Despite a slow start and some weather challenges, indie booksellers who spoke to Bookselling This Week reported a strong end to the holiday shopping season. While erratic weather dampened some stores’ sales, creative store promotions and an array of popular titles contributed to a strong performance.
Overall sales for the last seven weeks of the year, encompassing Thanksgiving and Small Business Saturday through New Year’s Day, were up five percent over the same period last year, as reported by ABA member stores to the Indie Bestseller List.
“Presidential politics and bad weather aside, we could not be more pleased that 2016 proved to be another good year for indie bookstores,” said ABA CEO Oren Teicher. “From January 1 through December 31, 2016, unit sales as reported by almost 600 ABA member stores to our Indie Bestseller List increased a tad under five percent for the calendar year. Given the softness many stores experienced during the fall months and some untimely weather before Christmas, the fact that we still saw overall gains reflects the continued resiliency of our channel. As always, we appreciate that every store in the country didn’t see these increases, but it is wonderful news that the overall upward trends we’ve been seeing these past few years continued in 2016. Indie booksellers worked harder than ever, but it sure seems to have paid off!”
Kenny Brechner, owner of Devaney, Doak and Garrett Booksellers (DDG) in Farmington, Maine, said store sales were substantial this holiday season, but still about the same as last year, which he attributes to extra snowy conditions at a critical time.
“We were about a percentage point down but we had much worse weather here in Central Maine on one key weekend,” he said. “The weekend before Christmas, it was snowed out; considering that, I was pretty pleased with the overall totals. The word on the street was that a lot of local businesses were down.”
Brechner said DDG generally does a lot of community outreach and this has proven especially valuable during the holiday season. “There’s no question in my mind that we are in an environment where if you want to have floor sales, community outreach is absolutely key,” said Brechner, who added that store promotions include a wishlist that customers can use to buy books for local school libraries, in-store book suggestion lists and displays, and an annual fundraiser for area schools.
For the last eight years, Brechner has also written articles featuring title lists and holiday gift suggestions that appear in local newspapers. “People really streamed in to pick up the sidelines we mentioned in the paper and it’s a great reminder about our strength in that area,” he said. “We certainly put a lot of emphasis on having quality, fun sidelines, and there also isn’t a good toy store in town. It’s something we enjoy and demo at the store often. Providing content like that for the local paper is a great way to remind people of what you’ve got.”
At DDG, some of the surprise top sellers included two war-themed titles: All the Gallant Men by U.S.S. Arizona survivor Donald Stratton with Ken Gire (William Morrow) and Indestructible by John R. Bruning (Hachette Books). For kids, Gertie’s Leap to Greatness by Kate Beaton, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), was “stupendously successful,” said Brechner.
In Ketchum, Idaho, a resort community that swells with visitors during the holidays, Iconoclast Books & Café’s sales were dampened by a major Christmas Eve snowstorm. “Christmas Eve is our busiest day of the year, and we were down a bit,” said owner Sarah Hedrick, as people traveling to Ketchum for the holidays had their travel plans interrupted. However, the day before, which saw only a little snow, was the store’s best December 23 ever.
Iconoclast’s second busiest week of the year is always the week after Christmas, when many people with second homes or vacation plans visit Ketchum for celebrations with their friends. That week, said Hedrick, was definitely up over last year, as was Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, for which the store stays open.
Like many previous holiday seasons, this year was particularly enjoyable, said Hedrick, whose store welcomes celebrity regulars and locals alike. One of this week’s highlights was a visit from Lauren Graham, who came in to shop but stayed to chat and sign a few copies of Talking as Fast as I Can: From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls (and Everything in Between) (Ballantine Books). “She was so unbelievably gracious and lovely,” said Hedrick. “We’re going to do an event with her when she comes back in February.”
Of the books that sold well throughout the holidays, Atlas Obscura by Joshua Foer and Dylan Thuras (Workman Publishing Company) was the store’s biggest nontraditional title. Iconoclast also sold quite a few IOWhat T-shirts from Fawn and Foal, which feature the state of Idaho with “Iowa” written inside, poking fun at a common mistake made by people outside of Idaho.
Despite the strong holiday season, Hedrick said that the town of Ketchum has lost a lot of support for local businesses, and the store’s Indiegogo campaign to raise funds three years ago wasn’t enough of a wake-up call for residents. “It’s hard to know where we’ve lost them to. We certainly have the demographics to support a bookstore year-round, but if we didn’t have the tourist season we wouldn’t make it,” said Hedrick. “But we do have so many absolutely devoted people.”
Kathleen Millard, who owns Elm Street Books in New Canaan, Connecticut, said that overall, she was pleased with the store’s sales numbers for the 2016 holiday season, which she said started slower due to a bout of warmer weather. Warm weather tends to delay holiday mode for New Englanders, who don’t really consider it the holidays until cold weather hits, she said.
“We were a little bit down year over year but we had a very vigorous Christmas once it got cold,” said Millard. “It was cold on the last Saturday before Christmas, and people suddenly realized that it was only two days away.”
Millard also saw an uptick this season in the number of people who ordered books on the store’s website that they then picked up at the store, which stayed open late every Thursday in December before Christmas Day. The extra hours created an opportunity for people to wander in, she said, as did the store’s series of book signings every Saturday of the month.
“We also had some terrific titles this year. I think there was something for everyone,” Millard added. “Because we are a small indie and in a small town, people will often come in and get five or six gifts at a shot. It’s a one-shop stop.”
In Los Angeles, Skylight Books had its best holiday sales season ever, according to co-owner Mary Williams, and total sales were up over 2015. “We’d been down for the bulk of the year and it was only in the fall when we came back from that,” said Williams. “It seemed like people were very hesitant to spend money earlier — maybe they wanted to have a happy holiday season after the stresses of the year, because they seemed to want to spend money at the end of the year.”
The store didn’t hold any special sales during the holidays, but it was one of the few indies carrying signed copies of Lauren Graham’s Talking as Fast as I Can; Skylight sold out its entire inventory — several hundred books — in one day. “It was a great bonus that we were lucky to have,” said Williams.
The surprise standout book for the season was Everything I Want to Eat: Sqirl and the New California Cooking by restaurant owner Jessica Koslow (Harry N. Abrams). “That sold like gangbusters. It was the bestselling book of the season,” said Williams. A title that had a second wind this holiday season was We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Anchor), she added.
Many of Skylight’s neighborhood residents are very aware of the importance of shopping local; so the store saw plenty of regulars throughout the holidays, noted Williams. “We always see that. We’re in a neighborhood that’s pretty conscious about shopping local. That’s why we’ve stayed here as long as we have.”
As with DDG, Iconoclast, and Elm Street, erratic or unseasonal weather conditions were also an issue for Dorothy Pittman, who owns the 125-year-old Horton’s Books and Gifts in Carrollton, Georgia.
“During the first and second week of December it was cold and nasty, but then the week before Christmas we had people in shorts,” said Pittman. “The season seemed to be slow to take off; it was really cold and miserable and it took a while for people to get out. But then that last week, we did really well and were busy. We Southerners just don’t like the cold and damp.”
The store had notable success this holiday season with its children’s section, which Pittman said is staffed by two former teachers and has one of the best children’s book selections in town. This Christmas, hit kids’ books at Horton’s included Give Please a Chance by Bill O’Reilly and James Patterson (JIMMY Patterson) and Take Heart My Child by Ainsley Earhardt (Aladdin).
Another boon to Horton’s sales, as always, was the foot traffic generated by the bustling downtown shopping area surrounding the store, which brims with festive spirit during the holiday season.
“Our main street sponsors a tree-lighting and a holiday parade and there are dance shows and other groups entertaining,” Pittman said. “Santa also came to the store, and we had a really good turnout for that. It’s a pretty active downtown area, and we’re the oldest bookstore in the state, so I think we’re an attraction.”
Hoboken, New Jersey’s Little City Books, which opened in May 2015, had a banner second holiday season, said co-owner Kate Jacobs. “We opened a children’s annex in November so our juvenile sales were tremendous. We added a high-end toy section and book character plush, and all that did really well,” said Jacobs. “We also created custom store gift certificates and sold a lot of them — including a Shop Small Saturday 10 percent-off promotion.”
In terms of standout titles, the Kickstarter-funded Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls was a hit, as was Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen (Simon & Schuster) and the God’s Love We Deliver Cookbook by Jon Gilman and Christopher Idone.
The new children’s annex nearly doubled the store’s size and inventory, making a comparison with the store’s first holiday season in 2015 difficult, but Jacobs said she and colleagues are hoping the new year holds steady.
As most people are on foot in the city, a beautiful December 23 made for a spectacular day, she added. The free gift wrapping at the holiday wrapping station was quite popular as well. “People in Hoboken make a big effort to support us,” she said.
Nearby in New York City, Greenlight Bookstore, which just opened its second location in Brooklyn, was featured by CBS News in the article “Mom-and-pop bookstores see surprising retail plot twist.”
“It is a really good time to be a bookstore,” co-owner Jessica Stockton Bagnulo told CBS News. “There’s only so much that digital can do, and we’re human ... we want that interaction with the physical world.”
Michael Barnard, owner of Rakestraw Books in Danville, California, said his store’s overall sales were high this season.
“We were up in a way that was good and solid,” he said. “We ran events later than we typically do and didn’t stop until Friday the 16th, which is a good deal later than I usually go. Three major author events we did in December all performed really well, including Michael Chabon, for Moonglow, and Jan Brett, who was visiting Bay Area stores for the first time in 20 years. Brett, especially, really did draw regionally and got a lot of new people in who wouldn’t otherwise travel here.”
Rakestraw’s e-newsletter, which has a circulation of 5,000 subscribers, also published targeted lists of books every few days during the holidays, which turned out to be a very effective strategy, Barnard added.
“I ran a report at the end of December, and of the books we mentioned through the holiday newsletter, there was only one that didn’t sell,” he said. “One book on the list that did well was The Gentleman by Forrest Leo (Penguin Press), which is a first novel. We’d had it all fall and it had sat and sat and sat there — it was even actually scheduled for return — until finally it fell off a shelf one day. I decided to read it and it turned out to be ridiculously funny and totally fresh and a great new book to sell. We put it out on the 17th and ended up selling a great number of them.”
Other factors that led to Rakestraw’s success this season, said Barnard, were strong staff support, the ability to restock quickly thanks to speedy turnaround by publishers and wholesalers, and that there was no single blockbuster hit this holiday, which tends to hinder the store’s ability to compete.
Paragraphs on Padre, a bookstore located on Texas’ South Padre Island in the Gulf of Mexico, celebrated its strongest year since the store’s founding in February 2009, said Griff Mangan, the husband of store owner Joni Montover.
Many customers who visit the bookstore around the holidays are vacationers escaping colder climates. “They’re familiar with us, and what’s nice is they come down without books now and buy them from us,” said Mangan.
Most customers this season came into the store looking for specific books, which Mangan attributed to effective marketing by publishers. The store also saw surprisingly strong sales for the British Library Crime Classics series from Poisoned Pen Press. Ultimately, said Mangan, “You can have 100 people buy a book and it’s going to be 100 different books.”
To create a festive atmosphere in the store for the holidays, Montover constructed a seven-foot-tall Christmas tree out of books. Also contributing to the positive sales season was warm weather and “a pleasant smile on our face and cheeriness in our voices,” said Mangan. “We were just happy to see all our old visitors and new ones too; they all brought joy to us when they came to the store and shared in the holiday season.”
This year was the first holiday selling season for Libby Cason, the new manager at The Bookstore at Fitger’s in Duluth, Minnesota. Sales were definitely up from last holiday season, according to Cason, who took over from former manager Sally Anderson in October.
“I feel like we sold a lot of everything. It was kind of a whirlwind, which is usually the case every year, but I feel like it was more so this year,” said Cason. “We had ordered more toys than we normally do and had some different gifts we tried out for the first time. We went really big and ended up selling out of a lot of stock.”
The bookstore is a great holiday destination due to its location in the Fitger’s plaza, a mall located on Lake Superior with shops and restaurants as well as a hotel and a brewery, said Cason, who has worked at The Bookstore at Fitger’s for several years. Cason most recently worked under Anderson as assistant manager, so it was time to put her accumulated knowledge to use, she said. While she was nervous that taking a risk and ordering more inventory for the holidays might backfire, those fears turned out to be unfounded.
“We first talked about going bigger than we did last year in October, when Sally was leaving,” Cason said. “It turned out to be a smart idea. We were even re-ordering stock up until the last minute. It’s one of those things where we were thinking, Do I do it? Will it pay off? Will we just end up having to bargain everything? But I think it really paid off.”
In Chicago, the Seminary Co-op and 57th Street Books saw strong sales throughout the holiday, according to director Jeff Deutsch. “Overall, sales were really good. We’re up double digits at 57th Street and single digits at the Co-op,” he said.
Contributing to strong sales was the stores’ holiday gift guide, a 16-page, full-color catalog of gift ideas, well as the Co-op Notable Books of 2016 list.
The usual titles sold well, as did Atlas Obscura, The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben (Greystone Books) and If You Weren’t Looking for It: The Seminary Co-op Bookstore by Jasmine Kwong and Megan E. Doherty, which chronicles the history of the Co-op. “One of the surprises that we did a great job with at the Co-op was Keith Houston’s The Book,” said Deutsch. “It’s beautifully designed, and the design is half the fun of it.”
Throughout the fall, Deutsch said customers seemed to be making the effort to shop at local stores more often and to interact with one another face-to-face. “I think that post-election, there was an interest in community and an interest in supporting businesses that support community, so we saw an increase in traffic,” he said. —Sydney Jarrard and Liz Button