At Chapter One Bookstore in Hamilton, Mont., the holiday rush kicked off right after Thanksgiving. According to co-owner Shawn Wathen, the two-day total for Friday and Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend was the store's best two-day total in more than a decade.
"Ever since then, things have been hopping and getting busier," Wathen said. "For us, the busiest time is the 20th to 23rd of December."
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand has been "going gangbusters," with a major movie adaptation coming on December 25. Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience by Shaun Usher, which features facsimiles of real letters between historical figures (one is a handwritten letter from a young Fidel Castro to Franklin Delano Roosevelt), has emerged as a surprisingly strong holiday seller. Molly Gloss's novel Falling from Horses has moved briskly as well; Gloss, Wathen explained, has a passionate following in Montana. And in fiction, as is the case at many indies this season, Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See is selling strongly.
In terms of sidelines, Wathen stocked up on Folkmanis Puppets, and they've moved well. To coincide with Jane Austen's birthday on December 16, Wathen brought in a lot of Jane Austen-themed items, including action figures and puzzles. And because there is no conventional toy store in Hamilton, Wathen has ordered a lot of board games and toys from the company Blue Orange Games.
Despite brisk sales and a great Thanksgiving weekend, Wathen doesn't expect to be up over last year. Depending on how the next 10 or so days go, he said, his store will either be even or little bit below last year. "It's been a slide since 2009," he explained. "Due to our location, it's a really long-term thing to come out of any severe recession. My hope is from here we've seen the bottom and can start to climb.... It's just the nature of where we live. The recession lingers long-term here."
Steve Salardino, the manager at Skylight Books in Los Angeles, Calif., has seen strong sales of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle as well as the novels of Elena Ferrante, Amy Poehler's Yes Please and Haruki Murakami's Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. Skylight Books' own low-priced zines, which cover topics such as "How to Talk to Your Cat About Gun Safety," have been doing very well as stocking stuffers. Salardino has been surprised that The David Foster Wallace Reader, published in November, has not taken off, particularly since the store "has been a big supporter of David Foster Wallace and has always sold a bunch of his titles."
Salardino said the store has been unable to bring in new copies of Megahex, a graphic novel about a depressed, drug-addicted witch that was written by Simon Hanselmann and published earlier this year by Fantagraphics.
According to Salardino, Skylight Books is shooting to be up 5% over 2013's holiday season, which, given the strong, steady sales since Thanksgiving, appears likely. Over the past few holiday seasons, Salardino added, there has been an increase in awareness of the need to shop local. "Many customers even mention it," he said. "It is nice to know that people are starting to understand how important a local, living community is, and that when they shop at Skylight Books, they are contributing to local culture as well as local lives."
Since Thanksgiving weekend, Rita Maggio, the owner of Booktowne in Manasquan, N.J., has had only one slow day, and that was due to a nor'easter passing through. Weekends especially have been very, very busy, and Maggio expects this coming weekend, the last one before Christmas, to be "exceptional."
On Saturday, Booktowne will host Frank Caruso, the illustrator of Outlaw Pete, written with Bruce Springsteen. "We hope this signing on Saturday will be good," said Maggio. The Boss, it turns out, has a beachfront house in Manasquan. "We don't expect Bruce to stop in, but we always hope that he will."
One of the biggest sellers for Booktowne this season has been All the Light We Cannot See, which unfortunately Maggio has had trouble getting back in stock. "It's a phenomenal book," she said. "And when it took off, it took off big."
Maggio has been surprised by the lukewarm sales of Ken Follett's newest book, Edge of Eternity. She also expected 41, George W. Bush's biography of his father, to sell well, but it hasn't. "It's sold, but not big," she said. "This is a community that would buy that, but it's not something I keep re-ordering."
For Steve Bercu, the owner of BookPeople in Austin, Tex., the holiday rush has been in full swing for weeks already, and it's coming on the heels of the best October and November that BookPeople has ever had. Bercu's store is up about 9% so far over last December, and it's shaping up to be one of the best Decembers ever. As for the full year, he can already say that 2014 will be BookPeople's fifth consecutive best year ever in sales.
Unbroken and All the Light We Cannot See are among the top sellers, but Bercu was quick to point out that this year his store is selling a bit of everything. "We're probably not going to have a book that we sold 1,000 copies of this Christmas," he explained. "We're selling all across everywhere."
The biggest surprise this season, Bercu said, has been the staggering popularity of a log-shaped neck pillow. "We got in about a dozen, and we've re-ordered it in the hundreds now," said Bercu, laughing. "I don't know what the deal is with it. We can't seem to order enough. Nobody was thinking much about them. It was just some novelty."
The two best days that BookPeople ever had were the Saturday and Monday before Christmas last year. Bercu expects this coming weekend to be huge, but is not sure if he can top last year. "No one around here really expects we can exceed those days last year," he said. "But last year, no one could believe that we'd exceed the previous best, either." --Alex Mutter