Flat was the new up at many bookstores that participated in PW’s annual summer sales survey. Most were trying to keep up with last summer’s sales, which got a bump from Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. “Last summer was our best summer since we opened,” said Kristen Sandstrom, manager of six-year-old Apostle Islands Booksellers in Bayfield, Wis. She’s not alone. “Last year was a terrific year,” noted Nancy Felton, co-owner of Broadside Bookshop in Northampton, Mass., adding that the store has been “holding our own” this summer.
Some stores were up, such as Curious Iguana in Frederick, Md., the three-year-old bookstore spin-off of Dancing Bear Toys and Gifts. According to co-owner Marlene England, sales rose 22% from June to August over last year. Across the country, Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, Calif., is also on an upward trajectory. “Sales continue to grow at a healthy pace, ranging from 5% to 10% per month, compared to the same respective months in 2015,” said co-owner Praveen Maden. He attributed this, in part, to the introduction of a gift subscription program, GiftLit, which has brought in thousands of customers from around the country. Brilliant Books, of Traverse City, Mich., has also nurtured online sales, which were up 65%, while in-store sales rose 5%.
Village Books in Bellingham, Wash., suffered from a lack of Canadian tourists. “Our summer has been fairly flat,” said Paul Hanson, general manager, who attributed the trend to the rise in the value of the U.S. dollar relative to the Canadian dollar, which discouraged Canadians from crossing the border.
Other stores have benefited from the loss of competitors. “Sales have been good, but not for a good reason,” said Donna McFadden, manager of Wellington Square Bookshop in Exton, Pa., just outside Philadelphia, who gained customers when Chester County Book Co. closed in July. “I read articles all the time about indie bookstores coming back,” McFadden said. “We were on a slow steady climb, but you can’t compete with Amazon.”
A children’s book, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: Parts 1 and 2, provided much-needed relief from the summer sales doldrums. The Briar Patch, a 29-year-old children’s bookstore in Bangor, Maine, planned a midnight event with 200 people, but 10 times that many showed up. “People had a great time,” said Gibran Graham, marketing director. “This was the busiest two hours we’ve ever seen. We keep selling out of [the book].”
Although sales were flat for the summer at Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Mont., Harry Potter exceeded expectations. “We were thinking it would be somewhere around Harper Lee, and it was double that in the first week,” owner Ariana Paliobagis said. At her store, like many, sales have since fallen off. She also had a rush on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.
Harry Potter was the top-selling book at five-year-old Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, this summer. Owner Kate Rattenborg also reported strong sales for several Swedish novels: Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove and Britt-Marie Was Here and Katarina Bivald’s The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend. Towne Center Books in Pleasanton, Calif., also did particularly well with The Little Paris Bookshop and Penguin’s Who Was nonfiction series for kids. Owner Judy Wheeler said that Liane Moriarty’s Truly Madly Guilty is still going “big time,” and that she’s excited about Amy Stewart’s second Kopp sisters novel, Lady Cop Makes Trouble.
Some stores quibble with the characterization of the new Harry Potter as a kids’ title. “It has sold more to adults than young readers,” said Curious Iguana’s England, who thinks that some of its appeal is the nostalgia factor. Most of the people for the store’s midnight release party were millennials. In addition to Potter, the bookstore has sold a lot of copies of Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.
A signing with Chuck Palahniuk at Garden District Book Shop in New Orleans contributed to strong sales for his graphic novel, Fight Club 2, illustrated by Cameron Stewart. “The Girls has certainly done well for us for a first novel and should still have some legs,” said owner Britton Trice, adding that store favorites such as Station Eleven continue to sell. At Page and Palette in Fairhope, Ala., All the Light We Cannot See continues to attract new readers, along with H Is for Hawk, and on the kids’ side, Wonder, co-owner Kiefer Wilson said. Sales at the store were up over 12%.
Local and regional titles are typically strong in the summer months. At Village Books the biggest seller was the sixth edition of Hiking Whatcom County. “The local books are still a really powerful force for us,” Hanson said. Two novels by Midwesterner Peter Geye took the #1 and #2 spots, respectively, at Apostle Islands: Wintering and Lighthouse Road. Louise Erdrich’s LaRose also did well, along with Annie Proulx’s Barkskins and Jane Mayer’s Dark Money. In kids’, an eight-year-old book with connections to the local woods was the top seller: Gary Robson and Robert Rath’s Who Pooped in the Northwoods?
Broadside Bookshop is one of a number of stores where Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad has taken off. The store had a surprise seller in June and July with Stephanie Danier’s debut novel, Sweetbitter, which has since slowed. “We’re still selling a ton of Between the World and Me and When Breath Becomes Air,” Felton added.
Although the election season can be disruptive, especially for publishers trying to launch new books, booksellers are relatively sanguine. “If anything, the elections could help us,” said Holly Weinkauf, owner of Red Balloon Bookshop in Saint Paul, Minn. “We’re a place where people can come with their kids and enjoy themselves, connect with other readers, and just relax. As we get closer to November, we may all need that.” As for the fall, most booksellers are optimistic. At Forever Books in St. Joseph, Mich., owner Robin Allen‘s picks for popular fall titles include Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am, and new cookbooks from Ina Garten (Cooking for Jeffrey) and Anthony Bourdain (Appetites), along with Jeff Kinney’s Double Down (Diary of a Wimpy Kid #11).
Elections or no, predicted Tristan Charles, adult book buyer at Parnassus Books in Nashville, “the second half of 2016 is shaping up to be a great year for authors. From Michael Lewis [The Undoing Project] to Colson Whitehead, one literary powerhouse after another is putting out a big book. It’s going to be a big reading season, and it should be a big awards season.” Parnassus is planning a big launch for another powerhouse author likely to make a splash this fall, store co-owner Ann Patchett, who wrote Commonwealth.