Holiday Season 2009: Better Than Last Year

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Booksellers can finally exhale after a holiday season that, for the most part, was an improvement over a dismal 2008. The season saw sales dips at some indie booksellers, but these declines were outnumbered by modest, and sometimes robust, gains at others. Booksellers from across the country reported that the Local First movement was bearing fruit, and several reaped the benefits of creative, homegrown marketing campaigns.

In Brooklyn, New York, WORD reported a healthy holiday season and 2009 overall. "We had a nice increase over 2008," said owner Christine Onorati, who reported a year-end total gain of 30 percent. "We're pretty new, so I don't think we're typical," she cautioned, adding "We're still not where we need to be, but we're getting there."

Onorati's holiday buying strategy included fewer large format, expensive books. "I think we sold through those much better than last year," she said. "I remember having a ton of 'coffee table' books leftover after the holiday last year."

Hemingway's A Movable Feast sold more than usual at WORD "for no particular reason," as did Momofuku (David Chang and Peter Meehan, Clarkson Potter). The ever-popular Bananagrams word game also continued to sell out.

"The only thing I'd like to add," said WORD manager Stephanie Anderson, "is how great our customers were. Many of them did all their shopping with us and were very excited about it. I don't think I had a single crazy holiday 'bad-customer' experience the entire season!"

Kelley Drahushuk of The Spotty Dog Books & Ale in Hudson, New York, reported that overall holiday sales were down about 10 percent. "It snowed during Winter Walk, our big city-wide holiday fest, and we weren't as busy as a result, which accounted for a chunk of the decrease," Drahushuk said. "It seemed like fewer big-ticket items were purchased, be it art supplies, toys, or coffee-table books. It also just never got as frantic in the week before Christmas as it has in years past."

Bestsellers at the Spotty Dog this holiday season included "the insanity of all Steig Larssen titles (still can't keep Dragon Tattoo in stock)," Drahushuk said. "The Talented Miss Highsmith [Joan Schenkar, St. Martin's] was a late-comer of multiple sales, and This Is Why You're Fat [Jessica Amason and Richard Blakeley, HarperStudio] entranced my staff and earned a place on the bar, resulting in many sales."

Spotty Dog hosted a couple of successful author events, too. "I had always resisted doing them close to Christmas in the past, what with us so busy and everyone else so busy, but it worked at least for these particular titles and authors," Drahushuk said.

Annie Philbrick, owner of the 2,800-square-foot Bank Square Books in Mystic, Connecticut, said sales this year were better than last year's -- but not quite up to 2007. "The day before Christmas Eve was better than Christmas Eve itself, which is unusual," Philbrick said. "The week after Christmas was notably quiet, down 19 percent from last year."

Before Christmas, Bank Square hosted an event featuring Matthew Scialabba and Melissa Pellegrino, authors of The Italian Farmer's Table (Globe Pequot), and "sold so many copies that the publisher ran out!" Philbrick said. "It was a huge success." Bank Square staff also found that more people were asking for recommendations for gifts, resulting in more interaction with customers, she added.

Deborah Beamer of Mechanicsburg Mystery Book and Gift Shop in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, told BTW that sales this year were very close to last year's, and the store sold many more gift certificates than any other Christmas she could remember.

One of the store's bestsellers, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective (Kate Summerscale, Walker & Company), was "indeed a surprise, mostly because it is nonfiction," Beamer said. "Our book discussion group read it, and since then, they've recommended it to friends and we've handsold the book to several customers." Mechanicsburg Mystery is usually open the Sunday before Christmas, Beamer noted, but this year there was a snowstorm that kept the store closed. As a result the store stayed open later on Christmas Eve. "We usually only get two or three people on Christmas Eve, but we had even more customers than we normally do on the Sunday before Christmas," she said.

At breathe books in Baltimore, Maryland, owner Susan Weis said business was down, "but by less than 10 percent." A pre-Christmas blizzard wiped out sales that couldn't be recouped, but living up to her rep as "one of the most optimistic booksellers in the country," Weis told BTW that she already has a plan in place to turn things around.

"We're totally revamping the store," she said. "We're reducing our number of books by about a third. We'll still have three to four thousand titles, but they will be really carefully curated titles. Of course, we're letting customers know they can still order anything at all. We need to go deeper into sidelines -- yoga mats, prayer flags, incense. The margin on gifts is so much better. We're also bringing in a small cafe, creating more seating, and offering Wi-Fi."

Weis said that the store's extensive and loyal customer base is excited about the renovations. And, while Baltimoreans, like everywhere else, have become fiscally cautious, the area is somewhat insulated from the recession since many residents are government workers and the city is home to several major universities and hospitals.

What has helped the breathe books is Facebook. "It's been huge," said Weis. "We've cut our marketing budget by at least a third, and it's the easiest thing I've ever done."

The Fifth Agreement: A Practical Guide to Self-Mastery (don Miguel Ruiz, don Jose Ruiz, Amber-Allen) is required reading, said Weis, and was a leading handsell at breathe books.

The Book & Cranny in Statesboro, Georgia, did slightly better than last Christmas, but, said owner Debbie Campbell, "Last year was a total bust, so I am looking at this as a positive!"

Top handsells at Book & Cranny were Santa's God: A Children's Fable about the Biggest Question Ever (Neale Donald Walsch and Em Claire, Hampton Roads) and Stones Into Schools (Greg Mortenson, Viking).

Already considering whether she would revise operations for the 2010 holiday season, Campbell said, "I stayed open two extra hours on the four weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas (and advertised it), but we didn't generate enough sales to warrant doing it again next year; but, then again, hope springs eternal, so I probably will!"

Diane Patrick at Snowbound Books in Marquette, Michigan, said that the season lived up to the store's name. "We got tons of snow, which puts people in the mood to read. Everything just gelled this year." The bookstore saw a 10 percent jump in sales, and was prepared for it with plenty of inventory. "People started buying early, around Thanksgiving. So we just kept ordering because if you don't have books, people can't buy them," Patrick explained. "We ordered mostly ones and twos, but also fives and tens of some of the bestsellers."

This year's improvement wasn't a surprise, she added. The store's numbers had been climbing before Thanksgiving, and she attributed this, in part, to the growing support for local indies. "Our newspaper is losing advertising, so they ran a really big shop local campaign, which a lot of small businesses tied into," Patrick said. "Dozens of us did tiny ads and kept repeating them throughout the season. I thought this tied in nicely with the whole IndieBound ethic, and I think it really helped sales."

Snowbound's top handsell was The Anarchist (Three Rivers) by local author John Smolens. "We sold dozens of copies and will continue to sell more. We're really proud of John."

Sue Davis, owner of the 1,800-square-foot River Lights Bookstore, 2nd Edition in Dubuque, Iowa, told BTW that holiday sales this year were up from last year. "Cookbooks were hot. We handsold Clean Food [Terry Walters, Sterling Epicure] and Gourmet Today [Ruth Reichl, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt]," she said. "The Midwest Booksellers Association Catalog titles did very well -- we mail it to our customers and stuff it in a local 'what's happening' paper," which has a circulation of about 8,000.

This year, River Lights increased its marketing initiatives and that seemed to pay off in sales. "More advertising, Facebooking," Davis said, and added that the store stayed open until 9:00 p.m. every weekday.

In Wichita, Kansas, sales at Watermark Books & Cafe were up in November and December, said Marketing Manager Beth Golay. "Over the two-month period our sales were up 14 percent over 2009 -- a very pleasant surprise, since we were running flat to a few percentages down for 2009, going into those months."

Watermark didn't overstock, or panic when supplies of some popular titles dwindled. "We simply displayed other books," Golay said. "Most of our customers were interested in buying books as gifts and were open to our suggestions rather than being set on a single title."

New this year, Watermark launched a holiday book drive. "Our customers purchased 400 hardcover books from titles we pre-selected, then the books were donated to kids ages six months to four-years attending a low-income privately funded pre-school. Even though we weren't surprised by our customer's participation or the success of the event, we were extremely pleased nonetheless!"

Signed books that focused on local interests also contributed to overall sales. Watermark sold lots of Roy Williams's Hard Work. Before the holidays, the store had contacted Craig Popelars at Algonquin to see if Williams, who coached the men's basketball team at the University of Kansas, could visit for a signing. "Craig couldn't deliver Coach Williams," Golay said, "but he delivered case after case of books signed by Williams. Craig trusted us to know our customers, and his efforts to help us paid off. We sold every single copy."

Another book about a local sports team, Our Boys by New York Times writer Joe Drape (Times Books), also sold well. "Drape wrote about a local small-town high school football team, and their incredible undefeated streak," she explained.

As in the past, the Midwest Booksellers Association catalog also generated sales. "We distributed it through our local newspaper on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and that alone brought more new faces into the store than ever before," Golay said. "The publishers were well represented with great selections in the catalog this year, and the titles were flat-out fun to sell."

This holiday season was something to celebrate at Austin's BookPeople. "November was up 6.3 percent and was our best since 1997. December was up 9.9 percent and third best in store history," said owner Steve Bercu. Christmas Day was slightly up, and New Year's Day was a little down.

Bestsellers that weren't the usual suspects included Music in the Kitchen by Glenda Facemire (University of Texas Press); Amigoland by Oscar Casares (Little, Brown); and Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life by Bill Minutaglio (PublicAffairs).

Nancy Rutland, owner of Bookworks in Albuquerque, New Mexico, thinks the local economy has turned a corner. "We were affected, like most of the country," she told BTW. "From September 2008 through October 2009, things looked pretty bleak. But we did well this November and December, and I'm optimistic about the future. People seem positive."

Bookworks saw a three percent gain for the year, and was up 20 percent for this December over last. "We were very cautious this year. We didn't keep as much overstock, and were leaner with our staffing situation. We had fewer people on the floor and rehired for smaller portions of time. But everyone still has a job, so I think it all paid off. We had a very strong finish," she said.

Rutland attributed some of the store's profitability this season to her improved ABA IndieCommerce website. "We're a very events-oriented bookstore, and we sold tickets to our offsite events like crazy from the website, which we never could do before. We also had more online book sales with the Drupal site. It's a more user-friendly, attractive site, and it made a big difference."

Buying locally has caught on in Albuquerque, and Rutland does what she can to help it along. "When we do have big events -- and we've had Margaret Atwood, Greg Mortenson, Sherman Alexie -- I make a point of saying to the audience thanks for shopping at the store and the website, and that it allows me to bring authors to the city. I want people to know what shopping locally means to Albuquerque. I explain that Amazon has never brought an author anywhere. More people every year understand that message and how it influences the quality of their community."

Popular titles at Bookworks included Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, a City Read choice, whose sales continued even after the event. "Classics can come back with a little help," said Rutland. Popular regional titles were Tony Hillerman's Landscape (Anne Hillerman, Harper) and Underground: My Life With SDS and the Weathermen (Mark Rudd, William Morrow).

Denver's Tattered Cover Book Store met its conservative expectations for the season, said Cathy Langer. "We didn't hire any holiday help, but the staff was heroic in the ways that they filled floor and counter spots, wrapped gifts, and received and got the books on the shelves. It was a huge team effort, and we all felt good about how that all went."

While Tattered Cover didn't have any runaway sleepers, Langer did notice an emerging trend. "Over the past few years, I think since Shakey: Neil Young's Biography [Jimmy McDonough, Anchor], there is always a big book by or about an aging rocker and this year, true to my predictions, David Byrne's Bicycle Diaries [Viking] came through. I ordered a lot and kept reordering. Its beautiful orange cover helped.... We also managed to get on top of R. Crumb's Book of Genesis (Norton), which was a sleeper of sorts, though it began earlier in the fall."

Langer noticed active support for local businesses this holiday season. "I heard time and again from customers how much they valued us and how they really want to support us and other independents," she said. "In our marketing efforts, we kept our focus on 'core customers' and our shop local message. This message is really taking hold."

Tattered Cover experimented with its MPIBA catalog numbers and placement. The bookstore inserted 80,000 copies of the catalog in the Denver Post Your Hub edition (zip-code targeted). Last year, it was 50,000 in Westword. "We have seen quite a few of those coupons come in, so it had some impact on sales," said Langer.

On New Year's Day, the store was open with shorter holiday hours, from 10:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m. "The mornings always start very slow, but it gives us a chance to tidy things up in our stores," she said. "The week after Christmas is always still a whirlwind, and through New Year's Day and the weekend that followed we were an 'activity' for families and tourists, which is wonderful."

Diana Portwood of Bob's Beach Books in Lincoln City, Oregon, hasn't yet tallied all the sales figures, but thought this year was a little better than last year. "We didn't do the holiday catalog this year, so we had fewer expensive books but sold more trade paper," she said. Gift certificate sales were up, a reflection of more cautious customers. "Why spend the money if the recipient isn't going to love it?... Better to give somebody the perfect gift -- exactly what they want, since they're picking it out," Portwood said. The store's surprise hit were titles in Mad Libs series.

Portwood will be changing her buying strategy for 2010. "I won't be ordering nearly as many hardcovers this year, mostly I'll special order them," she said. "People simply aren't buying hardcovers. Trade paper, sure."

Bookshop Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz, California, had a flat year. "My gut feeling is that if the economy in this region improved only a little bit that would have given us an increase of a few percentage points. [Instead] people buying e-readers, and therefore buying e-books, decreased our sales by a few percentage points," said Casey Coonerty Protti.

R. Crumb's Book of Genesis was "the biggest hit," she said. Also big was Sarah Palin's Just Plain Nutz. The bookstore sells bags of Just Plain Nutz for $3.98 "to those who can stomach a one-ounce bag of walnuts, but can't stomach 432 pages of Sarah Palin's writing." Coonerty Protti noted that the bookshops "nuts to book ratio was very high!" Bookshop Santa Cruz staff "loves Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann [Random House], and it showed," she said.

Offering free shipping for orders greater than $50 "dramatically increased web traffic/orders," said Coonerty Protti. The bookstore also launched a One Book Pledge campaign and Facebook page. Customers pledge to buy one fewer book from Amazon and one more from their local indie. Staff wore One Book Pledge buttons and gave them to customers. "We had lots and lots of customers tell us that they took the pledge," she explained. "They liked that it was doable. Many brought in print-outs from Amazon and told us that they were ordering from us instead because of the pledge. We are going to try to grow the program nationally this year."

Also new this year, said Coonerty Protti, "We promoted autographed books as a way to make gift giving more special, and it was a great hit."

On New Year's Day, Bookshop Santa Cruz held a sale (50 percent off calendars and 20 percent off hardcovers) and was about even with last year. "It is great for moving inventory instead of having to do returns!" she said.

Gauging how to improve operations, Coonerty Protti said she plans to have more web staff available to handle increased e-commerce sales and to open more registers during the 10 days before Christmas. She also will order gift cards and holders earlier. "Otherwise," she said, "things went somewhat smoothly."

San Francisco's City Lights Books met all holiday projections, said Paul Yamazaki, although it couldn't match 2008 results. (City Lights recorded its best sales record during the 2008 holiday season, in large part, because the MLA [Modern Language Association] convention was held in town from December 26 to December 30.) Yamazaki noted, however, that hardcover sales at the store have been strong for the past three months, after 11 months of very weak hardcover sales. In addition, he said, "City Lights was able to get through 2009 with our staff intact."

The enthusiasm of City Lights' staff helped pushed up sales of Thelonious Monk by Robin Kelley (Free Press); Unpacking My Library by Jo Steffens (MIT); The Jazz Loft Project by Sam Stephenson (Knopf). -- David Grogan and Karen Schechner