Sales Up at Many Indies Over Thanksgiving Weekend

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Big or small, three years old or 100-plus, many independent bookstores reached by Bookselling This Week reported robust sales for Black Friday weekend, ranging from five to 250 percent over the same period last year. Those who had flat sales predicted an increase by the end of the season. Reasons cited for the strong showing were a shopping public that now thoroughly understands and practices Buy Local, strong marketing and handselling efforts on the part of store staff, a solid list of titles, and the closing of local Borders stores. The heavily promoted Small Business Saturday (SBS), sponsored by American Express, also contributed to increased traffic, bringing in new and regular customers alike.

“We are more hopeful than ever about bookselling,” said Lisa Sullivan, owner of Bartleby’s Books in Wilmington, Vermont. “We saw the tremendous need and support for community booksellers.”

Bartleby’s, which was nearly destroyed by Hurricane Irene this past summer, reopened just in time for Black Friday, and sales skyrocketed 250 percent. “Our weekend was incredible!” said Sullivan. “We opened on Friday morning at 10:00 a.m. to a line that started forming around 9:00 a.m. People were sitting in camping chairs with signs that read ‘We love Bartleby’s’ and ‘Bartleby’s Books or bust,’ and they cheered when we opened the doors. The support for the store was amazing.”

Bartleby’s participated in Small Business Saturday by listing itself on the campaign’s Facebook page and by using its online promotional materials.  “People were definitely mentioning Small Business Saturday and using AmEx cards when they were in,” Sullivan said.

Now that the weekend rush is past, a crew is back working on the store — finishing interior trim and putting up clapboards. “Yes, we opened with a tar paper facade, and lots of unfinished bits inside, but the customers didn’t mind one bit!” she added.

Carmichael’s Bookstores in Louisville, Kentucky, did “gangbusters” this past weekend, said co-owner Carol Besse. The average increase for the three-day weekend for both Carmichael’s stores was 135 percent. Besse attributed the increase to several things: The closings of four very large Borders in Louisville as well as a 30-year-old indie record store. “It was a wake-up call to the community that if you want to see indie stores survive you have to actually shop at them!” she said. Cyber Monday was “nothing to speak of,” she added.

For Small Business Saturday, Carmichael’s applied for the $100 of free Facebook advertising and promoted the event on its website and Facebook page. “We had quite a few people mention [SBS] that day, and there was a lot of coverage of it in the newspaper,” Besse said. “A local TV station came and interviewed me on the benefits of shopping small. I would call it a huge success, and while some of the IBAs decided not to support it since it was conceived by a big company — American Express, I think anything that supports the buy local message is a good thing and fully support the idea.”

Carmichael’s is an active participant in the local independent business alliance, Keep Louisville Weird, and among its seasonal promotions is a Holiday Passport contest each year. People who shop at five member businesses can be entered to win a $1,000 shopping spree and that incentive helps drive additional customers into the bookstore.

Besse, who is predicting the stores’ best holiday season ever, said her favorite handsells are Rules of Civility by Amor Towles (Viking), State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (Harper), and Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy (Harper Perennial) for fiction and The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee (Scribner) and A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor (Viking) for nonfiction.

At That Bookstore in Blytheville, in Blytheville, Arkansas, “Black Friday was wonderful until the kickoff of the LSU vs. Arkansas football game,” said owner Mary Gay Shipley. Small Business Saturday drew a “slow stream of shoppers,” she added, but “the weekend was not the best for sales.” For the rest of the holiday season, That Bookstore will be coordinating shop local events with the town’s Main Street program.

Shipley’s favorite handsells are the nonfiction Delta Empire by Jeannie Whayne (LSU Press); When She Woke by Hillary Jordan (Algonquin), for fiction readers; The Cheshire Cheese Cat by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright (Peachtree Publishers), for middle grade readers; and the Pete the Cat picture books by Eric Litwin (HarperCollins).

Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Missouri, had the best November of the past five years even though the store’s Black Friday Weekend was down by 11 percent compared to last year. “It’s not a fair comparison because last year we had our Annual Friends of Left Bank Books Sale, which is typically a huge weekend for us,” explained co-owner Jarek Steele.

Left Bank promoted SBS and other area indie businesses on Facebook. “In turn, we got quite a bit of support from our friends and neighbors,” he said.

For Cyber Monday, Left Bank offered a 15 percent discount with a coupon code only through Facebook. “We did get several orders from that, but nothing out of the ordinary,” said Steele.

On the shop local front, Left Bank is partnering with the other local indie bookstores in the St. Louis Independent Bookstore Alliance for a book drive for a local homeless shelter (Gateway180).  The store has also created a loyalty program that’s a hybrid of a traditional loyalty program and a fundraiser.

Steele is looking forward to a good season. “Many people are getting the message that buying local supports their community and actually feels better than going to a giant chain or shopping online,” he said. “Typically, we get busier as the season progresses, so I’m really hopeful.”

About handselling favorites this holiday season, Steele said, “Hands down my favorite book of the moment is Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (Crown). I just read 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (penguin), a really great collection of letters between her and a bookstore in London beginning around WWII and ending in the late ’50s.”

In Tempe, Arizona, Changing Hands Bookstore enjoyed a 19 percent spike for the holiday weekend. The increase was fueled in part by SBS, which bumped up AmEx charges by a factor of four, said co-owner Cindy Dach, who also expects the store will pick up a lot of former Border’s customers this holiday season.

Changing Hands has expanded the number of kitchen items in its gift department, “so we’re having a good time selling measuring cup shot glasses and monkey tea infusers,” said Dach. “And it has also helped our cook book sales.”

Portland, Oregon’s Green Bean Books, which opened in 2009, “was crowded all day long!” said owner Jennifer Green. The store participated in a popular neighborhood event with other businesses on Black Friday called Tannenbaum Madness. “Each business decorated their own creative interpretations of trees in their windows, and there was caroling, cider, a wandering Santa, a Christmas tree lighting, and the businesses all stayed open late,” she said.

With Green Bean now in its third year, and “a little more established and known around town now,” Green expects sales to grow this holiday season.

Right now, she’s selling lots The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman by Meg Wolitzer (Dutton Juvenile). “It’s a hilarious scrabble championship read!”

Horton’s Books & Gifts, established in 1892, was up from last year by about one percent, said Margaret Adams. The Carrollton, Georgia, bookstore told customers about SBS and held an author signing, which helped sales.

Staff especially promoted regional titles this year, selling titles about Georgia and the Southeast. “For example,” said Adams, “we have books on Georgia high school and college football teams rather than national teams or general books on football.”

Horton’s has been a part of the town’s Main Street organization from its beginning, and has always been a strong supporter of efforts to bring people to the downtown area. The organization is working on a Downtown Carrollton app, as well as a Christmas parade.

Net sales jumped 87 percent at New Orleans’ Octavia Books, thanks in part to an offsite signing with Soledad O’Brien, said co-owner Tom Lowenburg. “However, it was primarily driven by strong in-store sales. We don’t especially promote ‘Black Friday’ -- our success was despite, not because of, the frenzy whipped up by the big chain stores.”

Octavia didn’t directly promote SBS.  “For us, everyday is ‘small (or independent) business day’ and we work hard to ensure that our customers can appreciate the difference,” Lowenburg said.

In partnership with the downtown Crescent City Farmers Market, the store is hosting signings with James Beard-award winning authors. Octavia and PhotoNOLA are working on an event featuring eight photographers, and the bookstore is also participating in an ongoing campaign with Stay Local New Orleans.

About the 2011 holidays, Lowenburg observed, “We are off to a good start. But, we’ve only seen the beginning. We’ve always found that holiday sales keep growing right up until the final moment.  With Christmas and Chanukah occurring simultaneously this year, we’re expecting to be non-stop busy all month.”

At The King’s English Bookshop, in Salt Lake City, Utah, weekend sales soared 31 percent over last year, with a 54 percent bump on Saturday as a result of SBS and a vibrant shop local movement. “It was the combination of the two,” said store co-owner Betsy Burton. “We had both national publicity and local publicity at the same time.” 

Burton said that it has taken a prolonged campaign, but Salt Lake City residents now understand the importance of supporting their local retailers. Whether it’s SBS or another event, “we always use it as an excuse to talk about the importance of shopping local,” she said. The effort has led Burton to assume roles she never imagined for herself. “Who knew we were going to be politicians and impresarios when we thought we were going to be booksellers?” she said.

Burton hopes the Thanksgiving holiday sales reflect a trend. “People who came in said they were adamant that they wanted to shop locally. It seemed very intentional, like it was a life change. So everybody here agrees that it looks like we’ll do better than last year.”

Burton said that, along with shop local and sales tax fairness, it is key that booksellers broadcast the message that most e-books are the same price everywhere. “We need to start saying it to every customer.”

Another reason for the bookstore’s Thanksgiving weekend success: “We have really good books this year, and I think that makes the difference,” said Burton. “Last year was a little lackluster.” Two of her top picks are The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes) and The Cat’s Table (Michael Ondaatje, both  Knopf). “We’re suggesting that people buy both for a lavish Christmas present.”

She is also excited about Turn of Mind (Alice LaPlante, Atlantic Monthly Press) and Salvage the Bones (Jesmyn Ward, Bloomsbury USA). London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets (Peter Ackroyd, Nan A. Talese) and Why Read Moby-Dick? (Nathaniel Philbrick, Viking Adult) are “perfect little stocking stuffers,” she added.

California’s Bookshop Santa Cruz was up 4.5 percent for Friday through Sunday. ”We had double digit sales increases on Friday but less so the following two days due to 70 degree weather (nobody wanted to shop)!” said owner Casey Coonerty Protti. “However, for the full week, we were up in the over 20-percent range. Borders not being down the street is the main reason why.”

On Cyber Monday, Bookshop Santa Cruz saw “wildly successful” results from their 30-percent-off coupon, e-mailed to customers and posted on Facebook. Site traffic more than doubled compared to last year, and the coupon was used 88 times. One customer wrote back to the store to say: “What incredible service!  I ordered it Monday before leaving for work and it arrived Tuesday when I returned from work!! Thank you so much.”

Coonerty Protti looks forward to a strong season. “Borders is no longer down the street so we’ve gotten many new customers and see our existing customers more often.  Even with the buzz around e-readers, people want books.  Website orders are increasing dramatically so we are hoping that as we do a better job of letting our customers know that they can shop local online, we can take a piece of the market from Amazon.”

At Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, Pennsylvania, owners Richard Goldman and Mary Alice Gorman said that Thanksgiving weekend sales were up 38 percent. While some of the increase can be attributed to customers shipping early to far-flung family and friends and the first local snow, it was the store’s active social networking on Facebook and Twitter and a specially produced Gift Guide distributed to more than 15,000 people that really made the difference, they said. Many customers made a point of telling Goldman and Gorman that they were shopping locally this year.      

“Although we’ve been shipping scads of orders to online customers all over the USA, we saw much more foot traffic than last year,” Goldman said.

For the holidays, the store is packed with unique jigsaw puzzles from Italy, Germany, Austria and the U.S. and games, as well as a wider selection of gift books for children and adults. “The crush of sales has us restocking to be ready for December customers, online activity, and our special made-to-order gift baskets,” said Gorman.

At Baltimore’s breathe books, Susan Weis-Bohlen reported a whopping 55 percent jump in this year’s Black Friday weekend sales over last year. “The store was packed Friday through Sunday,” she said. “I was so surprised because Friday is usually eerily quiet while folks shop at the mall.”

Weis-Bohlen speculated that many customers now avoid the mall and would rather shop small and local, especially this Black Friday Weekend, which was sunny and 60 degrees. “People seemed really quite happy to be spending their money in their favorite shops.”

breathe promoted Small Business Saturday via a 5,000-person e-mail blast, Facebook, and in-store marketing. People seemed very well aware of it and actually began their “Shop Small” shopping on Friday, she said. Merchants in the neighborhood collaborated on shop local events and created a Facebook page and window display.

breathe accepts a new local currency called the BNote ( “More than 100 shops accept the local money and breathe was the first!” said Weis-Bohlen. “So we are big advocates of books on local economies and ways to transition to the new economic realities. We accept up to half of the purchase in BNotes, which I can in turn use to buy goods and services in my community.”

Weis-Bohlen is “cautiously ecstatic and subtly extremely exuberant and excited!” for the rest of the holiday season.

Among breathe’s favorite handsells this season are Learning to Breathe by Priscilla Warner (Free Press) and Creating Wealth: Growing Local Economies With Local Currencies by Gwendolyn Hallsmith and Bernard Lietaer (New Society Publishers). Bestselling gifts were raw silk scarves from Nepal, Himalayan Salt lamps, and Woodstock wind chimes.

Sales at Elm Street Books in New Canaan, Connecticut, were flat last weekend, but store manager Kathleen Millard said she expects business to improve with “lots of last minute shopping.” Popular titles at Elm Street are Nightwoods by Charles Frazier (Random House) and Currency Wars by James Rickards (Portfolio).

In Austin, Texas, BookPeople, which actively promoted SBS, was up eight percent for the holiday weekend, and store co-owner Steve Bercu expects 2011 overall to be an improvement on 2010.  Among his handselling favorites this year are Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan and The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (both FSG).

Besides its usual holiday promotions, BookPeople will participate in a group ad with the Austin Independent Business Alliance, the originator of the slogan “Keep Austin Weird.”

In Houston, Blue Willow Bookshop was up about five percent for the holiday weekend. Owner Valerie Koehler said this season’s shop local efforts include partnering with a local bike shop, frame shop, and gym to send a thank you letter to all the gym patrons (“they have the strongest snail mail list”) with gift certificates to each shop.

Regarding the outlook for the season as a whole, Koehler said that every year her husband/silent partner “gives us a target of 10 percent over the previous year. We’ve only missed it once.”

If you like to be featured in our post-holiday wrap-up, please e-mail Senior Editor Karen Schechner.