Although retail sales over the Thanksgiving weekend often receive a lot of attention, the fourth quarter as a whole continues to be vital for independent bookstores. Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., for example, does as much as 40% of its sales for the year during that three-month period. Antigone Books in Tucson, Ariz., makes 60% of its sales in the final quarter. Still, the Thanksgiving weekend remains the unofficial start to the holiday shopping season, and with Small Business Saturday (the Saturday after Thanksgiving) gaining more traction among consumers, booksellers reported solid sales over the Thanksgiving weekend, according to PW’s annual holiday survey of two dozen bookstores. Due in part to the still-strong sales of adult coloring books, many indies are expecting a strong finish to the holiday shopping season.
Heidi Lange, owner of the 10-year-old Sandman Book Company in Punta Gorda, Fla., gave her all-volunteer staff the day off on Black Friday, but an expansion over the summer meant their sales on Small Business Saturday this year were more than twice what they were 2014. Other stores also experienced a strong Small Business Saturday, with 35-year-old Old Firehouse Books in Fort Collins, Colo., seeing sales rise 20% over the event last year. The store has seen similar increases for October and November. “Overall we’ve done a lot to draw attention to ourselves throughout the year, through advertising and hosting more large-scale events,” said events coordinator Kelsey Myers, adding that the store has also upped its use of social media.
Teresa Kirschbraun, owner of the three-year-old City Lit Books in Chicago, said that Small Business Saturday “is critical for launching the season. I think the promotions help people start focusing their holiday buying.” Her sales were up 10% over this Thanksgiving weekend compared to the previous year, which has been consistent with the store’s increases to date. But she prefers not to measure growth by sales alone, looking instead at other factors, such as inventory replenishment. Instead of filling in stock with two copies, she’s begun ordering five or 10 and selling them through.
Five-year-old Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, has also experienced higher sales. “We have seen an increase in tourism, which has helped with our 10%–15% increase year to date,” said owner Kate Rattenborg. She’s “cautiously optimistic” about a strong holiday season this year and anticipates an increase over 2014.
Part of the reason for the optimism could be a sense that showrooming has peaked. “Now the people who come into independent bookstores are very aware of the importance of shopping locally,” said Michael Herrmann, owner of Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord, N.H., who marked the official start of the holidays at his store November 27 with his town’s Midnight Merriment celebration.
It’s not just events and e-book fatigue—which several booksellers cited as a reason for higher sales—that have customers coming back to indies. It’s also having the right books—and in some cases, having the right markers and colored pencils. “[Adult] coloring books, in general, are doing amazingly well,” said Kate Randall, co-owner of Antigone, who has seen the full force of the coloring book craze. She’s been doing especially well with Enchanted Forest by Johanna Basford, whose Secret Garden helped launch the trend.
Beside coloring books, a single big national book (or set of books) has yet to emerge. As Emily Crowe, manager of the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Mass., noted, “I don’t see any front-runners in terms of big books this holiday season, no single book that will be the must-have book like last year’s Anthony Doerr [All the Light We Cannot See], or the Donna Tartt [The Goldfinch] from the year before.” At her store, top sellers include a mix of signed books such as Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire and Anthony Marra’s The Tsar of Love and Techno, as well as a locally published book to raise money for Syrian refugees, Soup for Syria.
At Eso Won Books in Los Angeles, which has seen strong sales despite the construction on a subway station nearby, co-owner James Fugate said that Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me is his store’s top seller. He has sold 860 copies to date and just placed an order for another 48. That title is also one of the few big books of the summer to continue to sell well—both Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman and Dr. Seuss’s What Pet Should I Get? have dropped off at most stores that were contacted.
Jeff Kinney was high on a number of children’s bestsellers lists this year, for the 10th book in his Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, Old School, as were Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers’s The Day the Crayons Came Home and The Day the Crayons Quit. For the first time in several years, middle grade and picture books are outselling YA, according to a number of booksellers, including Mary Magers, co-owner of Magers & Quinn Booksellers in Minneapolis. And one particular middle grade title is already becoming hard to get: The Illustrated Harry Potter.
Perhaps it’s only to be expected that local bookstores would do best with local books and books that the store has made their own. Although President Obama’s book list got a lot of attention when he stopped by the one-year-old Upshur Street Books in Washington, D.C., for Small Business Saturday, the store’s bestsellers, according to manager Anna Thorn, are both local: S Street Rising and District Comics. “Our main bread and butter are the local authors,” said Jean Cazort, owner of WordsWorth Books & Co. in Little Rock, Ark. She singled out local doctor Billy Lynn Tranum’s 100 Years of Change and Janne Siegel’s Mountain Tails. Nonesuch Books & Cards, with two stores in Maine, is on track to sell 1,000 copies of the paperback edition of Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, which it named as its 2015 book of the year. Michael DeSanto, owner of Phoenix Books with three stores in Vermont, said, “What I see is less of an emphasis on blockbuster sales from Thanksgiving to January 1. People are doing well within the community [all year long].” That’s certainly been the case for his three-and-a half-year old Burlington store, which has so far been up 13% for the year, over 2014.
Although many bookstores have ceded online sales to Amazon, a number continue to offer books and gifts over the Internet, and some see a lift at the holidays in gift cards and in-store pickup. San Francisco’s Green Apple Books has been experimenting with 99¢ shipping this year for items purchased online. According to co-owner Pete Mulvihill, online sales are usually six times higher in December than the rest of the year. Customers shop the store’s website for gift cards, Green Apple shirts, and fiction subscriptions. At Minneapolis’s Magers & Quinn, 23% of the store’s sales are online, according to co-owner Mary Magers, who also sees an uptick online during the holidays.
Other indies, however, are not enthusiastic about online sales. Dragonfly owner Rattenborg described online sales at the store as “tepid.” And though Sheila Daley, owner of 76-year-old Barrett Bookstore in Darien, Conn., has seen new customers as the result of the closing of a Barnes & Noble in nearby Norwalk late last year, it hasn’t translated into online sales. “Frankly,” Daley said, “I think if people go online, they go to Amazon.” At Maria’s Bookshop, the website pulls in less than 1% of overall sales.
Sandman, which began selling books online for four years before opening a physical store, continues to shift its balance from online to in-store sales. “We’re actually at the point where the store supports itself,” Lange said. Website sales have now dipped below 50% and fluctuate with Florida’s tourist season. They can be important during the slow months before the snowbirds arrive.
As for the holiday season as a whole, most stores are optimistic. As Rattenborg said, “We’ve had a very strong year so far and will end trending up even with a slightly weaker holiday season. However, we are planning for an outstanding one.”