Booksellers surveyed by PW were pleased with the start of the official holiday shopping season, which kicked off on Black Friday, November 24, the day after Thanksgiving. Words Bookstore in Maplewood, N.J., reported that sales were 25% higher that day than they were last year on Black Friday, and Valley Bookseller in Stillwater, Minn., noted that sales were up about 10%. “We were very happy with Black Friday weekend last year, but when I was doing the numbers this year, I was like, ‘Whoa,’ ” said Kathleen Eddy, comanager of Valley Bookseller.
“I think it’s going to be a better-than-normal year” said Jeremy Burke, co-owner of Bay Books in Bay Saint Louis, Miss. “The economy is doing good, and Thanksgiving fell early this year, so people will have a little extra time to shop.”
Black Friday was followed by Small Business Saturday, a promotion by American Express that encourages shopping in small, local stores instead of at big-box retailers and chain stores. Independent booksellers have been calling the day Indies First since 2013, when author Sherman Alexie enlisted more than 1,000 writers to handsell books at their local independent bookstores on the day. Many indies also use the day to host authors for special readings, promote their lists of best books of the year, and offer special discounts.
An estimated 108 million consumers shopped or dined at local independently owned businesses on November 25, according to data from the 2017 Small Business Saturday Consumer Insights Survey, sponsored by the National Federation of Independent Business and American Express.
This year the ABA recruited author Jason Reynolds as its official Indies First spokesman. He spent most of Small Business Saturday visiting indie bookstores in the Washington, D.C., metro area, beginning with his neighborhood bookstore, East City Bookshop near Capitol Hill, followed by the new Politics and Prose location in the Union Market area and One More Page Books in Arlington, Va.
At East City Bookshop, Reynolds regaled a crowd of fans of all ages with stories of the writing life and talked up his novels, as well as his favorite reads for both children and adults. The crowd included book lovers from as far away as Chicago, Minnesota, and New York. The day was a huge success, said East City Bookshop owner Laurie Gillman, with sales triple those of a typical Saturday.
Once Upon a Time Books in Montrose, Calif., had the good fortune of having its Indies First promotion featured on television, on a local morning news show. “It was the best three minutes of free advertising we could have ever imagined,” said Maureen Palacios, owner of Once Upon a Time. The result, she added, is that sales were up 32% compared with the previous year.
Old Firehouse Books in Fort Collins, Colo., hosted volunteers from local nonprofits who gift wrapped books for customers in exchange for donations to their organizations. “It’s something that helps us both out,” said Renee Becher, events coordinator for the store.
Kathy Graham, owner of Copperfish Books in Punta Gorda, Fla., offered mimosas and home-baked goodies, as well as gift drawings and discounted books. “The customers loved all that,” she said. “But I think it was the interaction and energy, and Christmas music, that made it most attractive.” The results for the store were impressive, with sales 44% higher than last year on Black Friday, and 27% higher on Saturday.
Avid Bookshop’s two stores in Athens, Ga., set records, said Will Walton, inventory manager. “Sales were primarily in-store, though there were more online orders than usual. There’s been a noticeable uptick in customers making the conscious decision to shop locally; many opted out of participating in Black Friday and doubled up on Small Business Saturday.”
The mood of shoppers, according to a majority of booksellers PW spoke with, was generally positive. Most booksellers, too, were upbeat. “The biggest challenge is customers choosing e-commerce over bricks-and-mortar retail, but even with that we’re feeling optimistic,” said Len Vlahos, co-owner of Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver. “It’s a good season for books.”
The Top Books
This year, among booksellers surveyed, there was a general consensus formed about a handful of top gift books. For nonfiction, popular titles included Bobby Kennedy by Chris Matthews (S&S), Grant by Ron Chernow (Penguin Press), Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson (S&S), and Obama: An Intimate Portrait: The Historic Presidency in Photographs by Pete Souza (Little, Brown), the last of which several bookstores reported having difficulty keeping in stock. Continuing with the political theme, Nina Barrett, co-owner of Bookends and Beginnings, in Evanston, Ill., called The Beautiful Poetry of Donald Trump by Robert Sears (Canongate) a “must-have book” and cited it as the store’s “breakaway bestseller” so far for the season.
Among adult fiction titles, the title most widely cited by booksellers was Artemis by Andy Weir (Crown), followed closely by John Grisham’s The Rooster Bar (Doubleday). A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (Viking) continues to be a favorite. Echoing what several other booksellers said, Mary Cotton, owner of Newtonville Books, in Newtonville, Mass., called out Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng and Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan as novels showing strong sales early this holiday season.
By far, though, when it comes to fiction, booksellers report that the most action is focused on young adult and middle grade titles, with John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down (Dutton BYR) and The Getaway (Amulet), the 12th entry in Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, garnering the most mentions by booksellers.
Laura Taylor of Oxford Exchange in Tampa, Fla., was among several booksellers who pointed out the popularity of Instagram poet Rupi Kaur’s The Sun and Her Flowers (Andrews McMeel). “It won’t stop selling,” Taylor said. “I keep thinking it will slow down, but I can’t seem to keep it in stock.”
Over the Black Friday and Indies First shopping weekend, Libro.fm, which partners with independent bookstores to sell audiobooks, offered special discounts on many titles and reported a “tenfold increase in sales” from last year. Top-selling audiobooks at the site were Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks (PRH Audio) in the fiction category and, for nonfiction, American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee (PRH Audio).
As always, bookstore sales over the holiday season can be impacted by extenuating circumstances. Susan Thomas, owner of CoffeeTree Books in Morehead, Ky., noted that her customers are watching to see what happens with the tax bill that is moving through the Senate. “If people are worried about the future they’re not going to spend money,” she said. Teresa Muhic at Legends Bookstore in Cody, Wyo., is concerned about predictions of a “wetter and colder winter,” which could affect foot traffic.
Still others are dealing with the aftermath of natural disasters. Heather Gulino, marketing coordinator of the Copperfield’s Books chain in Northern California (with eight stores in Marin, Napa, and Sonoma counties—areas hit by this year’s wildfires), said: “We are seeing a camaraderie among customers. The wildfires affected us all, no matter how close to the destruction we may be.” She added that the reaction from the publishing community is also inspiring: “Everyone wants to help. Our vendors and the industry have been incredible. BINC [Book Industry Charitable Foundation] has been a wonderful resource for our employees who were affected by the fires.”
Ben Rybeck, manager of Brazos Bookstore in Houston, said “people did not wait and were out shopping early, coming in, piling up books,” partially as a result of their need to restock shelves after the destruction of Hurricane Harvey earlier this year. “We’re up 50% over November last year and have broken every goal so far,” he added.
Valerie Koehler, owner of Houston’s Blue Willow Bookshop, donated a portion of the store’s sales on Small Business Saturday to a local library damaged by the hurricane. “People were in the shop all day shopping to support us,” she said of Indies First. “We have loyal customers who understand the value of having a neighborhood bookstore. And now on to a busy holiday season. Hopefully we will be able to fulfill every dream.”