Even though Thanksgiving came early this year, big box retailers, national chains, and online sellers began the Christmas season even earlier. Like last year, Amazon launched its Black Friday specials the week before Thanksgiving, Wal-Mart opened on Thanksgiving, and other retailers moved to Thursday night openings, including Target, Macy’s, and Toys R Us. On the independent side, the American Booksellers Association offered members a holiday boost with the introduction of the Thanks for Shopping Indie program, which gave participating stores an extra discount on a selection of titles from 20 publishers so that they could pass along savings on American Express’s third annual Small Business Saturday. Kobo, too, gave booksellers an opportunity to discount Minis on SBS weekend.

Whether early starts and discounting will give a strong finish to 2012 is still a question mark, especially given last year’s high figures at many bookstores due to Borders’s liquidation. In addition, many indies who participated in the Thanks program, which went through this past weekend, displayed the books but didn’t offer any discounts. Others like Eight Cousins in Falmouth, Mass., gave customers a $1 thank-you coupon for each book purchased; Octavia Books in New Orleans provided a free book lover’s calendar.

Consumers were shopping, according to a National Retail Federation survey conducted by GIBinsight. More than 35 million people visited stores and e-tailing sites on Thanksgiving Day, up from 29 million last year, while 89 million shoppers went to bricks-and-mortar stores on Friday, up from 86 million. Over the weekend, holiday shoppers spent an average of $423, up from $398 in 2011, and nearly 40% purchased books, CDs, DVDs, videos, and video games, the second highest category after clothing. Total spending over the weekend reached an estimated $59.1 billion. Nielsen BookScan data fills in more specifics on the book industry, where the number of book units for Thanksgiving week rose more than 3%, with all regions of the country showing gains.

Small Business Saturday

It didn’t take reports of President Obama’s visit to One More Page in Arlington, Va., or Vice President Biden, who shopped at Nantucket Book Works and Mitchell’s Book Corner in Nantucket, Mass., on SBS to persuade book buyers to shop local. In PW’s survey of indies around the country, many attributed their strong season start to customers’ increased awareness of the importance of shopping local.

“We heard repeatedly from customers that they came into the store because they saw we were participating in SBS,” said Matt Norcross, co-owner of McLean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Mich., adding, “People are buying strong.” 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. His sales for the weekend were up 12% over last year; sales overall are up 3%. Dale Szczeblowski, co-owner and general manager of Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., described the first holiday weekend sales as “fabulous.” It wasn’t until the store’s bookkeeper reviewed them that he realized that the weekend increase was from customers using their Amex cards.

Some booksellers had a rougher start, like Tom Lyons, who purchased New England Mobile Book Fair in Newton Highlands, Mass., just days before Thanksgiving a year ago. “We had pretty good traffic over the weekend, but it was down from last year,” he said. And it followed a “lousy” September and October, while the store has been under renovation. He’s tried several things to boost sales, including 30% off sales on calendars and hardcovers on the week before the holidays, and he’s readying a mystery event with 42 authors later this week.

As Dan Carlisle, manager of Taylor Books in Charleston, W.Va., noted, “The biggest weekend is still the last weekend before Christmas.” His store, which also has an art gallery, did a little better than last year and benefited from the city’s Thursday Art Walk, which was held on Black Friday. At the Bookcase in Wayzata, Minn., where sales were flat, manager Nancy Caffoe agreed that the rush starts later. “We know we’ll make up some ground in December,” she said.

E-readers Hit the Shelves

A number of indie bookstores embraced the switch from Google to Kobo, which enabled them to sell devices for the first time. While some bookstores received their Kobo Minis and Glos by the first week in November, others like Montana Book and Toy in Helena are still waiting. At Porter Square, said Szczeblowski, “We’ve been having some luck selling the Glos. Right from the get-go we sold seven.” He didn’t sell any Minis at first; customers worried about having to turn the page too frequently because of their size. With the discount, Porter Square sold 25 Minis. McLean & Eakin also benefited from the discount and has sold 24 Minis to date along with a dozen full-priced Glos. In addition to an in-store display, McLean & Eakin also worked with the local library to set up one on using Kobos and borrowing e-books.

Diesel Books, with stores in Oakland, Malibu, and Brentwood, Calif., only sold a few Kobo units, but co-owner John Evans is pleased. “Kobo has turned into the book conversation of the year, which is what I was hoping for,” he said. “Our customers are so excited and relieved to be able to buy their devices and e-books from us.”

What’s Selling?

It’s starting to look a lot like a Wimpy Christmas. At stores across the country, book seven in Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid series, The Third Wheel, seemed like it could be this year’s Hunger Games, according to Nielsen BookScan, The Third Wheel has sold 600,000 copies since it was released on Nov. 13. At New Jersey wholesaler Bookazine, president of sales Cindy Raiton said that Wimpy Kid tops the children’s list. But she’s also excited about a number of adult titles, like 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 said.

“It was really a good fall for fiction,” said buyer Cody Morrison at Square Books in Oxford, Miss. The store has done well with Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, a first edition club pick, and John Grisham’s The Racketeer has been “huge.” Louise Erdrich’s The Round House appears on a number of bookstores’ fiction bestsellers lists alongside Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. But McLean & Eakin’s Norcross is one of several booksellers who said, “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 The Swerve, and the third volume in William Manchester and Paul Reid’s biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion, are strong at all three Diesel stores. “Cookbooks are huge,” said Kym Havens, assistant manager at Wellesley Books in Wellesley, Mass. “We had an event with Deb Perlman, and The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook sold out immediately.”

Local books are also moving. Cynthia Duprey, owner of the newly opened Next Chapter Bookstore in Barre, Vt., sold lots of copies of 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 in Portland, Maine, 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. Local author Kenneth Kraegel is selling at Pooh’s Corner in Grand Rapids, Mich., but so is Pete the Cat Saves Christmas, which is selling well beyond its Southern roots. And at Octavia, local books like 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 are selling briskly.

Already some books are scarce. Every time Nick Bruel’s A Bad Kitty Christmas is back in stock, the Blue Marble Children’s Bookstore in Ft. Thomas, Ky., sells out and has trouble getting it back, according to manager Peter Moore. Caffoe at the Bookcase said she is 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, N.Mex., and Chris 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 fewer books and [have] bigger print runs,” said Bowe, co-owner of Longfellow Books, who is doing that for his store. “I’m buying heavy right now and really stocking the books we believe in.”

Thanksgiving Week Sales, 2011–2012 (units in thousands)

2011 2012 % Change
Northeast 831 866 4.2%
Middle Atlantic 1,755 1,769 0.8%
East North Central 1,891 1,987 5.0%
West North Central 836 882 5.5%
South Atlantic 2,124 2,208 3.9%
South Central 1,513 1,601 5.8%
Mountain 993 1,023 3.0%
Pacific 2,102 2,111 0.4%
Total 12,048 12,447 3.3%