“We were pleased, well pleased, given the state of the economy,” said Dale Szczeblowski, general manager of Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., in response to a PW survey of several dozen stores across the country about holiday sales in 2013. The store was up for the year in part because of strong holiday sales and in part because of large advance orders in the spring for signed copies of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Others, like Steven Baum, president of Greetings and Readings in Hunt Valley, Md., just outside Baltimore, used the adjective “excellent” to describe the 2013 holiday season and the year overall.

BookPeople in Austin, Tex., was one of a number of bookstores to have its best year ever, in its case for the fourth consecutive year in a row. According to BookPeople owner and American Booksellers Association president Steve Bercu, year-end sales were up 2.5%. He was also one of several booksellers to report two of the best days in store history in the run up to the holiday: Saturday, December 21 and Monday, December 23. At Strand Book Store in New York City, which was up 10% over 2012 for the the last 10 days of the holiday selling season, the Saturday before Christmas beat the store’s previous single-day record by 12%. Strand general manager Eddie Sutton told PW that “Christmas Eve was 25% stronger than any other Christmas Eve on record.” The additional hour the store stayed open didn’t account for the strength of the day or the overall holiday mood, which he described as “terrific.”

The shop local movement played a key role at a number of stores, starting with the inaugural Indies First movement on Small Business Saturday during which authors handsold their favorites at indie bookstores. “Customers were intentionally supporting local business,” said Sarah Bagby, owner of Watermark Books in Wichita, Kans. “[People] were buying in stacks for everyone on their lists, rather than coming in for a specific book for one person.” The store also saw a 24% increase in gift cards. Sam Droke-Dickinson, co-owner of eight-year-old Aaron’s Books in Lititz, Pa., which had its best holiday season ever, benefitted from a similar phenomenon. “Instead of buying two books,” she said, “they bought five or seven.” She, too, had “a big run” on gift cards during the holiday shopping season.

Lissa Muscatine, co-owner of Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., which attracted media attention when President Obama did part of his holiday shopping there on Small Business Saturday, attributed slightly up sales for the holiday season and the year to events. “We had a huge, huge, huge number of events,” she said, “and we also continue with our other programs—courses, trips, and outings, which are very popular. We also introduced some new and very nice sidelines that did well.”

Not every bookseller was able to make up for the compressed selling season coupled with a sluggish economy or to capture the attention of shoppers drawn to the ease of purchasing online. According to comScore, desktop spending through the final weekend before Christmas was up 10% over 2012 and the holiday shopping season had 10 billion-dollar spending days, led by Cyber Monday for the fourth consecutive year. Amazon received orders for 426 items per second that day, totaling more than 36.8 million items worldwide.

Right after Christmas, Mrs. Nelson’s Toy and Book Shop in La Verne, Calif.., began its going out of business sale. A few days later 10-year-old Other Tiger in Westerly, R.I., put itself up for sale. The store will close at the end of January if a buyer doesn’t come forward. Ditto for Bank Street Book Nook in New Milford, Ct., which just announced its possible closing. The multi-store Ukazoo chain, which was bought by Discovery Books a year and a half ago, closed one store in Toledo, Ohio, in August, and a second store in Southfield, Mich., just before Thanksgiving. A third store in Towson, Md., was purchased by its original founders, brothers Jack and Seth Revel, in mid-December, but it was too late to capture much in the way of holiday sales. In December, Bank Street Books in New York City announced that it will downsize significantly as a result of increasing rent and a years-long slide in sales.

Laurel Bookstore in Oakland, Calif., lost sales due to a changing neighborhood with enough crime after dark to keep customers away in the evening. Owner Luan Stauss said that sales were “flat” for the year and is planning to move when her lease is up in August. She’d like a much bigger space than her current 960 sq. ft. store, which is too small to accommodate large events. “This community as a whole needs jobs. People don’t have extra money in their pockets, Customers apologize for buying just one book. Finding a new spot will be good for us,” she said.

Construction woes made a difficult situation worse for for 23-year-old Page After Page in Elizabeth City, N.C. Since Susan Hinkle purchased the store in 2005, she has tried modifying the inventory with sidelines, including art supplies and candles. A few years ago, she even enlarged the space to accommodate more toys and items like knitting supplies. This year Hinkle added Out-of-Print T-shirts, jewelry by a local artisan, and additional cards. “The economy is not good, [and] it really showed this year,” said Hinkle, whose sales were down.

Surprisingly, given the ice storms that knocked out power in many states in the Midwest and New England, few bookstores felt the impact. At Micawber’s Books in St. Paul, Minn., co-owner Tom Bielenberg attributed part of the holiday season’s down sales to weather. “Every day was real cold or there was ice and sleet. It was daunting for people,” he said. He also noted that the store was up against strong sales for co-owner Hans Weyandt’s Read This!, which came out in 2012. The power outages in Michigan were actually good for sales at Schuler’s Books in Lansing, which had electricity. “We became a warming center,” said manager Rhoda Wolff. “The store was packed with people. Families were meeting here. People were in the cafe, too.”

What Was Selling?

Although there was no big blockbuster this year, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. As Willard Williams, owner of three Toadstool Bookshops in New Hampshire and the creator of Cider Monday, an indie alternative to Cyber Monday, noted, “We seldom find there is one big book. We always find there are plenty of really good books to recommend. There is nothing more satisfying than placing an interesting book face up on a table and watching it disappear within an hour, especially when it has been out on the shelf, unseen, for months, and you knew all along that it was the right book for someone.” That said, several titles did emerge. In nonfiction, the store did well with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit; Bobby Orr’s memoir, Orr; Ben Bradlee Jr.’s look at Ted Williams, The Kid; and Charles Krautheimer’s Things That Matter.

“Our concern was going up against the high-priced Building Stories last year,” said Sutton at the Strand. “But we ended up with a big book: Humans of New York (901 copies), followed by The Goldfinch (459 copies), which any other year would have easily been the top seller.” Sari Botton’s Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, and Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half were also among the store’s top sellers.

The Brosh title was also strong at Porter Square, which also did well with Mary Oliver’s new collection of poetry, Dog Songs, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland. Both Pat Conroy’s The Death of Santini and Alice Waters’s Art of Simple Food II were disappointments, according to Szczeblowski, who also found that sales of the Bill Bryson’s One Summer weren’t as strong as his other books. “We were getting warnings from Random House to stock up, but we never ran out of it,” he said.

On the children’s side, Derek Molitor, co-owner of the Bookbug in Kalamazoo, Mich., proclaimed Oliver Jeffers, illustrator of Drew Daywalt’s The Day the Crayons Quit, the “champion of the holiday season for children’s books.” Certainly Daywalt’s book appeared on a number of store bestsellers lists, even though it was often hard to get, especially near Christmas.

What Linda Devlin, owner of 14-year-old Linda’s Story Time in Monroe, Conn., describes as “a lot of the usual stuff” sold throughout the season, some for the second year in a row: R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, Rick Yancey’s The Fifth Wave, Veronica Roth’s Allegiant, and Rick Riordan’s The Mark of Athena. Since she’s right next to Newtown, her store did especially well with Patricia MacLachlan’s When Snowflakes Fall, illustrated by Steven Kellogg.

At Bookstore Plus in Lake Placid, N.Y., When Snowflakes Fall was also strong, along with the new Jan Brett picture book, Cinders, and “obviously” book eight in the Wimpy Kid series, Hard Luck, said co-owner Marc Galvin. The store had its best year in its 40-year-history, up a little over 2% over 2012. Like many, most of the sales came at the end. To keep it festive, Galvin’s six-year-old wrapped gifts, and the Galvins put out homemade eggnog.

Local titles did well on both the adult and children’s side. At Avid Bookshop Top Chef cook Hugh Acheson’s new book, A New Turn in the South, was the store’s bestseller. Octavia Books in New Orleans sold hundreds of copies of Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker’s Unfathomable City and Mary Fitzpatrick’s Days and Nights in the Sleep City, along with a self-published picture book, What the Sleepy Animals Do at the Audubon Zoo by Grace Millsaps and Ryan Murphy, illustrated by John Clark IV and Alyson Kilday. Co-owner Tom Lowenburg was surprised at the sales of Sherri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial. “It’s not a typical holiday book but it continued to sell through Christmas,” he said.

Octavia wasn’t the only store to find strong sales with self-published books. At Bookstore 1 Sarasota in Sarasota, Fla., owner Georgia Court said that her top seller was a memoir by Barry Rothman, a retired attorney on her staff, about his adventures trying to find the perfect mate, Mary Ann or Ginger (iUniverse).

Self-published or no, local authors, frequently published by local presses, did well across the board. At the Toadstool local authors Archer Mayor’s Three Can Keep a Secret and Howard Mansfield’s Dwelling in Possibility were among the season’s best. The latter outsold last year's Fifty Shades of Grey by 20%.

Several books were hard to keep in stock, and a few sold out during the critical days leading up to Christmas. At The King’s English in Salt Lake, co-owner Betsy Burton ran out of The Bully Pulpit and Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat. “A few key titles were unavailable for very brief times,” said Bradley Graham, co-owner of Politics and Prose. “The Goldfinch ran out but recovered in time for the holiday, likewise with The Flame Throwers. Harper ran out of the Doctor Who: The Vault right away, and it didn’t come back until December 23. Hachette couldn’t keep the J.J. Abrams book S in stock. In our children’s department despite ordering up and good advice from the rep we sold out of Maps by the end of November.”

E-Books and Beyond

E-books and devices have not been the game-changer that some stores had hoped for, when the American Booksellers Association signed with Kobo last year. Porter Square was probably one of the most satisfied with Kobo sales. “We did better than our expectations,” said Szczeblowski. “We’re talking one or two units a week. Our e-book sales have gone up all year. Through October, we already sold more e-books than all of last year, about $1,100 worth. It’s not insignificant.”

Politics and Prose, which got off to a good start with Kobo last year, found sales for the devices, accessories, and e-books “markedly lower” this December than last.” For other stores, like Octavia, sales have been extremely low: “a fraction of one percentage,” said Lowenberg.

Avid Bookshop in Athens, Ga., has been disappointed in e-book sales. “I am not at all satisfied with the system we have set up right now. The earnings we make on both e-readers and e-books are so low, it’s almost jaw-dropping. So I have not been pushing that side of the business as much in recent months,” said owner Janet Geddis. However, she did have one e-book stand out, a debut novel by one of the store’s booksellers, Until We End by Frankie Brown (Bloomsbury Spark).

Despite the ups and downs, many booksellers were upbeat about the year ahead. “Overall our sales for the year were down about 4%,” said Toadstool’s Williams. “But I was pleasantly surprised to find that, for the year, our hardcover fiction sections in all three stores were up several percentage points, as well as general hardcover nonfiction. To me this bodes well for the physical book.”

“We’re going into 2014 optimistic,” said Greetings and Readings’s Baum, a man not usually given to optimism. “We’re seeing a nice moderation of people using both e-books and paperbacks. It’s finally getting back to the scenario of the VCR and the movies. You don’t always want to sit in from on the TV. There’s a special fun to going out and shopping.” He’s also seen the changes the 23,000 sq. ft. store has made to its book department work. Last year alone there were three revisions to find the right footprint, which is 5,500 sq. ft.

And those with record-breaking years in 2013, like Bookstore Plus and BookPeople, are looking to do it again, and again.