Reuters called 2012 possibly the worst holiday retail season since the 2008 financial crisis—it certainly wasn’t very merry for Barnes & Noble, which was down 10.9% from 2011—but most independent booksellers PW spoke with were pleased. In fact some were downright happy with sales that hewed close to projections in a report by MasterCard Advisors Spending Pulse, which cited retail increases of less than 1% from October 28 through December 24. Given that the previous year’s high double-digit increases were the result of Borders’s closing, many booksellers were satisfied with less growth in 2012.

“We were pretty happy,” said Michael Boggs, co-owner of Carmichael’s Bookstore in Louisville, Ky., whose stores were down by 6% and 4% after having sales up as much as 50% in 2011. “I look at it as the two years combined. Down a little this year versus 2011, but still over 30% up from 2010.” Holiday sales were “terrific” at the Book Cellar in Chicago, said owner Suzy Takacs, who was “really pleased” to finish 2012 up slightly, after her sales rose 38% in 2011. And some booksellers, like Kris Kleindienst, co-owner of Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Mo., reported being up double digits in 2012. Sales at her West End store rose 10% in December, while the downtown store was up 15%; combined business was up 19% for the year.

Trident Booksellers & Cafe, the sole general independent in downtown Boston, had a good holiday, according to manager Courtney Flynn, despite being unable to open its planned second-floor expansion last fall. Flynn expects the needed licenses and permits to come through early this month for the space, which contains a larger kitchen and cafe, and will include more room for books. It’s one of the few bookstores where the cafe is “the workhorse” of the business.

Although many stores were up significantly, others were down or genuinely flat. “So much depends on the economy,” said Grant Novak, manager of the Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury, Vt. “A lot of the media is blaming things on the fiscal cliff. I think people weren’t confident spending lots of money. We’re pretty close to last year. Things look pretty flat overall.” Thirty-year-old Chester County Books & Music Company in Westchester, Pa., was hurt by rumors from last August that it would close. “Christmas was not that great,” said owner Kathy Simoneaux Fortney. “People were under the impression that we were closed.” Instead she will downsize the store when its lease ends in February, and she has already looked at a couple of new locations.

If bricks-and-mortar sales were flat for general retailers, online sellers saw either modest or large gains, depending on the source. According to Chase Holiday Pulse, online sales rose 15.2% between October 29 and December 25. MasterCard reported that online sales were up 8.4% between October 28 and December 22 because of Hurricane Sandy, which downed power lines for as much as two weeks when it hit the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast at the end of October.

For Steven Baum, co-owner of Greetings & Readings in Hunt Valley, Md., near Baltimore, the continued growth of online retailers coupled with high unemployment in his area and no big book resulted in what he called “the most boring Christmas since we opened the doors in 1969. Last year I remember scrambling every day. This was the dullest Christmas ever. Our best book of the season was Fifty Shades of Chicken.”

“I think those double-digit online sales numbers are disturbing, and we are seeing more showrooming,” said Dana Brigham, manager and co-owner of Brookline Books in Brookline, Mass. Not that either was a significant setback for her store, which had a “stellar” year. “We are very happy,” she said. “Hanukkah was so early [the second week in December], that the timing on that gave us a kick early. All of our tenured folks said it was ‘the longest, hardest, most exhausting holiday ever.’ For us, because we’ve gone so heavily into the gift world—we’ve tried to squeeze one-and-a-half stores into one space—we have more items and all the books.”

What’s Selling?

Kobo devices and e-books had little impact on sales this season. Typical was 20-year-old Broadway Books in Portland, Ore., which sold out of its Kobo starter kits and had to reorder. But e-book sales were “negligible,” said co-owner Roberta Dyer. Eagle Harbor Bookstore on Bainbridge Island, Wash., did a little better and sold 23 Kobo Glos and eight Kobo Minis. “People are deciding if they want to give up their other e-readers,” said co-owner René Kirkpatrick. “But they’re enticed by knowing the e-book sales will help our store.” Many booksellers aren’t even trying to sell e-books. “We have no plans to sell Kobos at this time,” said Bob Ryan, manager of Wakefield Books in Wakefield, R.I. “We understand the popularity of the e-readers, but we’re going to cater to the print readers. We had many people come through our registers this month to tell us that although they may have Kindles and Nooks, they still want to give an actual book as a gift.”

In mid-November the National Retail Federation projected that gift card spending would rise 57.7% and hit $28.79 billion, and bookstores did their part. Although most of the consumers NRF surveyed planned to give cards to department stores and restaurants—39.1% and 33.3%, respectively—bookstores came in third at 20.8%. Kleindienst, of Left Bank Books, sold 1,200 in 2012. At Carmichael’s, there was an uptick of gift card sales through the store’s Web site, as well as at its two physical locations. “Gift card sales were a huge deal,” said Boggs. Similarly, the Book Cellar sold “a ton” of gift cards—even more than usual, according to Takacs.

Other strong sellers at the Book Cellar included a mix of hardcovers and paperbacks. In nonfiction, the Book Cellar did well with blogger Deb Perlman’s The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook and Stephen Colbert’s America Again. In fiction, local author Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, and the newly released paperback of Paula McLain’s bestselling The Paris Wife performed well. Cookbooks did especially well this holiday season. Brookline Booksmith’s Brigham singled out Nathan Myhrvold and Maxime Bilet’s The Modernist Cuisine at Home and Yottam Ottolenghi’s Plenty and Jerusalem. Lisa Baudoin, the owner of Books & Company in Oconomowoc, Wis., said, “We sold a ton of Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa Foolproof.”

At many stores, Oprah’s book club pick, Ayana Mathis’s The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, originally slated for 2013, was a top-seller. At Los Angeles’s Eso Won, it did well, as did Workman’s latest photicular book, Safari; Gabrielle Douglas’s memoir, Grace, Gold, and Glory; and Tom Reiss’s The Black Count, on the real Count of Monte Cristo. Adult fiction was strong at Books & Company, both in hardcover and paperback. Baudoin’s top-sellers were the trade paperback of Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh and hardcovers of Louise Erdrich’s The Round House and John Grisham’s The Racketeer. And Jon Meacham’s Jefferson was on many store bestseller lists.

Local titles held sway at Books & Company, which did particularly well with two Wisconsin Historical Society Press releases: Bark River Chronicles by Milton J. Bates and Bottoms Up! by Jim Draeger and Mark Speltz. Cold Crossover, a self-published mystery set in the Northwest, by local author Tom Kelly, headed Eagle Harbor Books’ bestsellers list. “Three local books totally took off,” said Alice Meyer, owner of Beaverdale Books in Des Moines, Iowa: 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.

Local authors and 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 brews 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 Boggs. He also did well with Kentucky-born Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, and with books by local author Wendell Berry, who lives down the road and signs stock regularly.

In children’s, book 7 in the Wimpy Kid series, which had been a top contender for bestselling holiday title during Black Friday weekend, slipped. It still appeared on many store bestsellers lists, but so did books like Lemony Snicket’s Who Could That Be at This Hour?, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wall Flower, R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, and Ally Condie’s Matched. Although weather made it difficult to restock close to Christmas, very few books ran out, except for children’s titles. Kara Porton, manager of A Children’s Place Bookstore in Portland, Ore., reported that both Colin Meloy’s Wildwood (book 1 in the Wildwood Chronicles) and LEGO Ninjago: Character Encyclopedia were temporarily out-of-stock at publishers.

The Road Ahead

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 Valerie Koehler, owner of the Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, who saw a double-digit sales increase. “I think we found what we do well, and I am just looking forward to a great year.”

And despite positive membership numbers from the American Booksellers Association, which ended two decades of declines in 2010, some bookstores—both 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.

Some stores that closed have continued to operate online. Marva Allen, co-owner of Hue-Man Bookstore in Harlem, New York, 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.”