Independent booksellers with whom Shelf Awareness spoke recently all had good news about the holiday season. At worst, sales were even with last year, but most stores reported healthy gains--in some cases, spectacular gains. Sales were particularly strong toward the end of this year's relatively short holiday season. There were fewer blockbuster titles, and more of a range of popular books, which were relatively easy to keep in stock.
The importance of buying local seemed to resonate with many customers, and bookstores said that the Thanksgiving weekend, marked by the wildly successful Indies First and Small Business Saturday promotions, made for an excellent start to the holiday season.
The late-season rush of online sales that overwhelmed UPS and FedEx may have added to the attraction of shopping at local bookstores: the bricks-and-mortar retail business model, allowing hands-on inspection of the product, instant and free "delivery" and, in most cases, complimentary wrapping, fulfilled the needs of most gift-givers, especially those who had put off shopping until the last few days before Christmas.
BookTowne, Manasquan, N.J., had its strongest holiday season since opening in 2007, owner Rita Maggio reported, saying, "Sales were up and there was clear evidence that the community was committed to shopping locally."
The holiday catalogue brought in "a lot of people," Maggio said. Major titles included The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics by Charles Krauthammer, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell, Killing Jesus by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard, Sycamore Row by John Grisham, The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, Hard Luck, Jeff Kinney's latest Wimpy Kid book, Allegiant by Veronica Roth and "of course lots of Christmas books for children, especially the classic ones as well as games and activities. Coffee table books sold very well, especially those in the NAIBA brochure."
Maggio noted, too, that about "90% of customers took advantage of free gift wrapping, and sales for gift certificates were very strong."
Third Place Books' two locations in Lake Forest Park and Ravenna, Wash., had "a very good holiday season," managing partner Robert Sindelar said. One store was up a bit from last year and the other was level. In both cases, "the last few days before Christmas were some of our biggest in the history of the stores," he added. Because of the winning ways this season of the Seattle Seahawks, the stores also tended to be empty for a few hours on Sundays.
Third Place was able to keep in stock the books that sold well, including The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown, I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb, Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh, The House Girl by Tara Conklin and Allegiant.
The busiest day of the holiday season at Blue Willow Bookshop, Houston, Tex., was Saturday, December 14, and sales were brisk in the last few days before Christmas and ended up slightly in the month compared to 2012, owner Valerie Koehler said. The store's bestseller was Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Little Golden Book by Diane E. Muldrow. Koehler added that most of the books she bought specifically for the holidays--art books, humor books and sports--sold "quite well."
For its part, Nicola's Books, Ann Arbor, Mich., saw sales rise over last year "despite a wicked winter storm over one weekend and UPS changing its delivery routes the day before Christmas," owner Nicola Rooney said.
The store sold a wide range of titles instead of many copies of a few books. Still several titles stood out, including The Bully Pulpit, The Goldfinch, The Man He Became by local author James Tobin as well as David and Goliath, "in part because we will be hosting an event for Malcolm Gladwell at the end of January," Rooney added.
The Strand Bookstore, New York City, had its highest daily sales in its 86-year history the Monday before Christmas, which just beat out the previous Saturday, Strand v-p Eddie Sutton told CBS. Sales those days were slightly more than 12% higher than the previous record. Christmas Eve sales were also higher than any previous Christmas Eve, up 25%.
Co-owner Fred Bass said the "astounding" gains proved to him that printed books are far from dead.
Chuck Robinson, co-owner of Village Books, Bellingham, Wash., said that the store had its biggest day ever on Monday, December 23, when sales were up 43% over the same day last year. For December 1-24, Village Books was up about 3.5% over December 2012 and might have done better, Robinson said, "if it hadn't been for the snow on Friday, the 20th, that bit into Saturday." Sales the three days after Christmas were up 14% over the same period last December.
John Evans, co-owner of DIESEL, which has four stores in California, called the holiday season "a blast." DIESEL had its "biggest day ever in the history of the stores" on Christmas Eve at the Brentwood store, which was up 10% for December and for the year. The new Larkspur store "did well and was beautiful and very busy for its first holiday season. Malibu and Oakland were flat relative to last year, but last year was quite busy and up from previous years."
Evans noticed a heightened spirit of joy and gratitude among customers this year, saying, "I was especially surprised and delighted by how many people, when offered help, just said, 'I am just so happy to be here. I'm having a bookstore moment of being absolutely content being here and browsing!' "
Roxanne J. Coady, owner of R.J. Julia Booksellers, Madison, Conn., also noticed a special spirit this year in the store. In an end-of-the-year letter to staff, she wrote, "All of you made R.J. Julia Booksellers a fun place to be, a place of community, a place that was welcoming and smart and beautiful and warm. Because of you, people forgot about the stress and complications of the holiday--just enjoying the moment and a respite from the chaos of shopping.
"Walking around the store last week, I overheard a father say he could hardly believe this kind of place even exists anymore--long assuming that big box bargain stores and online behemoths would have long ago extinguished the survival of a place that had staff that cared, possessed unabated enthusiasm and a desire and commitment to putting exactly the right book in the right hand; staff that delighted in the pleasure of making someone's day better, easier and joyful. The definition of great independent bookstores. It exists, it matters and all of you make it happen." --John Mutter and Alex Mutter