A mild winter in many parts of the country, combined with the lowest unemployment in six years and significantly reduced gas prices, resulted in a strong holiday season at most independent bookstores, according to PW’s survey of more than two dozen indies. Many stores easily beat the National Retail Federation’s prediction of a 4.1% increase during November and December, relative to the same months in 2013. Long-time bookseller Shirley Mullin, owner of 29-year-old Kids Ink in Indianapolis, described it as “the best holiday season we’ve ever had.” At Hicklebee’s in San Jose, Calif., sales were up 9.5% in December and 6% for the year, said manager Ann Seaton. “We were thrilled to have such a robust [holiday] season,” said children’s buyer Carol Moyer at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, N.C. “I kept hearing from customers that they wanted their children to have real books.” The store was up 6% for December through Christmas Eve, and up slightly for the entire year, noted general manager Sarah Goddin.

Barnes & Noble, the country’s largest bookstore chain, did better than expected. For the nine-week period ending Jan. 3, 2015, the retail segment, which includes B&N bookstores and BN.com, posted sales of $1.1 billion, an increase of 0.2% over the 2013 holiday period. Core comparable bookstore sales, excluding Nook products, rose 1.7%. “We were very pleased with our overall holiday sales results,” said Michael P. Huseby, CEO of Barnes & Noble Inc. At Books-A-Million, total sales for the nine-week period were $129.2 million, an increase of 1.1%. Comparable store sales rose 1.2% and were up 1.7% excluding sales of e-reader devices.

BookPeople in Austin, Tex., was one of several stores to report strong holiday sales—and its best year ever—in 2014, in this particular case for the fifth year in a row. “People are just back into books. There were just tons and tons of stuff getting sold,” said Steve Bercu, CEO of BookPeople. At the store, children’s book sales rose 10% over 2013, compared to a 8% total increase for the store, Bercu reported.

“Our sales in both stores were really strong this holiday,” said Christine Onorati, owner of Word in Brooklyn and Jersey City. “In Brooklyn, we ended the year up over 5%, making it our best year ever.” That’s after moving Word’s book-fair operation to its year-old Jersey City store, which surpassed projected sales figures thanks in part to its school business. Year-over-year sales at Bookworks in Albuquerque, N.Mex., were up 9.1%, according to co-owner Danielle Foster, despite a slow fourth quarter. Vicky Titcomb, manager of Titcomb’s Bookshop in East Sandwich, Mass., said the store overcame a dip in sales for the holidays (due to fewer events), to post its best sales since it opened in 1969.

Although high rents, particularly in urban areas, forced some stores to close, others are finding their way in the post-recession period. “Business is finally on the upswing,” said Asha Sanaker, general manager of Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca, N.Y., which moved to co-op ownership in 2011. A remodel in 2013 and cosmetic changes to the outside last summer helped it break even for the first time since the transition.

As in years past, holiday sales picked up momentum at the end of the period. “It started a bit slow, to be honest, and I was a little bit worried about whether we were going to have the holiday season you’d expect to get you through the year,” said Leslie Hawkins, owner of Spellbound Children’s Bookshop in Asheville, N.C. “I feel pretty sure that when I do add it up, I will find it’s probably the best December we’ve ever had.” This was the latest season that John Platt, owner of Nonesuch Books & Cards in South Portland and Biddeford, Maine, could remember. “The last ten days were huge,” he explained.

At Children’s Book World in Los Angeles, the mid-December start of Hanukkah also contributed to a slow build. Last year, when Hanukkah was earlier, sales started sooner. “[It] made for an anxious start to the season, though with a happy ending,” said owner Sharon Hearn. Her holiday sales were even with last year, though year-over-year sales, while good, were slightly down.

Independent retailers’ “shop local” message continued to resonate with shoppers. “Although I still hear a lot of talk about Amazon Prime,” said Steven Salardino, manager of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, “it seems that our community realizes what they are contributing to when purchasing a book from Skylight. Book buyers may use Amazon for other things, but are finding that the experience of a bookstore is a worthy expense.”

The ongoing viability of bricks-and-mortar bookselling was evidenced by the sale of stores like Magic Tree in Oak Park, Ill. Co-owner Rose Joseph said that she plans to sign a contract with a long-time customer to buy the 30-year-old store in the spring. Store expansion is another indicator, with additional stores for 2015 announced by the Booksellers in Cincinnati, Third Place Books in Seattle, Anderson’s Bookshops in Naperville, Ill., and Hugo Bookstores in Andover, Mass. In December, Politics & Prose, of Washington, D.C., added bookshops inside Busboys & Poets’ area restaurants.

The strong finish came without a big commercial title, and a number of major titles went out-of-stock. That may be one reason why gift cards did particularly well this holiday season. At Skylight, gift cards were up 24% over last Christmas. Bev Bauer, owner of Redbery Books in Cable, Wis., also sold a lot more gift cards, particularly online to out-of-towners. Gift cards boosted her online sales, which accounted for 4% of overall sales in 2014.

“The real effect of no breakout book was good sales of a variety of great titles,” said Cathy Langer, lead buyer at the Tattered Cover in Denver. Her store, like many across the country, ran out of Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. “I think I ran out the Sunday before Christmas,” she recalled. “We could have sold many more those last few days. But at that point people chose other books or bought gift cards.” Tattered Cover also had trouble getting Héctor Tobar’s Deep Down Dark, about the Chilean mine disaster. “We were able to get a decent number before Christmas. But, alas, too little too late,” said Langer. Danielle Foster, co-owner of Bookworks in Albuquerque, said that she could have sold “a ton” of the Tobar. She didn’t receive her shipment until Christmas Eve. For the Doerr, she was able to restock from Costco.

At Kramerbooks & Afterwords in Washington, D.C., the lack of a must-have title meant that paperbacks sold especially well, said head buyer Jake Cumsky-Whitlock. Among the books customers grabbed were Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat, and Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken.

Regional books were also strong. “Local authors impact local business,” said Anna Miner of Morgan Hill Bookstore in New London, N.H. “We sold more copies of Donald Hall’s Essays After 80 in three and a half weeks [before Christmas] than we sold of The Goldfinch since it was published.” Quail Ridge’s top seller, close to 500 copies, was Growing Up with Raleigh, about former mayor Smedes York. At Forever Books in St. Joseph, Mich., all the big books were regional, including View 366, a coffee-table photography book of local lighthouses by Laura Kraklau, and A Killing in Capone’s Playground, by Chriss Lyon. Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tenn., which was cofounded by novelist Ann Patchett, also sold a lot of local titles, starting with her own. A book on race and sports in the South, Strong Inside, as well as The Goldfinch, which Patchett chose as the first selection for the NPR book club, did well.

In children’s there was no must-have title either, noted Ann Nye, co-owner of Excelsior Bay Books in the Minneapolis suburb of Excelsior. Without a big YA title or series like Hunger Games, one middle-grade and one picture book stood out: Jeff Kinney’s The Long Haul and B.J. Novak’s The Book with No Pictures. Shannon Hale’s The Princess in Black and Minecraft titles and Frozen books were also on many stores’ bestseller lists.

Overall booksellers were satisfied with 2014. “It was a great year for books,” says Kramerbooks’ Cumsky-Whitlock. “A positive year for change. I hope 2015 is the same.”

Print Unit Sales by Region, 2013–2014

(in thousands)

Region 2013 2014 Change
Northeast 41,513 41,378 -0.3%
Middle Atlantic 85,717 86,140 0.5%
East North Central 88,833 90,865 2%
West North Central 42,203 43,243 2%
South Atlantic 115,688 117,989 2%
South Central 90,090 94,600 5%
Mountain 49,420 50,954 3%
Pacific 106,578 109,924 3%