Few booksellers in PW’s post–Labor Day survey of summer sales were as upbeat as Val Stadick, owner of Main Street Books in Minot, N.D., where the state’s oil boom helped the seven-year-old bookstore bounce back from a flood two years ago. “Every month this summer has been the best month ever,” said Stadick, whose sales were up 10%–20% during the period. She anticipates her best year to date, with sales up 5%–10%. Wachtung Booksellers in Montclair, N.J., is more typical: there summer tends to be slower, but the store’s sales were “a hair better” than in 2012, according to owner Margot Sage-El. Although she said that selling last year was largely a matter of putting out three stacks of fast-moving titles for customers to take to the register—Fifty Shades of Grey, Hunger Games, and Gone Girl—this year marked a return to hand-selling a wide variety of titles. “We were hand-selling our little butts off,” quipped Sage-El, who is “hopeful” for a strong finish to 2013. “This year it was obvious that e-book sales do cannibalize paperback sales,” she said, noting, “Paperback sales have gone down, but in the summer, we get more people willing to take a chance” on authors they aren’t familiar with.
“Our sales were great this summer, and August, in particular, was one of the best [months]we’ve ever had,” said Michael Coy, manager of Third Place Books in Seattle, who reported being up 5% over last summer. “This is a really supportive community, so they buy their books here first.” Nine-year-old Book Cellar in Chicago experienced a similar bump. Some stores with strong sales are relocating this month—like Byrd’s Books, which is moving to a larger, more central location in Bethel, Conn., and Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord, N.H., which just reopened in a significantly larger space down the block from its current location.
Susan Novotny, who owns eight-year-old Marketblock Books in Troy, N.Y., and the Book House in Stuyvesant Plaza in Albany, which is entering its 37th year, said that she and other veteran booksellers she’s spoken with have been down so far this year. In Albany, she said, “it’s an unhappy combination of a weak economy, the loss of 700 office people in the building next to us, people reading less, and the relentless hammering we’ve had from online retailers.” Her store in Troy is continuing to grow, but she’s been pulling back on books in Albany. “We now sell cookies and homemade chocolate, anything we can get our hands on,” said Novotny, one of several indies who sued Amazon and the big six earlier this year in an attempt to level the e-book playing field.
Some booksellers reported a roller-coaster pattern of sales, with one month up, another down. That’s been the case at Bartleby’s Books in Wilmington, Vt. The store was trying to beat a record year in 2012, after reopening in November 2011 following closure due to Hurricane Irene. In July, sales were down 10%, but they were up 3%–4% in August. Owner Lisa Sullivan said that “things feel pretty normal at Barletby’s” since the hurricane, but the town continues to recover, with empty buildings she’d like to see reoccupied. Wilmington was recently named one of 23 Vermont Designated Downtowns, which gives the town state-supported advantages to improve its business district; the town created a downtown organization called Wilmington Works, which Sullivan co-chairs.
While some stores worked on upping their game without significant changes, others tried new things, which was important in a season without a standout bestseller. Baltimore’s Ivy Bookshop—where sales, according to co-owner Ed Berlin, are “holding steady”—added an alternative literature section and expanded its trade fiction paperbacks to target readers 21–35 years old. In addition, it held summer events for the first time. Ariana Paliobagis, owner of the Country Bookshop in Bozeman, Mont., reported “a significant uptick” this summer—in part because she began stocking more copies of top sellers. “We discovered that by stocking more quantities, we sold more,” she said. She also benefitted from a good-sized YA section and the fact that “this was the summer of John Green.”
Books on the Common in Ridgefield, Conn., previously had evening hours one night per week and expanded that to two nights. “Not a ton of business,” said owner Ellen Burns, “but people are very happy to see us open when they’re downtown in the evening.” At the Bookshelf in Cincinnati, Ohio, Chris Weber bought a lot more signed first editions from publishers. Stefani Beddingfield, the new owner of Inkwood Books in Tampa, Fla., took a different tack, offering a happy hour on Tuesdays, when she serves wine and beer, and offering a 10% discount on featured sections. “My overall plan,” she said, “was to make the store feel like my book club—offer wine and food.”
A few stores were down, like Turning Pages Books & More in Natchez, Miss., which was off by 14%, and Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia, which may close after three years of declining sales. Still, most indies fared better than their chain counterparts. Books-A-Million was down 8% for the quarter ended August 3; Barnes & Noble reported an 8.5% decline for the same period.
Some indies’ sales were boosted by in-store signings by Neil Gaiman, who was touring for The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor, Mich., sold more than 1,700 copies at its event. Buyer Bill Cusumano attributed the store’s up summer to Gaiman and to its summer reading program for kids, which helped promote its children’s backlist titles. Nicola’s also sold The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling), and on the kids side, Veronica Roth’s Divergent series and R.J. Palacio’s Wonder.
Children’s books were “definitely a bright spot,” said Lauren Harr, sidelines buyer and bookseller at Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville, N.C. “YA sales are great-to-excellent. We’ve done a lot of author panels and group readings that continue to complement and increase sales.” In addition to Roth’s series and Palacio’s novel on bullying, she cited Rick Yancey’s The Fifth Wave and Sarah Dessen’s The Moon and More as strong sellers, along with Drew Daywalt’s debut picture book, The Day the Crayons Quit. Stadick at Main Street has gone through three orders of Crayons. Wachtung’s Sage-El also noticed that many young people discovered Stephen King and Harry Potter this summer.
For many stores, Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed continued strong all summer long, although at Wellesley Books in Wellesley, Mass., general book buyer Lorna Ruby reported that its sales had quieted down. Her store has sold “a ton” of S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife and Jojo Moyes’s Me Before You. She described Dan Brown’s Inferno as “a big bump” and has done well with Piper Kerman’s tie-in to the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, as well as with Jeanette Walls’s The Silver Star.
So just how accurate a predictor of holiday sales is the summer season? Many booksellers are optimistic—particularly newer stores like nine-year-old Book Cellar in Chicago, which has seen sales rise every year, according to owner Suzy Takacs. “It’s difficult to overcome that huge burst we had in 2011,” the year Borders closed, said Nicola’s Cusumano, a sentiment echoed by other booksellers. He also expressed concern about this year’s shorter holiday season—only 27 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. And then there’s the question of what impact an early Hanukkah will; this year, the Jewish holiday starts at sundown on the night before Thanksgiving.