Despite an economic backdrop filled with talk of a fiscal cliff and no single hot holiday title like last year’s Steve Jobs biography, independent booksellers who took part in PW Dailys Christmas 2012 survey were surprisingly upbeat. “We beat last year and last year was a stellar year. We are very happy,” said Dana Brigham, manager and co-owner of Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, Mass. Similarly, Suzy Takacs, owner of The Book Cellar in Chicago, which saw 2011 sales rise 38% in the wake of Borders’s closing, was pleased to have last year’s increase stick. Holiday sales for 2012 were “terrific,” she said, “up a whisker.” And Michael Boggs, co-owner of Carmichael’s Bookstore, with two stores in Louisville, Ky., was satisfied with being down 6% at one store and 4% at the other. “Both were up 38% from the year before. The new level is 30% more than pre-Borders. It’s an enormously big figure for a store that’s 35 years old to have.”

In Des Moines, Alice Meyer, owner of 6-year-old Beaverdale Books, was “exuberant.” Her store was up 10% last month and 29% for the year. Two-year-old Wakefield Books in Wakefield, R.I., one of a few indies to open in a Waldenbooks location, also held its own. “We had another very solid year here,” said manager Bob Ryan. “December started off a little slower than we like, but those last few days from December 21 made up a lot of ground we had lost.”

The last few days were crucial for many stores this season. Lisa Baudoin, owner of Books & Company in Oconomowoc, Wis., described the final three days as “huge,” with the store’s highest sales ever on Saturday, December 22. “This year for the retailer it was a five-day holiday,” said Steven Baum, co-owner of Greetings and Readings in Hunt Valley, Md. “But it couldn’t make up for November and December.” His store was down for the year.

Other stores experienced a stronger build up to Christmas, including some affected by late October’s “Frankenstorm,” Hurricane Sandy. “It has been a good year even taking into account that we were closed for two weeks with the hurricane,” said Karen Rumage, co-owner of River Road Books in Fair Haven, Ct. Broadway and Brookline Books, which both do a big Hanukkah business, reported an early sales boost from having the holiday fall in the first half of December.

In most of the country weather was not an issue. In Houston, Blue Willow Bookshop owner Valerie Koehler, speaking for many, said “we have been very fortunate.” Christmas Eve was in the 70s. A blizzard in Oregon the week before Christmas did play havoc with restocking for bookstores there. But national events were a greater impediment elsewhere. The Newtown shootings reverberated at some bookstores in mid-December with weakened sales. Readers who normally shop at Books of Wonder in New York City to Eso Won Books in Los Angeles stayed home with their families as they watched the tragedy unfold. Books & Company’s Baudoin was one of the few to report flat sales in December, which she attributed to “the politicians. You didn’t hear much in the news about the fiscal cliff until after Thanksgiving. And that’s when things went flat.”

Although the number of independents has been growing since 2010, when the American Booksellers Association reported 1,410 members, indies and chains continue to close. In addition to Cokesbury announcing the closing of 38 stores and 19 seminary stores, bookstores like Puddn’head Books in St. Louis, Mo.; Archiva Books in New York City; St. Helens Book Shop in St. Helens, Ore.; Rainy Day Books in Tillamook, Ore.; and Yawn’s Books & More in Canton, Ga., all closed last month.

Not all closings are necessarily a bad thing. Marva Allen, co-owner of Hue-Man Bookstore in Harlem, which shuttered its bricks-and-mortar operation over the summer, said, “we are totally loving the flexibility of our online store, which allows us to offer our customers a wider selection. We continue to do pop-ups and special events. I am conceiving a reading room concept [in lieu of a bookstore] that’s not yet fleshed out.”

What Was Hot?

Many adult titles that were cited as top sellers came out early in the season, like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (June), Cheryl Strayed’s Wild (March) and Tiny Beautiful Things (July). A few hit in November like John Meachem’s Thomas Jefferson, or December, Adam Makos and Larry Alexander’s A Higher Call, which Kris Kleindienst, co-owner of Left Bank Books in St. Louis, said, “came out of nowhere the week before Christmas.” While it got a boost from The Diane Rehm Show, another December release got an even bigger boost from media attention. Ayana Mathis’s The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, originally slated for 2013, was moved up after Oprah selected it for her book club.

At Brookline Books music and cooking stood out. “It seemed like a very good season for books,” said Brigham, rattling off titles like Philip Norman’s Mick Jagger; Peter Ames Carlin’s Bruce Springsteen biography, Bruce; David Byrne’s How Music Work; Nathan Myhrvold and Maxime Bilet’s The Modernist Cuisine at Home; and Yottam Ottolenghi’s Plenty and Jerusalem. At The Book Cellar and many stores Deb Perlman’s The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, based on her blog, was at the top of the in-store bestseller list. At Books & Company Baudoin said, “we sold a ton of Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa Foolproof. Impulse buys were also big, with Eso Wan reporting strong sales for Workman’s latest photicular book, Safari, and Greetings & Readings doing with with the F.L. Fowler parody, Fifty Shades of Chicken.

Local authors held sway at many stores. Mystery novel Cold Crossover, a self-published book set in the Northwest by local author Tom Kelly was one of Eagle Harbor Books’s bestsellers. The Bainbridge Island-based store, which had its best Christmas Eve in six years, also did well with Nancy Singleton Hachisu’s The Japanese Farm Food. The island was the site of a Japanese internment camp during WWII. “Three local books totally took off,” said Beaverdale’s Meyer: Finding Her Voice, a collection of Des Moines Register columns by Rekha Basu; James Autry’s Choosing Gratitude, and The Midwest: God’s Gift to Planet Earth by RAYGUN, an Iowa City t-shirt store.

Books by local authors or on local subjects were also strong at Left Bank Books: One Last Strike by Tony LaRussa, retired manager of the St. Louis Cardinals; Bitter Brew about Anheuser-Busch, which brewed Budweiser in St. Louis; and Kevin Killeen’s Never Hug a Nun about growing up in St. Louis in the ‘60s. Carmichael’s sold between 700 and 800 copies of Cornbread Mafia by local author James Higdon, said co-owner Michael Boggs. And it did well with Kentucky-born Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, and local author Wendell Berry, who lives down the road and signs stock at both stores.

As for 2013, optimism reigns. “Not a day goes by without me worrying about the future. Still, we’ve had sales increase every year for the last four years. So I am cautiously optimistic,” said Broadway’s Dyer. “I think the coming year will be equally strong,” says Blue Willow’s Koehler, who saw double-digit sales increase. “I think we found what we do well, and I am just looking forward to a great year.”