It has now been nearly three years since the start of the pandemic, and independent booksellers feel things are more or less back to normal. Generally speaking, indies across the country report similar trends: the return of customers to in-store shopping led to good, not remarkable, sales gains over 2021; online ordering has fallen off; books promoted on TikTok are doing well and bringing in younger customers; stores are hosting in-person events again, though not at pre-pandemic levels; and customers are starting to wince at the rising prices of hardcovers.
According to Mitch Kaplan, owner of the Books & Books chain in the Miami area, sales last year were up 18% over 2021 and were comparable to the years before the pandemic. “You could see a shift when people started to feel somewhat safe and more comfortable in spaces where shopping was going on,” Kaplan said. Younger shoppers, in particular, were back out in numbers, which he thinks is a good omen for future generations of readers. “It is heartening to see the amount of young people in their 20s and 30s shopping for books. Sometimes you’d just see a store full of people under 40. Perhaps they were less skittish about going out? That is not to say we didn’t see a lot of older people, and many were beginning to venture out, too.”
Kaplan noted that Miami didn’t have the severe weather that other parts of the U.S. did during November and December, when Books & Books’ sales rose 10% over the same period in 2021. While there were no identifiable blockbusters of the season, Kaplan said interest was strong in Hernan Diaz’s Trust and Patti Smith’s A Book of Days.
At Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, it was a different story, with sales down 8% for the year compared to 2021, and down 16% for the holiday season. “Of course we’ve all been speculating about the reasons for this,” said owner Jessica Stockton Bagnulo. The Greenlight management team, according to Bagnulo, pointed to the lack of big books, and also economic anxiety due to inflation and job insecurity, which is hitting cities like New York hard.
Greenlight’s Flatbush store, which is in a residential neighborhood, saw high sales during the pandemic, as people worked from home. But those sales have softened as workers return to their offices. Online orders also dropped significantly compared to last year, Bagnulo said.
Holiday sales were up a bit at Boswell Books in Milwaukee, said owner Daniel Goldin. Sales were curtailed for a lot of second-tier and backlist titles that were out of stock, though. “We also had issues with Ingram,” he explained. “They’ve dramatically cut inventory at the Fort Wayne, Ind., warehouse, even for regional titles, and it seemed like the LaVergne warehouse was backed up.”
As a result, Boswell’s strongest sales were for books that “everyone was selling—Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus, Demon Copperfield by Barbara Kingsolver, An Immense World by Ed Yong, I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy—but they were all just really great sales, not over-the-top nuts.” Sales of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid—a TikTok favorite—doubled over 2021. In the end, Goldin said, sales for the year were up about 3% at Boswell.
Winter weather did have an impact on stores in the Midwest. Terry Cain, operations manager/book buyer at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City, Iowa, said sales were up for the year, though the blizzard that hit the city on December 22 and the bitter cold that followed put a damper on things. “We had a really strong Christmas and we were up a little over last year,” Cain noted. “But we would have done even better if the weather hadn’t been so bad right before Christmas.” The store’s three top sellers for the season were Michelle Obama’s The Light We Carry, Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead, and Louise Penny’s World of Curiosities.
Cain noted that sales were helped by the return of in-store author events in May after not having any since February 2020. The Iowa City Book Festival also resumed this fall, and the store took advantage of author appearances at the event. “Only two of the store’s top 10 bestsellers this year did not involve author events,” he said.
David Enyeart, manager of Next Chapter Booksellers in St. Paul, Minn., reported that sales in 2022 were up 10% over 2021, despite a softer finish to the year. “Our holiday season was a little down from 2021, with all the decline coming in November,” Enyeart said. “December was flat, almost to the penny. We weren’t able to replicate last year’s successful ‘buy early’ campaign.”
At Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kans., weather got in the way of holiday sales. “We lost a day and half in sales the week before Christmas due to the freakishly cold weather,” said store owner Vivian Jennings. “That was tough, as usually sales the last week before Christmas are substantial. But we still came out ahead a little bit over last year—about 2%.” Lackluster holiday sales notwithstanding, sales for the year rose almost 13%, Jennings added.
Texas experienced an unexpected cold snap over the holidays, but Dallas’s Interabang Books still managed to end the season flat with 2021, according to business manager Brian Weiskopf. “For the year, we were up 10% over 2021, which was our goal,” he noted. A variety of titles sold well, including fan favorites like Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus (“We were lucky we got that in stock and didn’t run out”), Trust by Hernan Diaz, and Horse by Geraldine Brooks.
Unusual weather also impacted California. Casey Coonerty Protti, manager of Bookshop Santa Cruz, reported that heavy rain on Thanksgiving kept customers home, giving a slow start to the season. “2021 was so unique,” she noted. “People shopped really early that year, so some of the early fall 2022 numbers weren’t really hitting as high, but we caught up.”
Overall, Protti said, the store’s sales were “slightly up” last year over 2021. “Tourists finally returned to the region, and that makes a huge difference. We saw a huge spike in backlist, especially TikTok titles, and genres like romance and manga, as well as travel writing.”
Regarding the TikTok phenomenon, Protti added, “The great thing is, someone’s out there pushing books on social media, bringing in a lot of younger people, changing the categories people are looking for, and bringing up the backlist. The not-so-good thing is that publishers are turning so much attention to TikTok, so if you have a midlist title or something that’s not a TikTok book, it’s not taking off. That’s where our expertise as booksellers is important—in keeping what people are reading diverse.”
One question booksellers—and consumers—face in 2023 is whether or not inflation and the threat of an economic recession will put a damper on book sales, particularly sales of hardcovers. Karen Emmerling, owner of Beach Books in Seaside, Ore., had a great 2022—“up 8% over 2021 and probably our best year ever,” she said. She spoke for most booksellers when she said the price of hardcovers was beginning to seem untenable.
“When you’re looking at $30 for a novel, it’s getting pretty steep,” Emmerling said. “It’s not a detriment at this point, but I can see it becoming a real problem. We’re getting a lot more questions of, ‘When will this hardcover be out in paper?’ We’ve always had that with a portion of our customers, but now people seem more willing to wait. It becomes a question of, ‘Will you remember a year from now that this was something you wanted to read?’ ”