A series of storms moving across the country during the post-Thanksgiving shopping weekend that traditionally kicks off the holiday season might have resulted in coal in many booksellers’ stockings rather than cash in their registers but for a combination of tried-and-true promotions—Plaid Friday and Cider Monday—that built upon Small Business Saturday (SBS).
Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vt. doesn’t even mark SBS anymore, but rather, with other local retailers, celebrates Plaid Friday with discounts and prizes given to customers wearing plaid. “Shoppers are definitely in a good mood,” co-owner Claire Benedict reported, noting that weekend sales were on par with last year “after a very strong early November.” In contrast, Middlebury’s Vermont Book Shop reported that sales on Black Friday were up 37% over last year, while SBS sales were up 17%.
“Black Friday’s numbers were a big surprise to me,” owner Becky Dayton noted. “I’ve always held that it’s not nearly as big a day for us than one might expect, but maybe shoppers are over the doorbuster thing.”
Bookshop Santa Cruz (Santa Cruz, Calif.) owner Casey Protti expressed optimism regarding this year’s holiday sales season, noting that indie booksellers face both challenges and opportunities this year. “One is the shortened holiday season,” she said, “Compared to last year, we have one less week during the official shopping season. Second, [Michelle Obama’s memoir] Becoming accounted for $40,000 worth of sales last year. It brought in a lot of people and garnered a lot of interest. Finally, online sales are becoming more robust.”
Online sales at Bookshop Santa Cruz are up 30% for the year to date after the store redesigned its website earlier in 2019. Other indies also reported similar upward swings in their online sales. In Chicago, Women and Children First’s online sales are up 40% this year over 2018, and up 300% in the last four years.
MahoganyBooks in Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood reported sales 15% above last year’s holiday weekend—even though there were no blockbuster bestsellers like Becoming. On Black Friday, the store hosted the launch of Michael Eric Dyson’s latest book, Jay-Z: Made in America, at an off-site location, which drew “a couple hundred people,” owner Ramunda Lark Young said. On Saturday, the store held a book signing featuring four local teens who each published a picture book with Shout Mouse Press. “A big crowd of friends, family, and community members came to support the debut authors,” Young said.
In contrast, Zenith Bookstore in Duluth, Minn., missed much of the holiday weekend due to a blizzard that dumped two feet of snow, shutting down much of the region, extending east through northwest Wisconsin, including Bayfield. There, Apostle Islands Booksellers shut its doors on Sunday and Monday after a solid Black Friday and a “pretty miserable” SBS, according to manager Kristen Sandstrom.
Noting that Zenith was open only for two hours on Saturday morning and had to cancel appearances by three local authors, co-owner Bob Dobrow said that Black Friday made up for the shortfall, as the store’s sales were three times more than last year’s. Saturday’s sales were almost 25% of last year’s entire SBS take, as many customers came in to stock up before the blizzard hit. “Even with all the lost revenue from Saturday’s storm, our weekend sales were 85% of what they were last year,” Dobrow said, noting that Zenith and other local businesses have rescheduled their SBS for December 7.
Out west, torrential rainstorms had a negative impact. Bookshop Santa Cruz reported that sales were down 10% over the holiday weekend, though up 8% for the entire month, and up 8% for the fiscal year to date. “Weather was the main factor,” Protti said, noting that many roads in the region were closed due to flooding. Not only did Bookshop Santa Cruz host the Grinch for photo ops on SBS, it also launched its Winter Reading Program, in which customers can win prizes by reading three of eight recommended books by the end of March. “We sold over 20 copies of the Winter Reading titles in the first two days,” Protti reported.
In Arlington, Va., it wasn’t weather that was threatening One More Page Books’ bottom line—rather, it was a tax hike levied this past summer that the store has had to contend with, bringing it to the brink of closure. In response, the store has created partnerships with several local businesses and established an SBS passport program and a raffle with items donated by local celebrities such as Washington Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle. Doolittle also selected a few titles as his personal picks; a portion of those titles’ sales went to an LGBTQ advocacy organization.
Sales spiked by more than 65% at One More Page on SBS, and two of Doolittle’s picks—Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab and The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai—were the top sellers at the store that day.
Several indies didn’t just partner with other local businesses on SBS, they brought like-minded entrepreneurs into their stores. Women and Children First gave away its limited-edition 40th anniversary tote bag designed by local artist Molly Costello to customers who spent at least $150, and hosted a pop-up trunk show for jewelry designer Deana Rose.
“Both Molly and Deana have different networks and so this created cross-promotion partnerships that helped our bookstore reach new audiences,” co-owner Sarah Hollenbeck told PW. “And of course we had free coffee from a local, woman-owned cafe and free mint chocolate sandwich cookies from a locally owned bakery in the neighborhood. Free food is always a hit.”
In Cleveland, Appletree Books also gave away free food: customers were invited to partake of a large sheet cake baked and decorated by “a legendary baker” who has just set up his own catering business. Another entrepreneur who creates handmade cards sold her cards inside Appletree that day. “It was all small-business oriented, helping out new business people,” co-owner Lynn Quintrell said. “That’s what Small Business Saturday is about; it’s all about the little guy.”
Fiction and Gift Books Flying Off Shelves
“It may be our quirky, eclectic customer base, but a lot of people don’t want issue-laden books,” Appletree’s Quintrell told PW. “We usually sell much more hardcover nonfiction, but not this year.” Appletree Books and most of the other bookstores queried by PW listed adult hardcover fiction titles as their top sellers during the holiday weekend. Every bookseller interviewed mentioned Ann Patchett’s latest novel, The Dutch House, as being among their top three bestsellers; Quintrell said the book “is flying out of here; I’ve ordered three cartons already.”
Other novels cited repeatedly by booksellers included The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern; Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout; Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson; and Disappearing Earth, a debut novel by Julia Phillips, which Women & Children’s First’s Hollenbeck disclosed was one of the store’s most requested titles during the holiday weekend. Bookseller Mark Haber at Brazos Bookstore in Houston reported that The Girl Who Reads on the Metro by Christine Féret-Fleury was a strong seller, describing it as “the perfect book for our customers who want something a little exotic and fun to give,” adding, “Everyone loves reading about Paris.”
The bestsellers among children’s titles were new releases in several beloved series, including The Crayons’ Christmas by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers; Dog Man: For Whom the Ball Rolls by Dav Pilkey; and Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Wrecking Ball by Jeff Kinney.
While fiction ruled at most stores, nonfiction titles sold well, too, with multiple booksellers naming The Body by Bill Bryson and No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg as hot picks.
Gift books are also jump-starting this year’s holiday season, with Zenith Books already having problems restocking The Little Winter Book of Gnomes by Kirsten Sevig, and another Minnesota indie, Content Bookstore in Northfield, “chasing stock” on This Book Is Literally Just Pictures of Cute Animals That Will Make You Feel Better from Smith Street Books.
“The only thing I really, really wish I had a big stack of right now is This Book; I would feel so much better,” owner Jessica Peterson White said, noting that Random House sales rep and Northfield resident Jason Gobble talked up the book during a Black Friday presentation he makes at the store every year, resulting in all 20 copies being sold by 10 a.m.
At several other indies, Brilliant Maps for Curious Minds by Ian Wright and The Field Guide to Dumb Birds of North America by Matt Kracht were weekend bestsellers, with Bear Pond’s Benedict expressing her concern that Brilliant Maps’ publisher, The Experiment, will run out. At Appletree, gift books at both ends of the price spectrum sold best, ranging from Field Guide and Pocket RBG Wisdom from Hardie Grant Books to high-end photography books containing armchair travel and environmental themes.
“It’s the middle range of gift books that’s harder to sell this year,” Quintrell said. “That’s where the cookbooks fall. Cookbooks are just not flying off the shelves—and we have a great cookbook section.”