Following the final rush of holiday shoppers, booksellers reported healthy sales in 2014 and an equally encouraging start to 2015. A strong kickoff on Small Business Saturday launched a successful national holiday season for independent bookstores, boosted by “buy local” campaigns and widespread media coverage that trumpeted local booksellers and the unique draw of neighborhood stores.
Nationally, the American Booksellers Association reported that, based on the approximately 500 stores reporting to the weekly Indie Bestsellers List, unit sales of books maintained the growth seen over the past few years. In addition, based on reports from the ABA Board and Booksellers Advisory Council, average total bookstore sales for December were up more than nine percent over 2013 and annual sales for 2014 increased more than six percent over the previous year.
“All this evidence of a very successful year for the indie bookstore channel is directly attributable to the extraordinary work of bookstores across the country,” said ABA CEO Oren Teicher. “While we know that, for a number of reasons, not all stores are seeing these gains, from a national perspective it’s clear that the resurgence in independent bookstores is both continuing and strengthening. As we saw with the widespread consumer excitement over the holiday kickoff of Indies First on Small Business Saturday, shopping locally and supporting their neighborhood bookstores is very much top-of-mind for shoppers and book buyers. In addition, booksellers are continuing to find new ways to engage their customers with events and activities — often in collaboration with other neighborhood indie retailers.
“Growing sales this holiday season have included a range of interesting and fun gift items, but, in the end, the unique ability to showcase notable new writing and to help shoppers discover their next great read is what truly sets independent bookstores apart. Hundreds of stores nationwide partnered with authors to sell signed copies, and the success of Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is just one example among several titles that this year found their readership because of the early and passionate support of indie booksellers.”
Evanston, Illinois’ Bookends & Beginnings, which opened in June 2014, began its first holiday season with its best sales day ever on Small Business Saturday and that milestone “was exceeded a couple of times in the run-up to Christmas,” said co-owner Nina Barrett. “It became clear that we’re now on the map as a big tourist attraction in Evanston; we saw lots of individuals and families who were here from out-of-town, with time and money to spend, coming in for the first time.”
The holiday season gave Barrett and her husband, Jeff Garrett, the opportunity to be creative in their efforts to drum up sales. “Our most successful marketing idea turned out to be offering the store for private shopping parties — something that I think appealed to people especially because the store has such a homey, living room-like feel,” said Barrett. “We charged a nominal fee basically to cover staffing. People brought their own refreshments and their friends and family and combined their holiday socializing with their shopping.”
Bookends & Beginnings also saw increased foot traffic after the Chicago Tribune ran the piece “Chicagoans of the Year in Literature: Defenders of the Book,” in which Barrett was featured alongside area booksellers Stephanie Hochschild of The Book Stall at Chestnut Court, Eleanor Thorn of Lake Forest Book Store, Teresa Kirschbraun of City Lit Books, Erika VanDam of RoscoeBooks, and Lynn Mooney and Sarah Hollenbeck of Women & Children First.
“What a thoughtful and much-welcomed piece of recognition that was for all of us — and we’ve definitely gotten one more post-holiday bump in traffic from the readers who are coming in to check us out based on that,” said Barrett.
Steve Costa, who owns California’s Point Reyes Books with his wife, Kate Levinson, said their holiday sales were up about five percent from last season. A contributing factor to 2014’s successful holiday run, he said, was a heap of welcome publicity from an article in the San Francisco Chronicle detailing how the store has become one of the area’s major community centers, offering frequent events and fundraisers for local causes.
Through its Book Angels project, Point Reyes once again invited customers to purchase books for children who don’t have many books in their homes. “We actually increased that by 100 books, to 350 books purchased this year,” said Costa. “The generosity quotient went up.”
With its location on Point Reyes Station in western Marin County, the store attracts many visitors who come to spend their holiday vacations in the great outdoors. Costa printed up T-shirts this year with ABA’s “Eat Sleep Read” slogan (available for print-on-demand through Redbubble) customized with sayings appealing to the free-spirited activity enthusiasts who have made the small town their own. T-shirts bore the taglines “Bike Snack Read,” “Hike Snack Read,” and “Peace Love Books.”
One of Point Reyes’ top-selling books of 2014 was All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Scribner), the #1 Indie Next List pick in May 2014. Other big sellers this holiday season were Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast (Bloomsbury), The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown (Penguin), Being Mortal by Atul Gawande (Metropolitan Books), and books generating movie spinoffs like Wild by Cheryl Strayed (Knopf) and Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand (Random House).
Books & Books in Westhampton Beach, New York, had a very positive holiday season, said co-owner Jack McKeown, with sales up six percent in the weeks following Thanksgiving and overall sales for 2014 up by 12 percent.
Among the handsellers helping with the rush of customers at Books & Books on the weekend before Christmas was volunteer bookseller Joy Dallanegra-Sanger, ABA’s senior program officer.
“We consider the strong holiday finish to be particularly positive in momentum terms,” said McKeown, especially in light of the lack of any breakout hardcover fiction or nonfiction titles in the last quarter of 2014. “We see this as a significant indicator of continued growth for 2015.”
An effort to increase the visibility of staff recommendations was a contributor to Books & Books’ increased sales. To expand on traditional, hand-written “staff picks” shelf-talkers, “this year we ramped up the effort by creating a special Weekly Staff Picks table at the very front of the store,” McKeown said. “It was a tremendous success with customers and enabled us to push several titles to levels that we could not have predicted.”
But one area of frustration for McKeown this holiday season was the number of out-of-stock notifications the store received on key fiction titles, which cost potential sales and left customers disappointed. “I feel this excessive conservatism by publishers in the name of supply-side management has a disproportionate effective on independent booksellers at a time when they are rebounding,” he said. “I hope publishers take notice and introduce some corrective measures.”
At Queen Anne Book Company in Seattle, Washington, owners Judy and Krijn de Jonge and co-owner and manager Janis Segress said they were pleased with the overall outcome of their second holiday season in business, which saw sales up 11 percent over last year.
“We heard from many of our customers that they are grateful to have their bookstore available to shop at for holidays, and they want to ensure that we stay,” Segress said. “That kind of consumer awareness and customer base certainly bodes well for success.”
Likewise, the store’s participation in ABA’s Indies First campaign got the holiday season off to a good start in terms of consumer attitudes. “The overall definition of Indies First as a collaboration, and the positive attitudes with authors and booksellers under one roof making connections with their customers, is an incredible thing. It is all things joy,” Segress and the de Jonges said. “It lends the feeling of an incredibly effective ‘huddle’ going into the busiest season for all of us indies. Go, team, go!”
Queen Anne’s owners formulated a strategic sales plan going into the holidays, with promotions that included a December PNBA Holiday Book Guide sale featuring 20 percent off any three books in the catalog. A Cyber Tuesday sale on December 2 offered 25 percent off all books on the store’s website and led to e-book sales for the first week of December that were approximately 90 percent higher than for the same time last year.
In Concord, New Hampshire, Gibson’s Bookstore owner Michael Hermann attributed the store’s 3.6 percent rise in holiday sales to this year’s crop of strong nonfiction titles and a well-stocked non-book section. “While there was no strong breakout fiction title like last year’s The Goldfinch [by Donna Tartt, Little, Brown], we thought there were some strong nonfiction books,” he said.
“But it also just seemed that people were in a good mood,” Hermann added. “It just felt up…It didn’t feel gangbusters-up, but it did feel like it was going to be a strong season.”
Among those hand-selling titles in the run-up to December 25 was ABA CEO Oren Teicher, who once again was volunteering at an ABA member bookstore.
American Express’ Small Business Saturday played a big part in kicking off the season in just the right way this year, he said. “It really got people out to the store who might otherwise, without thinking about it, just go to the malls… [The movement is] just building. I think it is only going to get stronger. People are more and more of a mind to do that.”
Concord’s 22nd annual night of “Midnight Merriment” also contributed to this year’s success, Hermann said, with store owners in the downtown business district dressing to impress and offering special promotions on their wares amidst carol singers, holiday refreshments, and festive window displays.
During the week after Christmas, Gibson’s sees some of its best sales, Hermann added, as people are out of the house, in good spirits, and have gift cards they’re itching to spend.
Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, California, had one of its best holiday seasons in the store’s 120-year history, said head book buyer Sherri Gallentine. “We were preparing for a good Christmas but it was exciting to see how really great it was and all of our hard work paying off,” she said, adding that this was Vroman’s first holiday season since the closing of the nearby Barnes & Noble.
The store’s 120th anniversary celebrations in November garnered a significant amount of publicity leading up to the holidays, and several events throughout the season brought customers in for festivities, including a Winter Wonderland day featuring Santa, a snow cone machine, and live music. Other holiday events included a gingerbread house decorating party, a Santa’s craft workshop, a mailbox for letters to Santa, and a visit from the Grinch.
One special promotion enticed customers to purchase $200 worth of gift cards in order to be entered into a drawing to win four seats to view the New Year’s Day Rose Parade, which traverses the street outside Vroman’s East Colorado Boulevard store. Viewing spots, much less seats, for the event are difficult to come by.
“Every year we try to tweak things here and there, so we had a really good game plan going in,” said Gallentine. “I think we were really prepared as far as staffing and stock. We did really well.”
Beth Black, who co-owns The Bookworm in Omaha, Nebraska, with her husband, Phillip, said their store’s holiday sales were up “a good percentage.” The store was helped this year by its move from Pacific Street, a more residential location, to the new Loveland Centre shopping complex in one of Omaha’s major commercial areas.
Since the move to the more visible location, right down the road from the Nebraska Medical Center, the store has seen an increase in customers, many of whom didn’t know the bookstore existed before.
Another sales booster this year, Black said, were the efforts of part-time Bookworm employee Ellen Scott, a co-founder of the Omaha Local Independent Business Alliance (OLIBA). Scott did a lot of work this year to help Omaha stores like The Bookworm promote and make the most of Small Business Saturday, Black said.
“American Express does a great job. I think [Small Business Saturday] is really starting to catch on. We’re really grateful for that Saturday,” Black said.
In Salt Lake City, Utah, Weller Book Works celebrated its third holiday season at its current location and saw a modest sales increase. The store moved three years ago from a storefront that it had spent 50 years in, and sales have been slow to pick up as loyal customers have dropped off.
“We’re comparing improved sales to a couple of rather bleak Christmases,” said Tony Weller, who co-owns the store with his wife, Catherine. “They were better, but it’s a cautious improvement.”
In November, the Wellers appeared on local TV program Good Things Utah to talk up some of their favorite titles for the holiday season and to show off the exciting finds that customers can discover in the store’s rare books room. The top seller at the store this season was a regional title, Salt Lake City Chef’s Table: Extraordinary Recipes from The Crossroads of the West by Becky and Josh Rosenthal (Globe Pequot Press), which offers readers recipes from the best local eateries.
Eagle Eye Bookshop in Decatur, Georgia, saw sales increase 10 percent in November and December over the same period in 2013. Contributing to the success were the store’s efforts to make better use of the holiday gift catalog put together by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance. By distributing a few thousand catalogs through an insert in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “we felt it reached a lot more people who were interested,” said store owner Doug Robinson.
For the second year in a row, Eagle Eye ran its successful 12 Days of Christmas sale, beginning on December 26 and concluding January 5. Each day, customers were treated to gradually increasing discounts on new and used books.
A majority of customers came in looking for specific titles throughout the season, said Robinson, so the store placed many special orders. “Our wholesalers, Baker & Taylor and Ingram, were critical in getting these special orders here — they did a good job on that. We get books from them the next day. That’s a big selling point.” Popular non-book merchandise included items from the Unemployed Philosophers Guild, calendars, literary T-shirts, and greeting cards from American Greetings and Papyrus.
Overall, Robinson was pleased with how smoothly the holiday season went, from start to finish. “The weather did not influence anything unduly, we didn’t have anything extraordinary — we just had plain, good business.” —Liz Button and Sydney Jarrard