Christmas and the first night of Hanukkah are less than a week away. As the shopping season becomes increasingly hectic, booksellers paused long enough to reflect on the season so far.
At Community Bookstore in Brooklyn, N.Y., the holiday season has been keeping pace with 2015, reported co-owner Stephanie Valdez. Among some of the season's standout hits are The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, Swing Time by Zadie Smith, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate--Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben, translated by Jane Billinghurst, Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen and The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith. Valdez noted that Ian McGuire's novel The North Water has seen a surprisingly large sales boost, even for a title listed as one of the 10 best books of the year by the New York Times. And though Valdez and co-owner Ezra Goldstein have not had much trouble getting things in stock this year, they are "chasing" The North Water to stay ahead of demand. Post-election, Valdez said, things were "especially bleak" in the store's neighborhood, and books that help people "understand or learn to cope with our new political reality" have been popular, including Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit and We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. With Hanukkah beginning so late this year, Valdez is unsure exactly how that will affect sales. Normally, Community Bookstore operates with a "skeleton crew" between December 26 and New Year's Day, but this year the staff is prepared in case things are busier.
According to Barbara Theroux, owner of Fact & Fiction Bookstore in Missoula, Mont., the selling season began right after Thanksgiving, which she said is unusual for Missoula. Usually things kick off the first weekend of December, during a big promotion in downtown Missoula, but this year the city's Downtown Association put its weight behind Small Business Saturday. Mary Oliver's newest book, Upstream, took off immediately, Theroux reported, and some of the season's other big sellers include Born to Run, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard, The Names of the Stars: A Life in the Wilds by Pete Fromm and Yellowstone: A Journey Through America's Wild Heart by David Quammen. Strong sidelines sellers include coffee mugs by the Unemployed Philosophers Guild and Fact & Fiction's own pint glasses. Theroux recalled that after the election it took people "several weeks to want to appear in public," and said that she was glad to have Upstream and Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D Vance available. She added: "It is wonderful to realize the importance of books and the place that independent bookstore create for their community."
For Courtney Flynn, the bookstore manager of Trident Booksellers & Cafe in Boston, Mass., the big sellers for this holiday season have included literary frontlist titles from established authors such as Moonglow by Michael Chabon and Swing Time, but some of the store's strongest sellers this year are backlist titles, including Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit, and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. A few notable gift books are Anthony Bourdain's new cookbook, Appetites, Rejected Princesses: Tales of History's Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics by Jason Porath, while Hillbilly Elegy, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer and Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution by Mona Eltahawy have all been part of a post-election surge in political books that make people "read and think." Flynn said the only book the stores had trouble getting back in stock is The Hidden Life of Trees, which "snuck up" on them. She added that she was "amazed" to see how well socks have been selling as gift items: "It seems almost every customer tacks on a pair or 10 of socks to their purchases."
At Brazos Bookstore in Houston, Tex., general manager Jeremy Ellis and his staff have taken a new approach to promoting featured titles for the holidays. Compared to years past, Brazos has reduced the list of featured titles, resulting in a smaller overall range of promoted books but ensuring that they are titles with which the staff is more familiar, and put a stronger emphasis on promoting sidelines for the holidays. Benjamin Rybeck, the store's marketing director, described Brazos as having a specialty in literary fiction and general interest nonfiction, which remains true over the holidays. For fiction, Moonglow and Swing Time have both been popular, as has Javier Marias's novel Thus Bad Begins, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, and for nonfiction, Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras and Ella Morton, and The Hidden Life of Trees have been selling well. Rybeck said that though none of the holiday titles are surprising by themselves, the store is still selling a surprising amount of Magda Szabó's novel The Door, translated by Len Rix, which was reissued by New York Review Books last year. Brazos has had a little difficulty stocking At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others by Sarah Bakewell, another of the New York Times best books of the year, but the main problem this holiday season, Rybeck said, has been with receiving damaged books. "It's been getting noticeably worse," he recalled. "We started to notice it more and more during the fall."
In Pasadena, Calif., Vroman's Bookstore has yet to see any huge, runaway bestsellers, but according to president and CEO Allison Hill, the staff has done a good job of getting in front of the season's "sleeper hits," such as Atlas Obscura, The Godfather Notebook by Francis Ford Coppola, The Hidden Life of Trees and Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith. Vroman's has events scheduled through this upcoming weekend, but for this last full week of shopping before Christmas, Hill is focusing on "customer service and riding the wave to shore." And with the start of Hanukkah syncing with Christmas this year, Hill said that overall the season feels longer and "a little more even." Hill reported that around the election, the store "lost a little ground," but she suspects that the store "will make it up and then some." She explained: "We're noticing that people are eager for a reason to celebrate and that they're extremely grateful to have us as an oasis, a place where they can get away from the noise and the news and get into the spirit of the season. We feel lucky to fill that role."
Sales at Hooray for Books! in Alexandria, Va., are up this holiday season compared to this time last year, and for the year as a whole are up double digits, said manager and buyer Erin Barker. Though the store is mainly a children's bookstore, it also sells books for adults, and one of the surprising hits of the season is Hillbilly Elegy, which has frequently been requested as a special order. Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In by Senator Bernie Sanders has also been popular post-election, along with Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton. But, said Barker, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find: The Original Screenplay by J.K. Rowling and Diary of a Wimpy Kid #11: Double Down by Jeff Kinney have "blown everything else out of the water." Other strong sellers include Jan Brett's newest picture book, Gingerbread Christmas, Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts, and Grace Lin's When the Sea Turned to Silver. Barker reported that the novel War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans, translated by David Mckay, and the children's book The Sound of Silence by Katrina Goldsaito and Julia Kuo, were both hard to get back in stock for a time. For sidelines, anything related to Peppa Pig has sold well, as have Disney Tsum Tsum plush toys, particularly its Star Wars line. Barker is hopeful that this year's late Hanukkah will pick up sales at the end of the month, and noted that Hooray for Books! has sold a good amount of Hanukkah books already. Said Barker: "Honestly, I wish there were more [Hanukkah books] out there."
At Watermark Books & Cafe in Wichita, Kan., the store's bestselling title that was not tied to a store event is the United States Constitution, both on its own, in a $1 pocket-sized edition, and in a volume with the Bill of Rights. According to owner Sarah Bagby, since the Democratic National Convention, Watermark has sold hundreds of both editions. Bagby also noted that Thomas L. Friedman's new book, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, has been doing particularly well. Among fiction books, standouts include A Gentleman in Moscow, The Underground Railroad, The Mothers by Brit Bennett and Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. For gift books, A Field Guide to Redheads: An Illustrated Celebration by Elizabeth Graeber and Poems and Songs by Leonard Cohen have been popular, and Bagby reported that the store's gift items, especially locally branded, Watermark exclusive items such as mugs, T-shirts and beer glasses, have been selling better than ever. A handful of young adult titles, including Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo and The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, are moving very well, and Watermark "keeps restocking" the picture book Animals by Ingela P. Arrhenius. Looking at the season so far, Bagby said that things started out strong with a bigger-than-last-year Black Friday and Small Business Saturday, and have been going strong ever since. Bagby explained that this year, "We're ready to come together even when our politics have divided us; we're all neighbors, friends or family. No matter what one believes, if an independent bookstore is a place to go, they want to read." --Alex Mutter