Signals from both booksellers and retailers in general have been mixed about sales in the first few days of the holiday shopping period. ShopperTrak, for example, estimated that sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving were up 10.8% from last year, while sales on Saturday dropped 6.5%, a trend echoed by Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Looking specifically at book sales, Visa USA reported that purchases at bookstores made using its branded cards between November 1 and November 28 rose a modest 5.2% over the comparable period in 2003, to $697 million.

By all accounts, many e-tailers did better than their bricks-and-mortar competitors. Amazon reported that its book business set a record over the Thanksgiving weekend, even as it announced that this year, sales of electronics eclipsed books for the first time over that four-day period.

Commenting on trends below the bestseller line, Amazon reported that a number of boxed sets—Lemony Snicket, Harry Potter, Peanuts—were selling well. Sales of political books have slowed, although America (The Book), was the top seller over the Thanksgiving weekend, while What's the Matter with Kansas also remains popular. In fiction, preorders for Michael Crichton's State of Fear (due out this week) have been "strong," Amazon said.

Borders spokesperson Beth Bingham described stores as "busy." The most popular titles at Borders were America (The Book), the illustrated edition of The Da Vinci Code and the new novels by James Patterson and Nelson DeMille, London Bridges and Night Fall. Polar Express has always been a big seller during the holidays, but this year sales are being aided by the movie, which spurred sales of Polar Express tie-ins. Paralleling a trend reported by other booksellers, cookbooks did well at Borders, led by Barefoot in Paris, The Gourmet Cookbook and Jan Karon's Mitford Cookbook and Kitchen Reader.

A look at independents also found mixed results. At Little Professor Book Center in Aberdeen, S.Dak., sales were flat to up slightly. Assistant manager Nick Pharris observed, "People were looking for specific titles." He also reported that demand was intense but brief for many books that he thought would hold the public's attention for longer. "It seems that something's hot for two days, and then no one asks for it for another two weeks."

Denise Taylor, general manager of the flagship Schuler Books & Music in Grand Rapids, Mich., said that many customers came to the store with lists. "There was not a lot of browsing or people asking for recommendations," she said, adding that traffic didn't seem as busy as last year, but customers were buying more. Bill Fehsenfeld, co-owner of the four Schuler stores, said that the older Schuler stores had "a respectable increase" in sales while the two newer stores had even sales.

For no obvious reason, business at the Readers Loft in DePere, Wis., was double the usual for Black Friday. "It seemed that a lot of people were out browsing," manager Melissa Olm said.

Scott Meyer, owner of three Merritt Books in Red Hook, Cold Spring and Millbrook, N.Y., called Thanksgiving weekend business "a little soft," but noted that the last two weeks before Christmas are the busiest for the stores anyway.