The official beginning of a holiday season marked by more uncertainty and anxiety than in many years was cheery for booksellers contacted by PW last week.

At Paperbacks Plus, Bronx, N.Y., and Lowry's Books, Three Rivers, Mich., sales on "Black Friday" and Saturday, the days after Thanksgiving, were above the same days a year ago. Women and Children First in Chicago and Northern Lights Books in Duluth, Minn., reported significant post-Thanksgiving sales. And at the Book Rack & Children's Pages in Essex, Vt., sales were up 10% in October, which owner Michael Desanto said is partly attributable to the store's new location.

Tom Lowry, owner of Lowry's Books, described "an air of caution" among customers. "They're very friendly, but I'm picking up on a sense of hesitation. There's still some uncertainty about spending." Noting that she had a sales gain of 16% in October over last year, Fern Jaffe, owner of Paperbacks Plus, attributed part of the sales increase to "people sticking around and staying close to home. We benefit from that."

Linda Bubon, co-owner of Women and Children First, said that on Black Friday the store sold double what it normally would on a good Friday. "We're really busy," she said. "I felt like all month our weekend sales have kicked up. And we're filling more special orders for schools and teachers." Anita Zager, owner of Northern Lights Books, also had a good weekend. "I'm feeling very optimistic. We have some wonderful regional titles that are really moving."

Booksellers reported many common bestsellers, although some had strong regional titles. Sidelines sales have also been important at some of the stores.

At Paperbacks Plus, for example, the store has a standing Book Sense display and uses the independents' bestseller list instead of the New York Times list, so that "a lot is under the radar of the big books," as Jaffe put it. The store has sold many copies of The Corrections, The Noonday Demon,Peace Like a River, The Complete Works of IsaacBabel and Portrait in Sepia. Staff selections and current events titles are doing well. "I'm impressed with the number of copies of the Koran we've sold," Jaffe added.

At Lowry's, The Desecration, Harry Potter titles and Jan Karon's Mitford Snowman are doing well. Perennial regional bestsellers include Sleeping Bear Press's Legend ofMackinac Island and Legend of Sleeping Bear as well as the photo book Stranger in theWoods.

Likewise, some of the bestsellers at the Book Rack & Children's Pages are regional titles, including Sen. James Jeffords's My Declaration of Independence. The book sold 30 copies in five days. Other hot titles at the store include all Harry Potter and Tolkien titles, even Christopher Tolkien books, as well as Diane Gabaldon's The Fiery Cross, children's books by Jan Brett and Olivia Saves the Circus by Ian Falconer. Desanto was optimistic about Christmas. "If it's true that the big chain stores are discounting their big-ticket items, people will have more money in their pockets and buy smaller stuff from me," he said. "Bookstores are well placed. People will buy a $30 or $40 book. It's not like buying a $400 piece of jewelry."

Bubon at Women and Children First said she was impressed by the continuing sales of the four Harry Potter books, each of which sold out over the previous two weekends. The store also sold out of Chicago native Studs Terkel's new book, Will the Circle Be Unbroken?, for the second time in as many weeks.

Other titles attracting buyers included Portrait in Sepia and Diane Ackerman's Cultivating Delight. The sleeper hit so far has been Fawn Germer's Hard Won Wisdom:More Than 50 Extraordinary Women Mentor You to Find Self-Awareness, Perspective, and Balance. Among children's books, Bubon is handselling Margaret Willey and Heather Solomon's Clever Beatrice and is also recommending Leonardo's Horse by Jean Fritz, illustrated by Hudson Talbott.

At Northern Lights, Zager said that after September 11 the store had strong sales on weekends, as people traveled north looking to escape. Unseasonably warm weather through Thanksgiving also helped lure customers on weekends, although the first blizzard hit the town last week. Regional titles are the top holiday sellers so far at Northern Lights. Appropriately, The Northern Lights by Lucy Jago and Leif Enger's Minnesota novel, Peace Like a River, are both doing well. Gift books that customers are taking home include Views on theMississippi: The Photographs of Henry Peter Bosse and Aldo Leopold's A Sand CountryAlmanac: With Essays on Conservation.

"The good news," said Zager, is "customers are always looking for great books, and if they come across a great title, they'll buy multiple copies to give as gifts."

B&N Sales Rise

Barnes & Noble reported that comparable store sales at its superstores were up 4.0% over the Thanksgiving weekend and up 3.2% for the first 24 days of the month.

The chain issued the sales update in conjunction with the results for the third quarter ended November 3, 2001. Total bookstore sales rose 2.8% in the quarter, to $791.0 million, led by a 5.0% increase in superstore sales to $724.6 million. Net earnings for the bookstore division fell to $5.5 million from $12.8 million in last year's third quarter.

Part of the reason for the earnings decline was a $12 million revenue shortfall in new stores because of an unplanned delay in opening outlets. Sales from "non-comparable stores" (mainly "young" two-year stores) came in $8 million below budget. B&N's Reader's Advantage program, while stimulating sales, "lowered margins more than expected," B&N chairman Len Riggio said.