Now that the temperatures are finally warming this week, we can talk about the cold. Part 1 of this series will focus on indies in New England; part 2 will look at indies throughout the country.
Independent booksellers around the country are looking forward to the end of a long winter that has seen record cold in the Northeast, nearly record-breaking snowfall in Boston and ice storms in the Southeast. Stores have had to cancel events, close early or not open at all on business days, and seen traffic slow dramatically.
"People are just in a bad mood," said Courtney Flynn, bookstore manager at Trident Booksellers & Cafe in Boston, Mass. So far this winter, the city has seen 105.7 inches of snow--just 1.9 inches shy of the all-time snowfall record of 107.6 inches, set in the winter of 1995/1996. "They don't want to shop. It's not a very joyous time."
Trident has had to remain closed several times this winter, and, especially in February, had to cancel many events. One week, Flynn had to cancel every event. And even when the store was open, she reported, sales were slow. But despite the closings and cancellations, things have not been as bad as Flynn and her colleagues initially expected. Trident's cafe side was down in February--they were forced to close a few times on weekends, and those are by far the cafe's busiest days--but the retail side of the store, which includes books, cards and gifts, was actually up last month.
"It's kind of miraculous. We don't know how that happened," said Flynn. She did guess, though, that sales of gifts and cards around Valentine's Day boosted the retail side.
Flynn and her colleagues are eagerly looking forward to spring. "I think when spring comes people are going to go crazy, in a good way," she said. "With even a glint of warmer weather this weekend I spent a ton of money. Hopefully that's not just me."
|Snow and ice didn't stop Ugly Dog Books from opening.
At Ugly Dog Books in Attleboro, Mass., located between Providence, R.I., and Boston, sales were down almost 50% compared to February last year. Kim Ward, Ugly Dog's owner, reported that few people are coming into town to shop, and when they do, there is very little parking.
"There's so much snow and nowhere to put it," Ward said. "People drive out and drive through town."
In an effort to bring people in despite the snow and cold, Ward has been running impromptu, one-day-only sales that she announces via social media. She, too, had to cancel the majority of her events for the month of February, but has been able to reschedule some of them. One large event, Ward reported, was rescheduled for yesterday and was completely sold out in advance.
Despite this difficult season--Ward called this by far the worst winter she's seen in her four years of owning the store--she isn't sure if it's so bad that it could potentially bring down her sales for the year. Each of the past four years has been a year of growth for the store; she would be shocked, she said, if it does affect the entire year that much. Hopefully, she added, big events in the summer and later in the year will help offset the harsh winter. For now, though, she's simply "praying for spring."
"It's less than three weeks away," she said. "We're ready for it."
For Tom Holbrook of RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, N.H., this past February was the worst sales month in the store's history. RiverRun was closed for two days during February, and had to close early on four other days. And there were many days on which the store was open but there was "hardly a soul around." All told, sales were down around 50% compared to February of 2014.
"It's sucked," said Holbrook bluntly. This has been the snowiest winter for Portsmouth since 1978; some four feet of snow has fallen. "People have water coming in through their walls. Nobody's mind is on shopping."
In an attempt to boost sales, Holbrook on March 1 sent an e-mail to his customers discussing how bad this winter has been, urging them to come in and support the store and providing a 15% off coupon for any single transaction. He had the idea to do so back in February, but he and his staff were "too busy shoveling and mopping" to put it into effect.
Holbrook, however, is "very optimistic that with the start of daylight saving time, and spring's arrival sooner rather than later," things will turn around for the store. He also isn't sure yet if a very bad February will be enough to keep him down for the year.
"Who knows," he said. "It's awfully early in the year. Last year we had scaffolding in front of our building for the entire summer--in some ways it's always one thing or another. In a way it's how it's always been. We just keep going."
At Gibson's Bookstore in Concord, N.H., owner Michael Herrmann and his staff had estimated that 2015 would be a year of growth for the store.
"The first couple of months of the year are never huge, but we're definitely starting from a disadvantage," Herrmann said. Concord, he continued, hasn't been hit quite as hard as some of the coastal cities in the region, but it is still a "pretty significant New England winter."
Like many other stores in the region, Gibson's was open for reduced hours on some days--although it never closed for a full day--and canceled many events, including author visits and story time sessions. So far Herrmann has been able to reschedule everything, but he did clarify that he generally doesn't schedule too many events for early in the year. He remarked: "It's just so easy to get clobbered."
For more 30 years, Gibson's has held a storewide sale in February, and this year was no exception. That helped bring in traffic despite the weather, as did other smaller sales and promotions. Adding double stamps on the store's frequent buyer card, Hermann reported, generated a particularly great response and brought a good amount of traffic through the door.
Herrmann has owned the store for 20 years, and this winter has been in the "top three" of the worst winters he can remember. Despite that, he maintains, he can't complain too much. "It's northern New England," he said. "We live where we live." --Alex Mutter