New Englanders have a saying: if you don't like the weather, wait five minutes. Unfortunately, the wait for a break in the brutal cold that began in early December has lasted two months, which is bad news for book retailers. Buffeted by snowstorms the first two weekends in December, which effectively iced many booksellers' hopes for a strong Christmas, sales are now being frozen by a big chill that closed schools earlier this month and forced Maine to declare a state of emergency.
"I've gone through 31 Decembers of selling books, and this is the worst weather I can recall," Michael Katzenberg, owner of Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vt., told PW. "The January cold hasn't helped either. When the high temperature is 13 below zero, you don't get too many people."
Although his experience is closer to the norm throughout New England, there are a few bright spots, including Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, Vt., which had its best Christmas ever, fueled, in part, by a 15th-anniversary celebration that brought out area writers such as Howard Frank Mosher and Martha Zweig on Saturday, December 6, despite an enormous snowfall. "We had a sales record—breaking day that day, and we had a lot of press," owner Linda Ramsdell, past president of NEBA, said. "There's sort of a Vermont rising to meet the challenge of the weather. It's not called the Northeast Kingdom for nothing." In addition, Galaxy Bookshop benefited from the fact that "people were making more of an effort to shop locally," she added.
Geography was destiny for Books, Etc. in Portland and Falmouth, Maine, which had "generally a great Christmas," according to owner Allan Schmid. "The snowstorms were timed fortuitously. The first one started here on Saturday night, and we don't open until later on Sunday. The cold weather in January has affected us more. In Portland, we're off for the month. Usually we get a lot of office workers at lunch time, and they don't want to go out."
The customers at Maine Coast Book Shop and Cafe in Damariscotta are hardier souls. "You know how you see lines at the grocery stores when people hear bad weather is coming? Our customers buy books," manager Trudy Chambers Price told PW. "They don't want to run out." Although the sales were up both this year and last, Price noticed the weather slowed shipments from Federal Express and UPS.
Elsewhere in Maine, the Mr. Paperback stores, 11 in all, were especially hard hit. "It certainly was extremely cold this month," acknowledged general manager Jim Cree, adding, "It's not completely unusual—we are in Maine, after all. Quite honestly, the snowstorms in December were more damaging to us. Had we not had those snowstorms, we would have been up." His outlook for the first two quarters is not rosy. "Although things are looking up nationally," he said, "we lag in Maine."
Upstate New York also had trouble overcoming the snows of December. "We never made it back," said Dan Schreffler, floor manager of Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza in Albany. What should have been a great Christmas ended up pretty much flat. As for the chills of January, he continued, "It's hard to measure. January is slow anyway. Last January was awful; we had so much snow. There are days we shouldn't have opened and ended up closing early."
Susan Avery, who co-owns Ariel Booksellers in New Paltz, experienced the same thing. The December snows were so bad that she couldn't even get to the store one weekend—and she lives 20 minutes away. On the other hand, Ariel's sales are up now despite the cold. "This is a college town," Avery said. "There's a little boomlet here because kids are back in school as of last week."
Massachusetts and New Hampshire haven't fared much better. "The weather really hurt us in December," said Carol Chittenden, owner of Eight Cousins Children's Books in Falmouth, Mass., on Cape Cod. "January is so slow. The temperature just inhibits everything." The ice has also hurt business. "A lot of our customers are grandparents, and they don't want to fall," she explained.
Closer to Boston, Brookline Booksmith noticed a cooling-off of customer traffic because of the snowstorms and sub-zero temperatures. "I can't think of any other time I've only seen one person in the store," co-owner Dana Brigham told PW. "It's been rough. Even when it warms up to 20 degrees, it gets better." Although sales at the Brookline store ended flat for 2003, the Wellesley Booksmith came out ahead. "Fortunately," Brigham commented, "none of our events have been on subzero nights. Attendance has been good."
No booksellers with whom PW spoke reported any burst pipes, although the Book Rack and Children's Pages in Essex Junction, Vt., lost the use of one of its two heating pumps two weeks ago. "It's a little chilly," conceded co-owner Elaine Sopchak, who rigged up fans to blow hot air from the back room into the front of the store. To warm shoppers further, particularly the many who have gravitated to crockpot cookbooks and the aptly named anthology Winter: A Spiritual Biography of the Season, edited by Gary Schmidt and Susan Felch and illustrated by Barry Moser (Skylight Books), Sopchak is putting up a display of beach reading, complete with an umbrella.