Although independent booksellers reported difficulty in keeping certain titles in stock, the problem was not enough to dampen sales at independent stores this holiday season.
In fact, reports from around the country indicated overall sales throughout the holiday season were strong, even record-breaking. Some stores reported having their best sales days ever. Lots of interest in Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming (Crown) brought customers into stores, as did a range of other titles, including Educated by Tara Westover (Random House) and Circe by Madeline Miller (Little, Brown) on the adult side and Snowy Nap by Jan Brett (Putnam) and The Wonky Donkey by Craig Smith, illustrated by Katz Cowley (Scholastic), on the children’s side.
“The Friday before Christmas, when the stock market tanked, was the biggest sales day we’ve had in 43 years! And the Saturday after that set another record,” said Vivien Jennings, owner of Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kan., a Kansas City suburb, who noted that this year saw an unexpected doubling in gift card sales. Jennings said the store kept Becoming in stock throughout the holidays in part by clearing out all local Costco locations of their inventory. “We also watched inventory runs very carefully, and jumped ahead if we saw anything trending,” Jennings said, adding that, overall, sales were up 10% over 2017 for the season..
Jennings was among several booksellers who cited difficulty in keeping Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat, illus. by Wendy MacNaughton (S&S); The Overstory by Richard Powers (Norton); and Frederick Douglas by David Blight (S&S) in stock.
“Those were the three titles we had the most trouble with,” said Todd Gross, manager of Phoenix Books in Downtown Burlington, Vt. “We only got 30 of Salt, but could have sold 150.” He remarked that getting books from S&S has been particularly challenging for quite some time. “They can take 10 days to get us books, compared with two or three for Penguin Random House.” Gross noted delays in getting books can kill sales, and he praised Bookazine and Baker & Taylor in particular for great service during the holiday season. “They were quick to tell us when in-demand titles were back in stock,” said Gross, who said that his holiday orders flip from relying on publishers 90% of the time during the year, to relying on wholesalers for 90% of orders during the holidays.
As for sales, Phoenix Books, which has multiple locations in and around Burlington, had its single best sales day ever on December 22 and a great holiday season overall, which put the store at high single digit sales growth for the year. “Thanks Obamas,” said Gross, referring both to sales of Becoming and to the timely release of President Barack Obama’s favorite books of 2018 list in December.
Sarah Bagby, owner of Watermark Books in Wichita, Kan., reported, “Our holiday sales were way up this year. Double-digits up.” David Enyeart, manager of Common Good Books in St. Paul, Minn., said it was the second-best December ever for the store, with gross sales up 4.5% over 2017.
It should come as no surprise Women and Children’s First in Chicago, Ill., sold 450 copies of hometown author Michelle Obama’s Becoming, leading to a 5% hike in holiday sales overall. On Saturday, December 15, the store had the largest receipts in the store’s history, barring those due to an event. “I can’t give you that number, but it is a number the store had never seen before in its 40-year history,” store manager Jamie Thomas said. Having Christmas on a Tuesday made late reordering difficult, so customers were going deep into the store’s stock. Thomas noted that the store was unable to get copies of Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday (S&S) for the entire month of December.
At Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tenn., co-owner Karen Hayes reported a 27% increase in sales from Black Friday through the end of the year, following two years of flat sales, and credits two big events the store held, one with photographer Annie Leibovitz and another with author Louise Penny, for a substantial portion of that increase. “We also sold several hundred copies of Nashville: Scenes from the New American South by Heidi Ross and Ann Patchett (a co-owner Parnassus), which pubbed in November, and, of course, Becoming,” she said. “There were so many great books this year, it felt like sales outside of a top few were more evenly spread than the last couple years. It was also nice to have a long weekend leading into Christmas, rather than having Christmas Eve on a Sunday like it was last year. The Saturday before was the biggest day we have ever had at the store that wasn’t author event–driven. People seemed to be enjoying the season more and were not as frantic as in the past.”
Amanda Sutton, marketing and events manager of Bookworks in Albuquerque, N.M., says the store sold almost 200 copies of Becoming but had difficulty getting Salt and Frederick Douglass. “We had orders for Douglass that we couldn’t fill because it was on backorder. Obama named it as one of his favorite books, and I think that had an effect on its popularity.” Overall, sales were up 8% over 2017 for the holidays..
At That Book Store in Wethersfield, Conn., owner Karen Opper reported that “Becoming was all the rage this season, Educated went well, too. Fredrick Douglass was backordered the whole season for me, so I missed some sales there.”
Linda Nurick, owner of Cellar Door Books in Riverside, Calif., said her store had two periods when they were out of stock of Becoming and found themselves suggesting customers seeking an immediate purchase for a gift could buy and give the Libro.fm version instead. Overall, Nurick said the holiday season was a success: “Foot traffic was heavy, we had a lot of people in here on a regular basis. It was busy pretty consistently. And we had an 18% holiday increase compared to last year.”
Of course, the farther afield the bookseller resides, the more difficult it can be to get hot titles, “Becoming was obviously the hot seller that could have been even hotter if we’d had more—I lost track of how many people asked for it and I had to tell them we were out and weren’t sure when we’d have more,” said Ruth Hulbert, who works at Fireside Books in Palmer, Ak.
Difficulty getting books into stock over the holidays is especially painful to new bookstores who are trying to make a first impression on customers. “This was my first holiday season. November was great and December was bonkers. I am not even sure how I was still standing at the end,” said Kathy Burnette, who opened The Brain Lair in South Bend, Ind., in July. “I never received copies of Frederick Douglass or The Library Book [by Susan Orlean], all of which left me with some disappointed potential customers who probably hightailed it to Barnes & Noble and won’t be back.”
Sarah Hines, co-owner of Eight Cousins in Falmouth, Mass., which suffered a massive flood in January 2018 that closed the store for four months, was, on the other hand, happy to see customers return. “Overall, we did end the year strongly and are happily starting 2019,” she said. “We saw many of our big holiday customers come back to us and are happy that the flood didn’t damage those long term relationships.”
In Duluth, Minn., at the one-and-a-half-year-old Zenith Bookstore, owner Bob Dobrow was inspired by the Icelandic “Christmas Book Flood” tradition, aka the Jolabokaflod, which promotes giving books as holiday presents. The store offered a complimentary artisanal chocolate bar and free gift wrapping with purchases and ended up giving away 800 chocolate bars. “Our sales numbers probably reflect more our growth than anything else,” Dobrow said. “Nevertheless, sales were great for us. From Black Friday to December 31, they were up 40% from last year!” The store’s top-selling books ranged from local author Leif Enger’s novel Virgil Wander (Grove) and Becoming to Hush, Hush Forest by Mary Casanova, illus. by Nick Wroblewski (Univ. of Minnesota Press), as well as The Wonky Donkey and The Snowy Nap on the children’s side.
Overall, children’s book buyers reported having less difficulty keeping popular works in stock than their adult counterparts. At Parnassus, children’s buyer Steph Appell said, “We didn’t experience any major, significant outages of hot children’s titles, such as Wimpy Kid or Dog Man, in part because our reps had warned us that stock issues this season were going to be on a different scale than usual, and we fortunately have enough space that we could ‘order up’ on some things we knew would be big.” The store’s top-selling book for children was Hug Machine by Scott Campbell (Little Simon), which was a bookseller’s recommendation.
Several stores pointed to strong sales of The Atlas Obscura Explorer’s Guide for the World’s Most Adventurous Kid by Dylan Thuras and Rosemary Mosco, illus. by Joy Ang (Workman), including Alice Hutchinson, owner of Byrd’s Books in Bethel, Conn. “The holidays showed a marked improvement in sales this year,” she said, noting the popularity of other children’s and YA titles, including Ocean Meets Sky by Terry Fan and Eric Fan (S&S), Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak (Knopf), and We Don’t Eat Our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins (Hyperion).
This article was updated on January 5 to correct the name of Alice Hutchinson, owner of Byrd's Books.