction side, in addition to the Meacham, Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa Foolproof, Stephen Greenblatt’s Swerve, and The Last Lion, the third volume in William Manchester and Paul Reid’s biography of Winston Churchill are strong at all three Diesel stores. “Cookbooks are huge,” says Kym Havens, assistant manager at Wellesley Books in Wellesley, Mass. “We have an event with Deb Perlman, and The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook sold out immediately.”
Local books are also moving up stores’ bestsellers lists. Cynthia Duprey, owner of the newly opened Next Chapter Bookstore in Barre, Vt., has already benefitted from a lot of local goodwill. During the months when the town’s main street was torn up, between April and October, people held monthly cash mobs and topped them off with a final street-wide cash mob on SBS, the same day as the annual Santa parade. Two popular titles are the third volume of Megan Price’s Vermont Wild series about the adventures of Vermont game and fish wardens, and a children’s book, The Brothers Plad by brothers Sean Plasse (writing under the pen name Watermelon Tourmaline) and Matt Plasse (Hignus Harkaway).
On the children’s side, Longfellow Books has done well with Scott Nash’s The High Skies of Blue Jay the Pirate and Chris Van Dusen’s If I Built a House. And at Octavia, local books top the adult list: There’s One in Your Neighborhood: The Lost Movie Theaters of New Orleans by Rene Brunet and Jack Stewart; New Orleans Observed by Erroll Barron; and The Accidental City by Lawrence Powell.
Already some books are scarce. At The Bookcase of Wayzata, Minn., a Minneapolis suburb, manager Nancy Caffoe says that they are still waiting to get National Book Award-winner Goblin Secrets by local author William Alexander. Another NBA winner, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, has also been on back order. Both Dorothy Massey, owner of Collected Works in Santa Fe, and Bowe at Longfellow’s have been frustrated that Anne Lamott’s just released Help, Thanks, Wow is already out of stock, as is the David Byrne, How Music Works. "Publishers should publish less books and bigger print runs. I’m buying heavy right now and really stocking the books we believe in,” says Bowe.