A tough start to 2013 in many parts of the country, with record snows, torrential rains, and tornadoes, plus the bombing in Boston, has made for a quiet year to date for many bookstores, according to PW’s survey of dozens of independents around the country. In some areas, harsh weather slowed the start of summer for many families. Even so, BookPeople in Austin, Tex., is anticipating record-breaking sales again this year. So is Bookshop Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz, Calif., where sales rose more than 20% last summer because of the closing of a nearby Borders. Owner Casey Coonerty looks for a “blow-out” second quarter. “We’ve held onto our Borders bump and continue to grow,” she said.
More typical is the experience of 15-year-old River’s End Bookstore in Oswego, N.Y., a town with the highest unemployment in the state. Co-owner Bill Reilly hopes to hold on to last year’s “modest increase,” the first in four years. At Island Books in Middletown, R.I., “sales are the same or down a little bit. The economy isn’t picking up the way the media indicated,” said owner Judy Crosby, who has more than made up the difference with the opening of a second store in nearby Newport last fall. Fiction Addiction in Greenville, S.C. moved to a larger space last summer, but hasn’t been able to retain its customer base. “That’s our challenge,” said owner Jill Hendrix, “to get actual traffic back in the store. We’re having a good year, but it’s one-off stuff. I’m not pessimistic—I’m just cautiously optimistic.”
Two new stores, open four years or fewer, are more than meeting projections. Avid Bookshop in Athens, Ga., which opened in October 2011, saw sales rise by double digits at the start of the second quarter: 20% in April and 12% in May. At the Fountainhead Bookstore in Hendersonville, N.C., which opened in 2010, sales have gone up by 15.5% for the year.
Some stores in tourist areas are out-and-out optimistic as they ready for the July and August selling season, second only to Christmas. “I’m a bookseller; I have to be optimistic,” said Mark Ouilette, manager of the Bookloft in Great Barrington, Mass. His store is doing well with paperbacks like Jess Walters’s Beautiful Ruins and Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, and is anticipating a good fall with a new Thomas Pynchon and Simon Winchester. “Week by week sales are noticeably increasing,” said Bill Rickman, co-owner of Island Bookstore, with three stores on North Carolina’s Outer Banks in Duck, Corolla, and Kitty Hawk. “We didn’t get hit by Sandy like people north of us. We’re seeing people who normally go to the Jersey Shore.”
“I’m choosing to believe it’s going to be an okay summer. It’s been a pokey spring. Gas is high, but not as high as it has been,” said Ellen Richmond, owner of Children’s Book Cellar in Waterville, Maine. Her store relies on visitors to nearby lakes and camps driving up from Boston. “If Memorial Day is a good indicator of how summer is going to be, it’s going to be a good summer,” said Jennifer Wills Geraedts, co-owner of Beagle Books in Park Rapids, Minn., and Sister Wolf Books in Dorset, which is open only during the summer months.
Tourism is definitely up in Wisconsin, and bookseller Jack Beagan, at Apostle Islands Booksellers in Bayfield, expects a good summer season. Michigan, too, is benefiting from a rise in visitors, up 30%–35%, according to Matt Norcross, co-owner of McLean & Eakin in Petoskey. Top-line revenue has grown, which he attributes to new programs like book fairs, streamlining co-op, and working with local businesses to bring in big-name authors like Daniel Pink.
Jill Krebs, owner of Hill Avenue Book Co., in Spirit Lake, Iowa, saw sales increase 20% last year at her second store, open Memorial Day to Labor Day, at the Central Emporium. Sales are trending up a little this year, too. “Kindle has taken its toll, but people are coming back to books,” she said.
Summer Without E.L. James
For a number of stores the E.L. James trilogy made for a strong summer in 2012. Stores in beach communities with second homes, like Bethany Beach Books in Bethany Beach, Del., sold it by the case-load. “There’s nothing like Fifty Shades of Grey right now,” said owner Jackie Inman. “It was a frenzy. When it comes to paperback, thank goodness for Sylvia Day.” Inman’s one of many booksellers to single out the third book in Day’s Crossfire series, Entwined with You. Like other booksellers in tourist communities and outside them, she’s doing well with a trio of hardcover releases—Dan Brown’s Inferno, Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed, and Jeannette Walls’s The Silver Star. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, is still selling, and Inman’s hand-selling Charles Dubow’s Indiscretion.
“We certainly sold a lot of Fifty Shades of Grey,” said Christine Patrick, who purchased 40-year-old Winchester Book Gallery in Winchester, Va., two years ago. “Now you get people buying David Sedaris.” She’s tried to make the store more browsable and stocks impulse buys like Tim Federle’s literary cocktail book, Tequila Mockingbird, and Amy Stewart’s The Drunken Botanist. Patrick has done particularly well with the paperback of B.A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger, which she says she can’t keep in stock, and expects Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings to keep on going all summer long.
At Bookshop Santa Cruz high-profile events with David Sedaris, Isabel Allende, and Michael Pollan have positioned their books for strong summer sales. For example, Pollan’s Cooked has already sold 600 copies, and Coonerty is making a big push for Anthony Marra’s novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. “Our staff is really behind [it],” said Coonerty, “and are thrilled to have him at the store. Although it’s not your typical summer read, it’s something we hope all our customers will embrace.”
For Ed Conklin, buyer at Chaucer’s Books in Santa Barbara, Calif., “the important thing is to have lots of really good books for customers to find.” Among Southern booksellers that means stocking RITA Award–winning author Susan Crandall’s Whistling Past the Graveyard. “I just loved the voice of the narrator,” said Fiction Addiction owner Hendrix. “It’s the spunkiest voice since To Kill a Mockingbird.” An anticipated strong potential seller both North and South is the paperback of M.L. Stedman’s novel A Light Between Oceans.
On the children’s side, several books stand out: Rick Yancy’s The Fifth Wave, which David Cheezem, co-owner of Fireside Books in Palmer, Alaska, describes as “The Hunger Games on steroids”; Rachel Rene Russell’s Dork Diaries 6: Tales from a Not-So-Happy Heartbreaker; and Sarah Dessen’s The Moon and More. Many, like Children’s Book Cellar’s Richmond, expect R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, published a year and a half ago, to continue strong. And even bookstores that don’t typically do events during the summer months, like Forever Books in St. Joseph, Mich., are excited about the Candlewick/ABA Where’s Waldo? promotion, which will take place at 265 bookstores in July, up from 250 last year.
For Island’s Rickman, it’s not just about beach reads. Science, nature, and interior design also sell well. But in the past year the store has added more sidelines. Last year, he brought in hand puppets from the U.K., Out of Print T-Shirts, and matchboxes painted with cover art. This year he is trying incense after seeing an ad for it with Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books in Miami. McLean & Eakin upped its stationery and paper product offerings after a nearby Hallmark store closed, while Vicki Erwin at 20-year-old Main Street Books in St. Charles, Mo., cut back on toys other than plush and puzzles.
Diversification has been key for Titcomb’s Bookshop in East Sandwich, Mass. “We’re doing a lot more remainders. We added toys a number of years ago and are even selling Legos,” said manager Vicky Titcomb, who is ringing through fewer summer reading titles. “Everybody’s got e-readers. In our high school, they gave iPads to freshmen and sophomores.”
At Fireside Books, Alaskan authors do especially well, particularly former employee Eowyn Ivey, whose debut novel, The Snow Child, has sold a thousand copies. Other local books co-owner Cheezem is excited about include Tim Kirizzia’s Pilgrim’s Wilderness and Don Reardon’s The Raven’s Gift, which Cheezem sold bootleg copies of before the U.S. edition became available.
The Children’s Book Cellar is doing well with books by local authors, too, among them Jennifer Richard Jacobson’s Small as an Elephant and Maria Padian, author of Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best. With the closing of the Mr. Paperback chain, owner Richmond is trying to make more room for her adult section, where she promotes Mainers like Kathie Pelletier, Stephen King, Richard Russo, and Ron Currie Jr.
Beagle Books in Park Rapids, Minn., has begun carrying more local toys and coloring sets, and does well with local books like William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace and Peter Geye’s Lighthouse Road, both set in northern Minnesota and are Midwest Independent Booksellers Association Choice Award nominees. Christina Baker Kline’s novel Orphan Train has also been a strong seller, along with Steve Hamilton’s Alex McNight mysteries set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
So what’s ahead for summer 2013? Most booksellers are expecting a good season. Perhaps Tom Lowenburg, co-owner of Octavia Books in New Orleans sums it up best: “There are a lot of uncertainties out there. But I’m very confident about the book. Our customers all want the book.”