Despite dismal holiday sales reports from many general retailers, there have been some major exceptions, including the biggest discounter, Wal-Mart, as well as Target and certain online retailers.

A survey of independent booksellers immediately after Christmas shows a similar range of results, with the majority flat or down. Some booksellers reporting poor sales attribute the drop to the general economy, and at least two might have turned the season around but for a late snowstorm and the absence of a signing by an important author. Many reported modest increases, which this year were considered significant achievements. Some stores with major specialties did better than general bookstores.

Among other findings, some faster-moving titles were difficult to get from publishers and wholesalers, and sidelines were more important than ever to some book retailers. In a season in which there was more of a range of experiences than usual, the mood among customers varied widely from store to store.

Specialty Stores' Surprises

Of all the booksellers with whom PW spoke, Mystery Lovers Bookshop, Oakmont, Pa., had the best news. Sales between Thanksgiving and Christmas were up an impressive 17%, with the busiest periods immediately after Thanksgiving and the weekend of the 15th and 16th.

At Mystery Lovers, book sales were up 15%, less than the overall increase, according to co-owner Richard Goldman. Among the bestsellers were two mysteries, Sugar Plum Dead by Carolyn G. Hart (Avon) and Mistletoe Man by Susan Wittig Albert (Berkley). In addition, several cookbooks added spice to the mix: Saveur Cooks Authentic Italian: Savoring the Recipes and Traditions of the World's Favorite Cuisine from Saveur Magazine (Chronicle); the anniversary edition of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Knopf); and Basic Cooking (Silverback).

Harry Potter titles also sold, along with a related book, The Sorcerer's Companion by Allan Zola Kronzek and Elizabeth Kronzek (Broadway).

Sideline sales at the Mystery Lovers Bookshop rose faster than book sales. Among the bestsellers: jigsaw puzzles, which were up 40%, largely because of inexpensive 3-D puzzles from Wrebbit, a Canadian company; Edward Gorey mugs and totebags; and Chronicle's Paper Palm, a $4.95 spiral-bound pad with a photo of a Palm Pilot on it.

Another bookstore reporting solid sales was a surprise among specialties: travel bookseller Globe Corner Bookstores. Aided in large part by sales through its Web site, which were up 68% and made the site profitable for the fiscal year, Globe Corner experienced a 7% gain in sales between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Sales at the company's bricks-and-mortar store in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass., were up 1%, a major accomplishment considering the current climate; sales had jumped 20% in the same period a year ago, according to president Pat Carrier. He added that he believes "the travel industry may be in better shape than the previous industry reports suggest."

Globe's bestsellers included custom topographical maps from the National Geographic Society, maps and globes, and some big-ticket books (sales of books that cost more than $100 were up more than in any previous holiday season).

At Shaman Drum Bookshop, the Ann Arbor, Mich., academic and scholarly store, sales were up more than 5% over last year. "While that's not an incredible jump, it's still something I'm pleased about in light of our economy," said trade buyer Nancy Rohlen, adding that the store was helped by "above-average temperatures and a record-setting lack of snow in the region."

Among her standout titles were some large art books, including Blue: The History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau (Princeton), Gandhi: A Photo Biography (Phaidon) and Secret Knowledge by David Hockney (Viking), but otherwise coffee-table books didn't do well, as might be expected in the current economy. With the opening of the movie Fellowship of the Ring, many J.R.R. Tolkien titles were ringing up sales. Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed (Metropolitan) and Paul Auster's collection of NPR reports, I Thought My Father Was God (Holt), were difficult to keep in stock. And Rohlen singled out Random for such "all-stars" as Billy Collins's Sailing Alone Around the World, W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz and Dai Sijie's Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, among others.

At St. Olaf Bookstore, the Northfield, Minn., bookstore connected with St. Olaf College, sales were stronger than last year and "exceeded expectations," according to trade book manager Jerry Bilek. Sales were up 30% during the store's annual sale on December 12.

Bilek reported that customers' mood was "very positive," and most bestsellers were by authors who participated in the store's reading series. These included Peace Like A River by Leif Enger (Atlantic Monthly) and The Boys' House by Jim Heynen (Minnesota Historical Society). The store had difficulty obtaining enough copies of The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (FSG), The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking (Bantam) and So Ole Says to Lena: Folk Humor of the Upper Midwest, compiled by James P. Leary (Wisconsin).

Flat Is Fine

Sales at The Bookseller in Cherokee, Iowa, were down 1%—2% during the holiday season and down 3% for the year as a whole, according to owner Donna J. Henrich. The long holiday sales season led to some earlier-than-usual shopping, particularly for such big books as John Adams by David McCullough (S&S), The No Spin Zone by Bill O'Reilly (Broadway) and Jack: Straight from the Gut by Jack Welch (Warner). This helped the store because it was able to reorder those titles in a timely way. Moderate temperatures also enhanced business. After a long spell of relatively warm weather, there was a major storm on December 22, which "quashed hopes for meeting last year's sales." Business on Monday, the 24th, almost made up for the bad Saturday and Sunday, but not quite.

The mood among Bookseller customers was "upbeat," Henrich added. "They did not mention prices or the recession." She added that in Iowa, people "are sheltered from September 11 by the distance," and there were "moderate sales of In the Line of Duty [HarperCollins] and calls for September 11 titles that we did not have in."

At the Bookseller, Skipping Christmas was "a surprise even though it was a Grisham," Henrich said. "We scrambled to find more. The Christmas Box Miracle by Richard Paul Evans (S&S) was a disappointment in sales and to readers. They wanted another story from him." She added that it was difficult for the store to obtain enough copies of The Snow Bear by Miriam Moss (Dutton) and Honk the Moose by Phil Strong (Trellis).

Sidelines were important at The Bookseller, where "calendar sales started early" and booklights, journals and bookmarks sold well, according to Henrich.

Holiday sales at Murder by the Book, Portland, Ore., were up slightly over last year, as the store sold more hardcovers and gift certificates than usual—and took in more books in trade than it has in previous holiday seasons, according to co-owner Jill Hinckley.

Hinckley noted that customers perhaps required "a bit more hand-holding and encouragement with gift selections" than in past years. In addition, business has bounced back since the September 11 attacks, but a "preference for lighter mysteries has prevailed." Even the store's more hard-boiled readers, she noted, have said, "I don't think I can take another serial killer."

Holiday sales at Brookline Booksmith, Brookline, Mass., were "a bit ahead of the prior year," according to co-owner and general manager Dana Brigham. Customers were "more conservative and careful" with their choices, she continued, and a desire on the part of consumers to cocoon was in evidence. For example, cookbooks, including How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman (Hungry Minds) and Moosewood Restaurant New Classics (Clarkson Potter), were very popular.

David McCullough's John Adams--a bestseller with a "local" angle--was the "gotta-have" of the season, Brigham noted. Other important titles include The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, Churchill by Roy Jenkins (FSG) and Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris (Random). Another very popular title was Nicholas Perricone's Wrinkle Cure (Warner)--the store sold "hundreds" of copies of it. Remainder titles did "super well," according to Brigham. "Customers wanted to give a quality gift at a lower price."

Although the store sold fewer holiday cards than in "any year before," other sidelines sold well, particularly some aromatherapy products and "quirky, fun" things for less than $10, most notably a plastic piggy bank.

At Journeys of Life, a 12-year-old Pittsburgh, Pa., bookstore specializing in psychology, self-help, New Age, spirituality and men's and women's issues, holiday sales were "pleasantly surprising," according to owner Jean Haller. December sales through Christmas were slightly ahead of last year. Haller speculated that the "wonderful" results--considering the forecasts of doom and gloom--came in part because the store offers "gifts with meaning and that tell a story."

Surprise bestsellers at Journeys of Life included Moosewood Restaurant New Classics; The Soul of Rumi, poems by Maulana Jalal al-Din Rumi (Harper San Francisco); Blue Day Book (Andrews McMeel); and I Hope You Dance by Mark D. Sanders and Tia Sillers (Rutledge Hill). December Book Sense 76 titles, which the store advertised, also did well.

Disappointments included John Grisham's Skipping Christmas and Mattie Stepaneck's books of poetry (Vacation Spot).

There were many "last-minute sales" at McIntyre's Fine Books, Pittsboro, N.C., making for a holiday season that was above dampened expectations, manager and buyer Robert Segedy reported. The store's holiday catalogue helped business.

Surprise bestsellers included Paint by Number by William L. Bird Jr. (Princeton Architectural Press) and The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan (Random). The store had trouble obtaining enough copies of The Mitford Snowmen by Jan Karon (Viking) and Earth from Above 365 Days (Abrams).

Customers appeared "harried," Segedy observed, and many did their Christmas shopping late in the season. Gift certificate sales rose this year.

Difficult Decembers

Sales at Parkplace Book Co., in Kirkland, Wash., were "lousy," down more than 10%, according to co-owner Ted Lucia. Although the store was selling more paperbacks than before, generally there were "fewer people in the store buying fewer books." Among the bestsellers were "the titles and sidelines that had always been selling well" such as The Four Agreements Cards, The Red Tent by Anita Diamant (Picador) and The Lord of the Rings. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was probably the store's bestselling book, in part because "you always have a new group of kids coming into that age group to read it."

Although the store wasn't affected by layoffs at Boeing, Lucia said, "The economy just adds up to a bunch of unease. My guess is that people just didn't spend money." As a result, sales of calendars, an impulse item, were down "significantly."

Lucia lamented, too, that the store didn't have enough "conservative titles" such as Barbara Olson's The Final Days (Regnery). Like other booksellers, he had trouble getting some titles from wholesalers.

Another store experiencing a big drop was Garden District Book Shop, New Orleans, where holiday sales were down more than 10%, according to owner Britton Trice. The full year will be the first in the store's 25 years that it will not post an overall sales increase. "Customers were a little more subdued, a little more somber," Britton added.

Moreover, local author Anne Rice usually has a new book and does a signing at the store late in the year, which brings in $25,000 and more, "but she didn't sign for us this year," Britton said.

The store also suffered after September 11 because of its dependence on the tourist business, which is down dramatically. Perhaps in part because of this, some of the store's bestsellers had particular regional and local appeal. They included The Majesty of St. Charles Avenue (Pelican), which sold 250 copies sold; Obituary Cocktail, a $40 book on New Orleans bars; and Rick Bragg's Ava's Man (Knopf).

Richard Goldman of Mystery Lovers Bookshop perhaps best summed up the overall mood: "Like every retail experience, this season was utterly mysterious."