"I don't remember a better holiday selling season in the last decade," said Anne Holman, general manager at the King's English Bookshop in Salt Lake City, Utah. Although sales started off slow in 2011, they began to pick up in October and have been increasing steadily since late November.
The upward swing began in full force the day after Thanksgiving with the start of Buy Local First Week, an initiative of the state-wide organization Local First Utah that drew a substantial amount of new customers into the store. "Since we're on the corner of 15th East and 15th South in Salt Lake, we offered '15% off at 15th and 15th' as a thank you for shopping locally," Holman said. Many regulars showed their support on Small Business Saturday that same weekend. The American Express-sponsored promotion "really picked up steam this year."
The momentum continued with a couple of events held in early December. At the Sunday morning Books & Bagels gathering, a longtime store tradition, booksellers served up gift-giving suggestions along with breakfast. Many of the titles presented are favorites featured in the 32-page holiday edition of the Inkslinger, the store's newsletter--like Guts and Glory: The Golden Age of American Football, 1958-1978 by Neil Leifer, which begins with a quotation by Vince Lombardi spread out over a 10-page pictorial opener. "It gives us an opportunity to showcase books that are grand and glorious," Holman said. "It's one thing to talk about how much you love it, but it's something else to show it."
Big spenders aren't holding back, snapping up copies of Guts and Glory ($49.99) as well as other lavish photographic books like The Louvre: All the Paintings ($75), Chess Masterpieces: One Thousand Years of Extraordinary Chess Sets ($65) and The Crown Jewels ($65).
Attendees received 20% of all purchases at Books & Bagels, as they did during the annual holiday party where more than 20 area writers were the guests of honor. "It's a fun night, and then we start the season out with signed copies of all of those authors' books," said Holman. "We're selling stacks and stacks of them. It's a huge deal for us in terms of sales." Among the selections from local scribes are middle grade and YA novels by Matthew J. Kirby (Icefall), Ally Condie (Crossed), Newbery Honor winner Shannon Hale (Forest Born) and National Book Award finalist Sara Zarr (How to Save a Life).
A favored handsell for Holman is The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje. "New fiction is always a stand-out category for us because it's what so many of us love," she said. Ondaatje's novel is currently displayed along with The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes and We the Animals by Justin Torres as "Three Great Books About Three Sets of Boys in Totally Different Scenarios."
Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff and other hardcover bestsellers are proving equally popular in paperback with King's English clientele. A title originally scheduled for paperback release this fall and then postponed is Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. "We're selling even more of it now than we did last Christmas," noted Holman.
A few titles being recommended have a close-to-home connection, including Salt Lake Tribune columnist and King's English bookseller A.E. (Ann) Cannon's Charlotte's Rose. The middle-grade novel about a young Welsh girl who sails to the U.S. and becomes part of a company of Mormon handcart pioneers was out of print and recently reissued by the University of Utah Press. Editor and author Jennifer Adams worked at the bookshop until relocating to Philadelphia to work for Quirk Books, but her former colleagues are still selling two board books she wrote: Pride & Prejudice and Romeo & Juliet in the "Baby Lit" series.
The only title Holman has had a hard time keeping in stock is Jon Klassen's picture book I Want My Hat Back, published by Candlewick Press. "We absolutely love that book," she said. "I'm hoping we get more this week because we're selling it to everybody." Overall, though, "it really has been smoother this year. Last year we had a much harder time keeping some books in stock." Random House's two-day shipping program has been "hugely helpful," as is weekend shipping by distributors.
In the children's section at the King's English is a red wagon with a sign explaining that its cargo is for a good cause. Customers can buy new books or donate gently used ones to the Book Wagon, a local charity that distributes the tomes (via a wagon, of course) to children at nine low-income housing complexes in Salt Lake City. "It's very popular," said Holman. "People are happy to do it, and we're constantly emptying the wagon and then refilling it."
Recipients on Holman's gift list will be unwrapping copies of some of the novels she most enjoyed this year, like Bonnie Jo Campbell's Once Upon a River, the story of a 16-year-old girl surviving on her own in the Michigan woods. "It's pretty tough to read, but it's a beautiful book," she said. She'll also be giving Rachel Simon's The Story of Beautiful Girl, about a disabled couple in love facing improbable odds, which Holman described as "Wonderstruck for adults," and Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante. Beloved by all the King's English employees, LaPlante's novel features a retired hand surgeon suffering from dementia who is a suspect in her best friend's murder.
Holman plans to put a copy of the "very funny" When Parents Text: So Much Said... So Little Understood by Lauren Kaelin and Sophia Fraioli in her 18-year-old daughter's stocking. And her holiday gift to herself is Neil MacGregor's A History of the World in 100 Objects. --Shannon McKenna Schmidt