Despite high rents and preliminary data from the U.S. Census Bureau that shows a 7.9% drop in overall bookstore sales for the first half of 2014, PW’s informal poll of nearly two dozen indie bookstores found that many overcame a tough winter and are, in fact, up for the year. Some are way up.
Parnassus Books in Nashville is one of several stores to report double-digit sales. It had a 21% year-to-date increase through the end of July, according to co-owner Karen Hayes. Ticketed events, like one with Michael Pollan for Cooked, at which all 500 attendees purchased a book, contributed to higher sales, as did the store’s first edition book club. In North Dakota, the increased traffic from the oil boom has helped keep book sales gushing at Williston-based Books on Broadway for the past few years, and this summer was no exception. Rapid population growth and changing demographics pushed sales up 15% to 20%. Co-owner Chuck Wilder noted that his biggest problem has been finding staff.
Old Firehouse Books in Fort Collins, Colo., started the summer 20% ahead of last year and came out 60% ahead, according to owner Susan Wilmer. Several large events with Khalid Hosseini (And the Mountains Echoed), Ben Carson (One Nation), Craig Johnson (Any Other Name), and C.J. Box (Shots Fired) contributed to the jump. Even without the first two events, which sold well over 1,000 books combined, the store stayed “nicely ahead.”
Women & Children First in Chicago benefitted from extra media attention. Sarah Hollenbeck, who purchased the store with Lynn Mooney in July, attributed “slightly better” August numbers this year to the publicity surrounding the sale. Changes to improve traffic flow and bringing in more remainders also helped. The store plans to do extensive renovations after the holidays.
Changing Hands in Tempe, Ariz., also received positive coverage. On May 30, just when Arizona temperatures start to climb into the triple digits, the company opened a second store in Phoenix. “The new store has been really fabulous this summer. We were in the black,” said co-owner Gayle Shanks. “We weren’t necessarily retiring our debt, but we were doing way better than our projections. Because there was so much publicity, our flagship store did better than the summer before.” One of the most popular features of the Phoenix store is its First Draft bar, which extends into the events space. Shanks estimated that it, along with packaged liquor, accounted for 20% to 25% of sales. People not only buy a drink and talk to the bartender about books—they also buy more books because of it. As an example of how the two work in tandem, she pointed to a recent event with Daniel Levitan, author of The Organized Mind, at which the store sold 90 books and 37 bottles of wine paired with it. Shanks is already considering adding a bar in Tempe.
Some stores enjoyed a strong summer thanks to renovations made more than a year ago. That’s the case at Trident Booksellers and Cafe in Boston, which redid its second floor. “We’ve been seeing increased sales, especially in trade paperback and children’s,” said manager Courtney Flynn. “It’s partially the economy, lots of tourists, and the expansion worked. People really like the cafe upstairs.”
Two years ago Montclair Book Center in Montclair, N.J., which sells new and used books in a space measuring approximately 15,000 sq. ft. spread out over two buildings and a downstairs, added vinyl records on consignment. The store tested vinyl by shelving it downstairs. The downstairs inventory started at 75% books, 25% records but the ratio has been reversed, according to store manage John Ynsu. This fall the store will add new records to a main floor space that used to house a comics store and, before that, a cafe. But don’t expect records to take over the entire store. “We always are a bookstore,” said Ynsu.
At least one retailer experienced a large sales bump when Stephen Colbert recommended Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., as a place to pre-order Edan Lepucki’s debut novel, California, which is one of a number of Hachette titles for which Amazon turned off the preorder button. Powell’s received 10,000 preorders alone. “California was a wonderful gift for us this summer,” said Kim Sutton, director of marketing. “Besides incredible sales of the book, California played a huge role in starting a conversation about online shopping choices. Powells.com continues to benefit from this increased awareness.” Powell’s also profited from reopening two rooms in its flagship store on August 1, following a six-month remodeling. The additional space, increased tourism, and a second visit from Lepucki for an August event, helped lift sales 10% last month.
A number of booksellers, like 30-year-old Trident, which has limited display space, preferred not to call attention to the Hachette-Amazon standoff: “I hate to draw the customer into heated disputes in the publishing industry,” said Flynn, adding that “our Hachette sales have been up.” Similarly, Robin Allen, owner of Forever Books in St. Joseph, Mich., chose not to play up the dispute in her store. “However,” she said, “I made sure my staff was kept up to date on what was happening.”
Norwich Bookstore in Norwich, Vt., which recently expanded into a small adjacent space, has earned unexpected sales as a result of the dispute. Co-owner Liza Bernard found that she’s been able to come in as the lowest bidder for school orders she might not have gotten in the past because Amazon is not discounting a lot of Hachette titles. “The other good part of the dispute,” she said, “is it’s bringing business practices back into the conversation.”
The dispute was also a conversation-starter at Women & Children First, which featured an in-store display about the controversy and posted articles on the subject on its Facebook page. “While we didn’t generate any preorders, it did start some fruitful conversations with customers about the importance of shopping indie,” said Hollenbeck. For Michael Barnard, owner of Rakestraw Books in Danville, Calif., the dispute had “some bounce.” “I think it had its moment,” he added. “People aren’t as aware on an ongoing basis. It’s not that they’re not loyal to us. They don’t necessarily view it as a monogamous relationship.” But the feud didn’t necessarily lead to better sales for Hachette titles. “We sold a lot of Simon & Schuster,” said Bernard, who singled out Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See and Justin Go’s The Steady Running of the Hour as his biggest summer hits.
Movies may have had a poor showing at the box office—it was the worst summer for Hollywood since 1997, according to the New York Times—but the books that inspired them shot to the top of most bookstore bestsellers lists. Almost every store contacted by PW cited John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars as its top seller. “If John Green writes it, teens will read it,” said Helen Stewart, floor manager at Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh, N.C. James Dashner’s The Maze Runner is also starting to take off, she noted. At Books on Broadway, sales of Gayle Forman’s If I Stay and Lois Lowry’s The Giver are picking up as well because of films.
But it’s not just YA titles that are gathering steam because of big screens and small. At Vermont Bookshop in Middlebury, Vt., sales and marketing manager Jenny Lyons noted an uptick in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books, which are the basis for a Starz series. “We’re still selling out of Where’d You Go, Bernadette and Gone Girl and Unbroken and Wild in nonfiction,” said Stefani Beddingfield, owner of Inkwood Books in Tampa, Fla. “Anything with a movie coming out.”
Even without a film treatment, a few books just continue to sell and sell. At Parnassus, Hayes pointed to The Goldfinch and Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, as well as co-owner Ann Patchett’s own Story of a Happy Marriage. She sees David Mitchell’s newly released The Bone Clocks falling into the same category. Forever’s Allen includes Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Little Golden Book, which was a holiday smash in 2013, on the hit list.
A few books have been strong right from the start, like Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, which is selling well at Changing Hands along with Christina Baker Kline’s The Orphan Train. Women & Children First’s Hollenbeck said Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam and Roxanne Gay’s essay collection Bad Feminist were also strong starters.
Local titles continue to do well, too. Forever Books, an hour and a half from Chicago, has sold more than 200 copies of Chriss Lyon’s A Killing in Capone’s Playground, which is published by In-Depth Editions, a small Michigan press. Carol Spurling, manager and co-owner of BookPeople of Moscow, in Moscow, Idaho, is also doing well with local author Novella Carpenter’s memoir Gone Feral. Nine-year-old Redbery Books in Cable, Wis., has sold a lot of copies of Up at Butternut Lake by Mary McNear, whose family has had a place in northern Wisconsin for five generations. Local author Jeff Miller’s Scoop (Minneapolis Historical Society Press) has also been popular.
Looking forward to the fall season, Changing Hands’s Shanks summed up most booksellers’ feelings about the all-important fourth quarter. “Sales are up for the year,” she said. “I’m excited to see what happens. I’m anticipating a really good fall.”