From supply chain concerns to a potential inflation-fueled slide in consumer spending, the months leading up to Indies First/Small Business Saturday delivered one dire prediction after another for indie booksellers. Instead, many of the more than three dozen indies contacted by PW posted strong sales increases over the Thanksgiving weekend compared with 2019 and 2020, and even booksellers whose stores saw declines said they were cautiously optimistic about the weeks ahead.
At Reads & Company in Phoenixville, Pa. co-owner Jason Hafer credited the industrywide push to prepare for potential supply chain interruptions for delivering a 50% jump in sales at the bookstore compared with last year. “We've had enough warning that we could plan and prepare,” Hafer said, crediting his employees and sales reps for their work greeting a full store of customers, which was not possible due to Covid-19 capacity limits on browsing last year.
Likewise, only six customers were allowed to browse at The Silver Unicorn Bookstore in Acton, Mass. on last year’s SBS. Without the cap, sales rose 30% this year. “People felt like they had the freedom to peruse and find books and gifts they didn’t necessarily come in for,” said store owner Paul Swydan.
Promotions Draw Droves
Without occupancy limits, booksellers were able to do Indies First promotions to encourage in-store browsing. Joelle Herr, owner of The Bookshop in East Nashville, Tenn. set up a prize wheel that any customer who spent more than $10 in the store could spin for a free cup of coffee at the neighboring café, store coupons, and totes. Herr saw a 70% increase in sales over last year’s SBS.
At The Book Bungalow in St. George, Ut. the entire neighborhood celebrated by kicking off the town’s first St. George Christmas Village, which organizers hope will become an annual event. Bookstore owner Tanya Mills said the store giveaways, a Santa on the store’s patio, pop-up vendors, and food trucks helped boost business by 36% over last year.
In Seattle, billionaire Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates announced his annual list of his five favorite books, and partnered with five indie stores in the city to give away full sets. Phinney Books received 50 sets, and “we had a line of 25 people before we opened,” Phinney bookseller Tom Nissley said. “People stuck around and shopped” after bagging their prizes, whether they were regulars or new customers.
Elliott Bay Book Co. gave away 100 sets, half on Nov. 22 and the rest on Nov. 23. Some recipients will have to return to complete the quintet, however: Walter Isaacson’s The Code Breakers went out of stock. Still, general manager Tracy Taylor marveled at the book-buying excitement. “It was a great weekend for us, more than we’ve seen in a couple of years,” she said. “People have really wanted to shop local and support small businesses, and we’re seeing that almost as a movement.”
Meanwhile, in Idaho, Boise-based author Anthony Doerr “personalized about 250 copies of Cloud Cuckoo Land (S&S) for the release,” said Rediscovered Books owner Bruce DeLaney, who ordered an extra 500 copies because he didn’t want to run out before Christmas.
A Bestseller Boost
Despite concerns about stock and availability, bestsellers were big for many stores, including BookPeople in Moscow, Id. where bestseller sales led the way to the best sales in a decade for owner Carol Price. Nationwide, booksellers including Price reported hefty sales totals for Paul McCartney’s The Lyrics (Liveright), Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land, Nikole Hannah-Jones’s The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story (Random House Publishing Group), Taste by Stanley Tucci (S&S), and Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence (Harper).
Hannah-Jones’s book topped the list at Indie newcomer Third Eye Books (Portland, Or.) along with its children’s edition counterpart The 1619 Project: Born on the Water. Store co-owner Charles Hannah was delighted by the weekend’s solid sales. “We kicked ass,” he said. “We’re the hottest bookstore in the Northwest.”
Children’s books helped fuel a 65% jump in sales over 2019 for Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Mo., led by Jones's The 1619 Project: Born on the Water; Sandra Boynton and Yo-Yo Ma’s The Jungle Night (Workman); Jeffrey Burton’s Nom Nom Nom (Illus. by Sarah Hwang, Little Simon); and Maranke Rinck’s Popcorn Bob (Illus. by Martijn van der Linden, Levine Querido).
Broad Lists and an Early Hanukkah
Still, breadth of stock was of paramount importance for booksellers going into the weekend. For months, supply chain woes have been front and center in conversations led by regional bookseller associations, publishers, and the American Booksellers Association, all of whom encouraged booksellers to seize the moment as an opportunity to show customers their skills at handselling a diverse array of titles.
That effort was so successful at Savoy Bookshop & Café in Westerly, R.I. that manager Mariana Calderon said staff favorites and in-section titles outsold the Indie Bestseller list. “That's very lovely to see and gives us hope that shortages and delays on big titles over the course of the next month will be less impactful for our customers and sales than we feared,” Calderon said.
East Bay Booksellers owner Brad Johnson closed out the weekend equally pleased, with sales up 27% over last year. “We feel pretty well positioned," he said, while also noting that “some of the heavy hitter novels we expected to be huge sellers, have not quite done so.” The store’s top three adult books were David Graeber’s Dawn of Everything (FSG), Yur Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station (Riverhead); and Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World (NYRB).
A dip in sales was softened by interest in local and regional titles at Lorelei Books in Vicksburg, Miss., where owner Kelle Barfield said loyal customers who had visited the store placed orders from as far away as Florida. “Our customers rarely select current bestsellers over curated regional titles; Mississippi authors, history and river-related books, cooking, outdoors,” she said. “Tourists enjoy picking up titles they won't easily find in another bookstore. Our building was originally a saloon, built just after the Civil War, giving shoppers a museum-like experience.”
The early arrival of Hanukkah this year gave an added boost to Chevalier’s Books in Los Angeles, where general manager Katie Orphan said, “Hanukkah books for kids were flying off the shelves.” So many sold that Orphan said “If we tried to restock we wouldn’t have the books until Hanukkah ends.”
Despite the absence of a large-scale collapse of the supply chain, booksellers did begin to encounter some issues. “There definitely is a problem,” said David Enyeart, manager at Next Chapter Booksellers in St. Paul, Minn., who is seeing delays—albeit “manageable” ones—thus far. “It’s the weirder, smaller stuff that’s suffering” in terms of delays, he said.
Enyeart did run short of a few major titles as well, including Erdrich’s The Sentence. “The demand is even greater than we expected, so we’ll be out of it for about a week,” he said. “Let’s see what Harper does, but they are aware of the problem.”
Baltimore’s Atomic Books is among the most vulnerable stores because of its specialization in manga and graphic novels, which have been among the genres most significantly impacted by supply chain and printing issues. Sales were up significantly at Atomic compared with last year, but co-owner Benn Ray said he was growing frustrated by chronic delays. “With DC and Marvel, it’s unclear if this is being caused by Covid related issues or their recent distribution changes, but either way, we have a ton of people looking for a ton of comics that they can't get,” Ray said.
Along with shortages of Dune Messiah, Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, Calif. also reported shortages of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s The Real Anthony Fauci (Skyhorse) as did Interabang Books in Dallas, Tex.
Octavia Books co-owner Tom Lowenburg said his concern over coming shortages remains, even after a solid weekend at the New Orleans shop, because of communication issues. “We only know for sure that [titles] are in short supply when they don't arrive,” he said. “A title may be listed by the publisher as temporarily unavailable, but it may become available within days, or not; or the publisher may not have any while the distributor is flush.”
Web Sales Decline
Whether in-store sales rose or fell, many bookstores saw a decline in online sales, which were the difference between survival and closing for many stores during the first waves of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We were way down in online sales from last year, as everyone was doing emotional shopping last year and that did not seem to be on people’s minds as much this year,” said Sarah Bagby, owner of Watermarks Books & Café in Wichita, Kans. “We should have done more online sales. Those saved us last year and we did not get the repeat of that source of revenue."
Betsy Von Kerens, front end manager at The Bookworm in Omaha, Neb. said that store received “thousands of web orders” last year, which had enabled it to survive the pandemic. This year, though, customers packed the bookstore, with some telling booksellers that while they still aren’t going out and shopping elsewhere, they wanted to come out in person this past weekend and support The Bookworm. Von Kerens noted that while online sales are down, in-store sales are up. “It came out about even, after all is said and done,” she noted.
Overbuys and Omicron
Big inventory buys largely benefitted stores like Exile in Bookville Bookshop in Chicago where co-owners Javier Ramirez and Kristin Enola Gilbert purchased 12-14 copies of the books that they think will sell well during the holidays. The duo bought the store in May, reopened in early November, and said their aggressive ordering worked.
The same was true in Stillwater, Minn., where Gretchen West took the industry warnings to heart and ordered more books for Valley Bookseller than she ever has. “I don’t know where we’re going to put it all,” she joked. The store is 1,100 square feet, and already “packed” with inventory. But her buying paid off. “We had an excellent weekend,” she said, “It was the best Black Friday ever, and Small Business Saturday was the second highest sales day we’ve ever had in the 31-year history of the bookstore.”
But at the Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Mont., owner Ariana Paliobagis can see a potential downside to such large orders. “We've been lucky to have had a very successful year that doesn't seem to be slowing down,” she said, but “I am concerned about some overbuys that will be expensive and burdensome returns in the new year.” Still, she said she has few regrets. “We started planning and preparing for the season far earlier than usual which makes me feel like we are doing very little last minute.”
Cautious and Optimistic
Whether sales were up or down, the specter of a new Covid-19 variant led many booksellers to say their optimism is tempered by a cautious concern for sales over the coming weeks. “I’m hopeful things will be better than last year but I’m concerned with rising Covid rates locally, and where that could lead,” said Jonathan Welch at Talking Leaves...Books, Buffalo, N.Y.
At the River’s End Bookstore in Oswego, N.Y., co-owner Bill Reilly said he is already taking precautions. “We have required our staff to be fully masked for the holiday shopping season and we are strongly encouraging our customers to do the same,” Reilly said.
For Hannah Harlow at The Book Shop of Beverly Farms in Beverly, Mass., even a decline in sales compared with last year did not dampen her optimism about the coming weeks. “The holiday season is about more than one weekend,” she said. “We feel well-stocked and that there are a lot of community events happening that will keep people out and about in the upcoming month. We feel like we have a ton of support and people in the neighborhood, and beyond, rooting for us. We underperformed on Black Friday compared to last year, but that actually makes us happy. Black Friday sucks and we'd rather promote more healthy shopping habits that make people think about where and how they're spending their money.”