The election may have changed when people shopped, but it didn’t change how much they bought, according to Molly Olivo, book buyer at the Barstons Child’s Play stores in the Washington, D.C., area. At her stores, some customers began their holiday shopping in October, and Shirley Mullin, owner of Kids Ink in Indianapolis, reported an exceptionally strong November.
But for most stores, Christmas and Hanukkah sales came late (Hanukkah began on December 24). “Overall, people were not in the shopping spirit until basically the last second possible,” said Christine Onorati, owner and buyer at Word Bookstores in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Jersey City, N.J.
“It was a cliff-hanger,” said Dana Brigham, general manager of Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, Mass. Sales were down at her store by double digits for the first three weeks of December over the same period in 2015, then rose 37% in the final week of the year. In the end, the Booksmith finished the holiday season “a tiny bit” above 2015’s record-breaking season.
Although no single title emerged as the “it” book of the year, many booksellers reported strong sales for titles that explained the election or used it as a starting point, such as Hillbilly Elegy and former Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders’s Our Revolution. That was the case at 10-year-old Beaverdale Books in Des Moines, Iowa, which finished the year up 4% over 2015, according to owner Alice Meyer. Other popular titles at her store and at indies throughout the country included The Hidden Life of Trees and Atlas Obscura, both of which were sold out at her store just before Christmas.
The election gave an added boost to Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in their Own Land, which did particularly well at Octavia Books in New Orleans. Co-owner Tom Lowenburg compared customers’ search for trusted information in books after the election to what happened following Hurricane Katrina. “Books offered much more reliable and insightful reflection on the tragedy,” he said. Lowenburg and other booksellers also noted the continuing interest in Alexander Hamilton sparked by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical.
At Bookazine in Bayonne, N.J., one of the last remaining regional wholesalers, the holiday season was solid. “We had a modest gain in the mid- to upper-single-digit percentage over 2015,” COO Richard Kallman said. On the adult side, in addition to more political titles, customers reached for Michael Lewis’s The Undoing Project; Mary Oliver’s essay collection Upstream; Anthony Bourdain’s first cookbook in a number of years, Appetites; and Zadie Smith’s new novel, Swing Time.
Two books that were strong last holiday season, A Man Called Ove and Milk and Honey, continued to sell in December at Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., reported director of marketing Kim Sutton. Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad and Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All be Feminists were also among the store’s top sellers. “Overall sales for 2016 were flat, but are now trending back up again,” Sutton said.
Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., was up 17% at December’s end, co-owner Bradley Graham said. “Some of that, no doubt, reflected an outpouring of community in support in the wake of the Pizzagate fake news story, which affected several businesses on our block.” Graham also thought the increase was due to a turning toward books in reaction to the election of Trump. In general, books that reflected on the implications of the election, including Evicted, did well. Another top-selling title at P&P was Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime.
In addition to books with a political connection, many stores reported strong sales for local titles and regional presses. “Our local titles were huge, and local was the highest category,” said Beaverdale’s Meyer. Younkers, from History Press, about the Midwest, “blew off the shelf,” she noted. At Scout & Morgan Books in Cambridge, Minn., owner Judith Kissner said that the lack of a blockbuster enabled the store to sell a lot of titles from regional presses such as the Minnesota Historical Society and Milkweed Editions, as well as regional authors from major houses such as Peter Geye (The Lighthouse Road and Wintering). Skylight Books in Los Angeles reported a lot of sales for Jessica Koslow’s debut cookbook, Everything I Want to Eat, about local restaurant Squirl. Local authors Pete Fromm (The Names of the Stars) and Chris Dombrowski (Body of Water) sold especially well at Fact and Fiction in Missoula, Mont., noted bookseller Mara Panich-Crouch.
Although middle grade and YA series have frequently topped store lists over the holidays, sales at indies for Wimpy Kid and Harry Potter, two of the biggest long-time franchises, were mixed. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was the top seller for 2016 at Brookline Booksmith. Cursed Child, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and Double Down, the 11th entry in Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid series, were three of the top four children’s titles at Powell’s.
Sales for the Kinney book were softer than those for his previous titles at some stores, and many smaller booksellers in particular experienced softer sales for the Fantastic Beasts screenplay. That was the case at 10-year-old Harleysville Books in Harleysville, Pa. Customers didn’t want to read that format, said owner Stephanie Steinly, but the illustrated Harry Potter books were “successful.” Andrea Beaty and David Roberts’s picture book Ada Twist Scientist appeared on more store bestseller lists, including that of Skylight, where manager Steven Salardino reported that it was the fourth-biggest-selling children’s title.
As for the year ahead, “I am optimistic,” said Octavia’s Lowenburg. “I feel reaffirmed that the book is here to stay. It is still a fragile situation that needs to be nurtured and protected.” And Onorati at Word noted, “I think that our role as safe spaces in our communities will be more important than ever.”