Specialty stores sing tidings of joy;
the Grinch stalks some general stores.

The 1998 holiday season was mixed, with some booksellers doing exceptionally well by standard measures while others seemed to tread water.Specialty stores were among those that reported the best gains or expressed the most confidence.

General bookstores had varying experiences. In one sign that some of that may had a Christmas to forget, more than the usual number of general booksellers approached by PW to participate in this survey declined immediately or dropped out partway through the process. It seems that some had poor seasons -- based on their own comments and talk within the industry. As a result, the survey has more than the usual share of specialty retailers, which may reflect the general situation in book retailing: specialty stores tend to do better against potent superstore and Web competition.

Among the findings of our survey:

  • Sales at most stores were up a few percentage points, but not dramatically. Often booksellers welcomed the seemingly small gain because it was accomplished in the face of new competition.

  • Apparently more customers perceived books as gifts this season: gift books sold especially well at some stores, and sales of gift certificates increased. By contrast, holiday titles were flat.

  • Some major titles in demand ran out, but wholesalers and publishers generally did a good job of supplying available titles to stores, some of which are already shifting business from Ingram because of Barnes &Noble's plan to purchase the company.

  • Consumers were in a good mood in most parts of the country, used charge and debit cards more frequently for purchases and are aware of and use Amazon.com.

The Sales Report

For many stores, sales were up slightly in the holiday period.

Women &Children First, Chicago, had one of the largest gains, with sales up more than 10%. Co-owner and manager Linda Bubon attributed some of the gain to stronger sales earlier in the month that resulted in part from weekend afternoon programs, particularly children's events.

Sales at City Lights, San Francisco, rose 12.5%, boosted by a one-time factor: extra business generated by attendees of the Modern Language Association meeting in San Francisco the last week of December. The sales gain would have been minimal otherwise, manager Paul Yamazaki reported.

At R.J. Julia Booksellers, Madison, Conn., sales were up 11%. Owner Roxanne Coady attributed the increase to the store's new catalogue, which replaced the newsletter, and to marketing and events.Then again, seemingly meager sales gains sometimes have to be judged in context. John Barringer, owner of Little Professor Book Center, Charlotte, N.C., was delighted with his holiday sales gain of 1%. Charlotte and the surrounding area, not a huge market, has five Barnes &Nobles, two Borders and five Media Plays.

Similarly at Beaucoup Books, New Orleans, La., sales rose a respectable 2%-3%, according to owner Mary Price Dunbar, who noted that a Borders had opened 20 miles away in August.

At Joseph-Beth Booksellers, which has six stores in Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee (including Davis-Kidd Booksellers), sales increased just 1.8%.

Some booksellers sensed a loss of sales to Internet booksellers, primarily Amazon.com. Certainly many store customers are aware of Amazon.com, either bringing in printouts from Amazon.com or telling booksellers, "I can get it from Amazon.com."

Continuing the trend of recent years, stores are seeing holidays decline in significance. At Archivia: The Decorative Arts Book Shop, New York City, for example, holiday sales as a percentage of annual sales has declined steadily from 38% in 1996 to 35% in 1997 to 30% in 1998. "It's a deliberate attempt on our part to lessen our dependency on the holiday season," said Cynthia Conigliaro, co-owner with Joan Gers. The store has put out more flyers in non-holiday months, which helped make July "phenomenal."

'Twasn't the Season

Only a handful of stores reported much of a sales boost from Kwanza or Hanukkah, and Christmas holiday titles did not do particularly well at most stores.

Hanukkah "definitely has an impact," Beth Pufer, manager and buyer of Bank Street Bookstore, New York City, said, while Kwanza results in "more sales to teachers, who provide information about the holiday to their students."

At Sisterspace &Books, Washington, D.C., where there are "celebrations all over the city," according to co-owner Cassandra Burton, Kwanza titles sell well.

Bank Street Bookstore also sells a healthy amount of titles geared toward the Muslim holiday Ramadan, including Ramadan by Suhaib Hamid Ghazi, illustrated by Omar Rayyan (Holiday House) and Magid Fasts for Ramadan by Mary Matthews, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Clarion).

Interestingly, Kwanza did not provide a sales boost at one African-American bookstore. Louis D. Cobb Jr., owner of Cobb Books, Albany, Ga., which specializes in African-American titles, said that the holiday is "not embraced by the community. There's a lot of talk, but it's not celebrated."

Books geared toward Christmas and the holidays did not sell dramatically well at most of the stores surveyed. At A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books, San Francisco, the store's display of 30 seasonal titles resulted in sales of only "a few each." However, the store's gift book promotion of 40 titles offered at a 20% discount, which runs November 1-December 31 and is in its fourth year, resulted in high sales.

A Clean Well Lighted Place also found that the Zagat Survey 1999 San Francisco Bay Area Restaurants (Zagat Survey) made for a "great stocking stuffer." The Survey was the store's No. 8 bestselling trade title for the year.

Customers All Charged Up

The mood of customers seemed to vary geographically. In some stores in the Northeast, customers seemed to have all the bubbly charm of, well, Northerners. As Cynthia Conigliaro of Archivia, New York City, put it: "The mood was not holiday-like. It was not perky."

However, in comments that ech d those of booksellers in other parts of the country, Mary Price Dunbar of Beaucoup Books, New Orleans, La., called customers "upbeat. Christmas Eve [the store's busiest day of the season] was kind of fun this year."

Similarly, Hut Landon, owner of Landon Books, Mill Valley, Calif., said customers were "upbeat and happy and in good spirits."

Booksellers reported an ever-increasing use of credit and debit cards during the season. At Little Professor in Charlotte, N.C., credit card use was up 75% this holiday season. The store also sold "more gift certificates in higher denominations," said John Barringer. Most of the gift certificates were in the $50-$100 range, and the store sold one for $1000.

The sale of gift certificates grew at R.J. Julia, too, where, incidentally, the use of American Express cards was nearly equal to MasterCard. Gift certificates represented 8% of R.J. Julia sales; the average amount was $50. Coady noted happily: "What I like about gift certificates is that 17% of them never get cashed in."

Wholesale Change

With a few exceptions, booksellers gave publishers and wholesalers high marks for supplying them with wanted titles in a timely manner.

As Ron Knoth, manager of New York City's A Different Light, put it, "We've had wonderful experiences with K n, which went beyond the call of duty. They were very supportive." He also praised Bookpeople.

Because Barnes &Noble is planning to purchase Ingram, some booksellers have cut back business with Ingram in protest. But the sales cutbacks have been smaller than some intended.

Little Professor, Charlotte, N.C., has cut purchases from Ingram only slightly "so far," John Barringer said. "But that will change." The company has given more bestseller orders to K n and Baker &Taylor. Still, Barringer said, such decisions will be based on business principles. "The level of service is the deciding factor," he said. "The customer is the primary determinant."

Likewise, Leslie Graham, store manager of A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books, said she had changed buying patterns "minimally," adding, "I wasn't going to shoot myself in the foot during the Christmas season." The store sent orders to B&T first, then to Ingram, a reversal in order from past years.

Beaucoup Books continued to buy many titles from Ingram during the holiday season, but Mary Price Dunbar said that "if the deal g s through, we will definitely stop our business with Ingram."

For its part, the Bank Street Bookstore relies on Bookazine for same-day delivery and K n for next-day delivery; in the past, it used Ingram and B&T more often.

Mysterious Bookshop, New York City, has always used Bookazine more than other wholesalers. Ingram has dropped to No. 3 from No. 2.

Before the B&N/Ingram announcement, some 90% of Landon Books' wholesaler orders went to Ingram. That amount has been cut to about 70%, according to Hut Landon, who commented: "That makes me feel good. It's important to make the statement."

Several booksellers said that they are ordering more frequently from publishers, whose service has improved considerably in the past few years.As City Books manager Paul Yamazaki said, "Over the last three years, publishers' warehouses have gotten better. We receive orders in five to 10 working days. They've gotten very efficient."

Fast Forward to Audio

Booksellers continue to have a range of experience with audiobooks. Some stores sell few, if any, audiobooks. Others sell and rent them, and have found that rentals are important for building traffic.

At A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books, San Francisco, unabridged audio titles have sold "a lot better than the abridged" titles this year, Leslie Graham said. Similarly R.J. Julia has noticed that customers prefer unabridged versions, although "the price points are daunting."

Beaucoup Books sells an increasing number of audio titles "to older customers," Mary Price Dunbar said.

Back to the Future

Most of the independent booksellers with whom PW spoke are still only slowly setting up Web sites and selling from them -- if that. Some stores have found the effort time-consuming; several plan to link with the ABA and Feminist Book Network Web sites.

Bank Street Bookstore plans to improve its consumer Web site, which already offers a shopping cart service but has a limited selection of titles.

More typical of independents is Mysterious Bookshop, which has had a Web site for a year and a half but d sn't "have the staff to keep it fresh," according to manager Sally Owen.

However, one company, Books for Cooks in Baltimore, which closed its traditional store and sells only on the Web now, has seen a dramatic growth in sales recently.

In one sign of confidence, several stores are expanding or recently expanded their operations in the bricks-and-mortar world of bookselling.

Women &Children First, Chicago, expanded into neighboring space last March and added awnings later in the year. The awnings "had an impact," Linda Bubon said. "They really make a difference." Besides improving signage, the awnings "give the illusion of a larger space inside."

Louis D. Cobb Jr. of Cobb Books intends to look for a larger site in a more commercial area to allow for an expansion of the store's product mix.

Many of the specialty stores with whom PW spoke stated that they felt relatively insulated from the superstore threat.

At Archivia, for example, the store believes that it "can't be hurt" because of its architecture and decorative arts specialty, its strength in out-of-print and foreign books, its "well-paid, knowledgeable staff," and "some very special services" like hand delivery, according to Cynthia Conigliaro.

Sisterspace &Books, Washington, D.C., aims to be a "real community store, with many in-store and out-of-store events, book clubs, community meetings, p try and prose workshops, healing circles, children's holiday readings and a Christmas and Kwanza arts and crafts sale," Cassandra Burton said.

Surprises; Hard-to-Get Titles

Several stores said that a surprise bestseller was We Interrupt This Broadcast, edited by J Garner with a foreword by Walter Cronkite (Sourcebooks), a book/CD package with narration by Bill Kurtis. At Women &Children First, "it worked for all sorts of customers, young people, grandfathers," according to Linda Bubon.

At Little Professor, Charlotte, N.C., the staff suggested We Interrupt This Broadcast as a substitute for two titles that the store had trouble stocking and were bestsellers at other stores: The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw (Random) and The Century by Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster (Doubleday).

At Joseph-Beth Booksellers, "the biggest surprises of the season came in the form of some really strong gift book sales," said owner Neil Van Uum. He cited in particular The American Century by Harold Evans with Gail Buckland and Kevin Baker (Knopf), which also acted as a good substitute for The Century when the store had trouble obtaining that title.

At Landon Books, surprise bestsellers were The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition by Caroline Alexander (Knopf) and two Star Wars titles, Star Wars: The Visual Dictionary and Star Wars: Incredible Cross-Sections, both by Dr. David West Reynolds (DK Publishing).

At R.J. Julia, surprise bestsellers include The Endurance, Elegy for Iris by John Bayley (St. Martin's), Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea by Gary Kinder (Atlantic Monthly), Blind Man's Bluff by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew with Annette L. Drew (Public Affairs) and Marilyn Monr by Barbara Leaming (Crown).

Titles Playing Hard to Get

Many booksellers lamented that they couldn't get more copies of Charming Billy by Alice McDermott (FSG). "That was painful," Linda Bubon of Women &Children First commented.

City Books, San Francisco, had trouble obtaining copies of The Love of a Good Woman: Stories by Alice Munro (Knopf), Elegy for Iris, and Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science by Alan D. Sokal and Jean Bricmont (Picador USA), as well as Charming Billy.

R.J. Julia also had trouble stocking adequate amounts of Values of the Game by Bill Bradley (Artisan).

Specialty Titles
The 20th Century Children's Book Treasury, edited by Janet Schulman and Simon Boughton (Knopf), was a children's title that many booksellers reported as a solid seller.

At Bank Street Bookstore, New York City, Tibet: Through the Red Box by Peter Sis (FSG/Frances Foster) proved to be "a good crossover book, with more adults buying the book for themselves," according to Beth Puffer.

Tibet was a surprise bestseller at City Lights, too, as was

This Land Is Your Land, words and music by Woody Guthrie, illustrations by Kathy Jakobsen (Little, Brown).

Some of the specialty stores had trouble finding the books that were popular with their customers. At Archivia, the two titles most difficult to find were The Houses of McKim, Mead &White by Samuel G. White, photographs by Jonathan Wallen (Rizzoli) and The Givenchy Style by Francoise Mohrt (Vendome).

Surprise bestsellers at A Different Light included Apres Noir, produced by Body Aware, a catalogue of women's lingerie designed for men; Toilet by Tom Woolley (Illiterati); Pier Queen, a book of p try published by author Emanuel Xavier, who is an employee at A Different Light; Best Lesbian Erotica 1998, compiled by Jenifer Levin and edited by Tristan Taormino (Cleis Press); and Awakening the Virgin, edited by Nicole Foster and Julie K. Trevelyan (Alyson).

Louis D. Cobb Jr. of Cobb Books said that the policy of delaying release dates for new titles, especially fiction titles, for African American History Month in February, hurt sales at the store. Nevertheless, the store did well with various Iyanla Vanzant titles; A Treasury of African-American Christmas Stories, edited by Betty Collier-Thomas (Holt); and the Little Bill series by Bill Cosby (Cartwheel).

Similarly, Sisterspace &Books sold vast quantities of Vanzant titles; the store also did well with titles by Octavia Butler, The Wake of the Wind by J. California Cooper (Doubleday) and With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together by Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee (Morrow). The store's surprise bestsellers were Standing at the Scratch Line by Guy Johnson (Random House), which co-owner Cassandra Burton handsold, and Men of Color: Fashion, History, Fundamentals, a style book by Lloyd Boston and Andre Leon Talley (Artisan).

The Mysterious Bookshop had trouble finding enough copies of The Simple Truth by David Baldacci (Warner) and Drinker of Blood by Lynda Suzanne Robinson (Mysterious Press). Owen noted: "Drinker went so fast we thought it was stolen."