The odd, the quirky, and the humorous have long been bookstore staples. But in the last five years interest in gift books has steadily grown, and not just during the holidays. At Baker & Taylor, which supplies gift books and blank books for independent bookstores as well as big-box stores and other retailers, business for gift books in 2014 was up 70% over last year, according to divisional merchandise director David Hatfield. Inventory for blank books increased 40% in 2014 over 2013, as well. And in the fourth quarter, gift books and blank books account for roughly 30% of B&T’s book business.
Hatfield sees gift books as falling into several strong categories, with adult coloring books having grown “substantially” over the past two to three years. Laurence King’s Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book is one of B&T’s top sellers along with meditative coloring books and titles from Chronicle, Peter Pauper, and Fox Chapel. On the journal side, Moleskine is big, as are guided blank journals like One Line a Day: A Five Year Memory Book. Gift books connected to social media such as Grumpy Cat and Awkward Family photos continue to perform strongly, as do nostalgia titles such as Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Little Golden Book.
“Our gift section is a year-round industry for us,” says Pam Cady, manager of the general book department at University Book Store in Seattle. “But during the holidays, it expands four or five times as much. We have to be very careful not to be too judgmental during the year if a gift book doesn’t do well for us. Because once November hits, the book that languished could very well blossom into a mega bestseller.” Among her top 10 gift books over the holidays in 2014 were Kat Su’s Crap Taxidermy; William Braden’s Henri, Le Chat Noir, which was a bestseller last year; and Francesco Marciuliano’s I Could Pee on This, which also did well last year and sold almost 1,000 copies.
Two years ago the bookstore added a Moleskine store within a store, which has had “phenomenal sales,” according to Cady. “They are by far our top-selling journal/blank books.” Even so, the store continues to do a brisk business with a number of other blank books. The handmade Ex Libris Anonymous Journal, made from old books by Vintage Books in Portland, Ore., is a UBS bestseller, as are the Woodland Series Stitched Notebooks from Franklin Mill, Draw 500 Things from Nature, Q&A a Day: 5-Year Journal, and the Marimekko Notebook Collection.
At Watermark Books & Cafe in Wichita, Ks., owner Sarah Bagby traces the start of strong gift-book sales at her store back to 1995 and the publication of Rick Stromoski’s collection of cat cartoons and illustrations, Bad Cats, which sold hundreds of copies at the register. “Every year we ask, what’s our Bad Cats?” she says. This year it ranges from a perennial favorite, David Sedaris’s Holidays on Ice, to Japanese cleaning consultant Marie Kondo’s decluttering bestseller, The Life Changing Magic of Cleaning Up, to a “gorgeous” 4 in. by 4 in. collection of photographs titled The Kansas Sky, Daily Gratitude: 365 Days of Reflection, and the 50th-anniversary edition of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems.
Bagby is in the midst of developing a new gift section and has several places throughout the store for impulse items. Bed Manners: A Very British Guide to Boudoir Etiquette is with stocking stuffers; What Jane Would Do? is shelved with other Jane Austen books. And a spinner rack of Moleskine blank books can be moved as needed. Typically, books priced under $15 work best at Watermark.
“In the last 5 years there have been many, many more [gift books] to choose from,” says Dana Brigham, general manager and part owner of Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, Mass. While gift books have “always” sold at the store, only a handful sell in the hundreds. Some that are on their way include The Pocket Thich Naht Hanh, a Nelson Mandela coloring book, and a little boxed set of books based on Downton Abbey.
Brigham looks for things at a slightly higher price point than Watermark, under $20, that match both the personality of the store and her customer base. That translates into quirky titles, books with a Jewish angle, trivia, and philosophy. The store also has two 4 ft. cases of blank books, along with fancy and plain pens, markers, and other art supplies. “They sell,” jokes Brigham, “in spite of the fact that nobody writes anything anymore.”
“This time of year, especially, people have to buy books for people they don’t know that well,” says Sarah Brown, buyer at Changing Hands in Tempe, Ariz., who spoke to PW just before Christmas. Changing Hands stocks gift titles including a parody of Lord of the Rings and the Penguin Embroidered Classics of Charles Dickens, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Jabberwocky year round. But after the holidays, rather than multiple copies, it often carries only one of each. '
Humor has long been a strong gift category at Changing Hands, which has seen a big boost in sales for You Have to F**ing Eat, the sequel of Go the F**k to Sleep, at Christmas. Other big titles were WTF, Evolution?!, which has pictures of weird animals; a leather-bound, embossed Tolkien dictionary; and mini boxed kits such as Spock in a Box.