Shop Local Spirit Drives Customers to Indie Bookstores Over the Holidays

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Many of the indie booksellers Bookselling This Week reached out to during the first week of 2018 described an energetic holiday selling season. Among the reasons cited by booksellers for good sales were the success of the regional association holiday catalogs in driving foot traffic, new and perennially popular local and regional titles, a spate of national bestsellers, and a higher recognition of the shop local movement than ever before.

Overall book sales across indie bookstores for 2017 increased 2.6 percent over 2016, with a compound annual growth rate of 5.4 percent over the past five years. In addition, the number of books sold in the indie channel during the week leading up to Christmas was the highest since NPD/BookScan began collecting that type of data. Further, the American Booksellers Association’s ABACUS benchmarking survey showed an increase in overall indie bookstore profitability.

Liz Hopper Whitelam said her first holiday season was booming at Whitelam Books in Reading, Massachusetts, which opened for business during the first week of November 2017.

“As far as I can tell, I did well,” she said. “I can say that for November and December, I beat the projections in my business plan. We were busy the whole time, and the community was rejoicing that they had this local option for their holiday shopping. I heard that time and again.”

An especially successful sales night at Whitelam stemmed from Reading’s annual “Shop the Block” holiday shopping event the Thursday after Thanksgiving, when retailers stay open until 9:00 p.m. and feature entertainment and refreshments.

“That night for us was insane,” Whitelam said. “We had lines 15 people deep. You couldn’t even move. Since people were standing there with a glass of sparkling wine in their hand, they didn’t mind waiting in line.”

The standout bestseller for the season was the 12th book in the Wimpy Kid series, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Getaway by Jeff Kinney (Harry N. Abrams). “I made absolutely no effort there other than having a big stack of them,” said Whitelam. “It’s a popular series among kids. The local connection, that Jeff Kinney is from Massachusetts, helps.”

All the way across the country, the holiday season at Linden Tree Books, a children’s bookstore in Los Altos, California, did not disappoint, according to co-owner Dianne Edmonds.

“Our goal was to meet what we did last year, and we were able to do that,” she said. “Our community is what drives much of the business.”

She did notice, however, that sales were more uneven than usual. “It was quirky. Thanksgiving weekend was very slow for us, and it’s usually big for us. But the next week we saw a jump in traffic,” she said. “We were nail-biting it a couple of weekends, but then we’d have an exceptional day on a Tuesday. We came out where we wanted to be.”

Now that Linden Tree offers an e-commerce option, many customers chose to order books online and ship them to friends and family in other states, Edmonds said. “That is where we saw some substantial growth,” she said. “It was really insightful to what e-commerce can do for us and the potential for 2018.”

A new trend Edmonds noticed this season was customers buying multiple copies of a single book in hopes of having a discussion at a future family get-together. “It was fun helping those customers find a good, generic title that would work with different people,” she said.

Two bookstores owned by couple Josh Niesse and Megan Bell — Underground Books, an antiquarian bookstore in Carrollton, Georgia, and Hills & Hamlets Bookshop, a bookstore selling primarily new titles in Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia — did very well this season. Niesse said that December 2017 sales, compared to December 2016, increased dramatically: sales at Hills & Hamlets, which is marking its second year in business, were up 47 percent over its first Christmas in 2016, while sales at Underground Books were up 27 percent over 2016.

“At Hills & Hamlets, we attribute this growth to greater community awareness of our store after a second year of business, improved inventory selection as we have learned what works in the new store, and our creative partnership with the Serenbe Playhouse,” said Niesse.

Through December, the local theater staged a popular production of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, an outdoor “walking play,” during which the audience moves through a series of scenes with the performers. Fortuitously, the will-call station for the show was just 10 feet outside the bookstore, which helped bring in foot traffic, said Niesse. To capitalize on this fortunate placement, Niesse and Bell created a display that featured winter, holiday, and fairy tale-themed books and gifts, which brought hundreds of customers through the shop.

“That really helped send us over the edge into an extremely busy holiday season. What would have been good was great because of that,” said Niesse. “It’s all about the partnerships at Hills & Hamlets. We’re in a unique arts-based community that has an incredible amount of stuff going on that allows us to partner and piggyback on lots of other things.”

Underground Books’ seventh Christmas in Carrollton was also a record-setting one, said Niesse, in part because the town’s shop local movement is in full swing.

“We also attribute the growth to some unusually successful social media ads, a booming historic downtown district, and some substantial upgrades we made to in-store display fixtures and arrangements,” said Niesse.

Alice Meyer, who owns Beaverdale Books in Des Moines, Iowa, said holiday sales were up 17 percent over last season. While the weather was relatively warm and conducive to shopping, Meyer said that brand recognition was likely also a factor in 2017.

“People are more aware of us now after 11 years. When we had our 10th anniversary, in 2016, we got a lot of publicity, and we’re the only independent bookstore in the city right now with new books,” said Meyer.

The Midwest Independent Booksellers Association’s holiday catalog was also a great boon to sales, said Meyer, who noted that the store offered 10 percent off holiday catalog titles with a special table with books from the catalog.

“Our regional catalog this year was wonderful, and we had a lot of sales as a result of that. As we’ve gotten bigger, I’ve also been able to send out more of them every year and increase our reach, so I think that’s had a lot to do with it,” she said.

Beaverdale also had a couple of local titles that did very well, said Meyer, including Women and the Land by Barbara Hall and Kathryn Gamble (Ice Cube Press), a book about female farmers in Iowa, which sold more than 200 copies. Another healthy seller this season was Everyday Virtues: Classic Tales to Read With Kids by local resident James Autry, the former CEO of Meredith Corporation, and his son, Rick (Smyth & Helwys Publishing).

Another sales driver for Beaverdale Books was the local shop hop event, which brings together the different independent businesses in the neighborhood  on the first Saturday in December. “People are just so aware of shopping locally,” Meyer said.

Warm weather had a negative effect on sales at Explore Booksellers, in the ski resort town of Aspen, Colorado. According to general manager Katelyn Derderian, the lack of snow caused sales at the store to be marginally lower than the previous holiday season.

“We’re a resort town, so when we got to the two weeks preceding that holiday vacation timeframe, somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 to 80 percent of people who planned to come to Aspen cancelled their vacation,” Derderian said.

Derderian said there was still a small amount of snow this year, but there hasn’t been a truly snowless Christmas season that she can recall. “If you look at our historic sales during that timeframe, or really any timeframe during the winter, you can definitely see when we do and do not have snow,” she said.

An important sales driver that helped salvage the season, in addition to a loyal customer base and strong community support, was a new shop locally themed game created for local businesses.

“We partnered with a local group representative for USA Monopoly, which put together an Aspen Monopoly game, with the proceeds going to charity. All of the different title cards are actual businesses in the area, and that was a huge driver for sales for us this winter,” said Derderian.

Derderian said some of the better-selling books for the 2017 holidays included A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (Viking); Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schuster), who heads the Aspen Institute; and local author Lori Gurtman’s novel Lost and Found in Aspen (Post Hill Press).

Explore Booksellers also ran a Facebook campaign promotion featuring 12 days of gift recommendations, which got a fair amount of outreach and attention from customers, according to Derderian. “We posted pictures of staff members with the items and we also had shelf-talkers in the store for all of the gift items or books we featured,” said Derderian.

At the river’s end bookstore in Oswego, New York, co-owner Bill Reilly said that while sales were down, the holiday season renewed the store’s strong connections with the community.

“We had a lot of fun, and we saw all of our friends in the store as we always do,” Reilly said. “Friends of the Library volunteers wrap presents each year, and the fundraiser for the library was happily the largest effort for them in all the years we’ve been partners. It was nice generosity on the part of the community.”

While sales weren’t as strong as he had hoped — down about seven percent for the year — Reilly said he has a plan in place to bounce back.

“Ours has always been an economically challenged community. We’re in Central New York, and it presents challenges for us. That’s OK. We’re up to that,” said Reilly. “We will be analyzing our mix of product, and we’re going to be attending Winter Institute. We’ve been poring over the ABACUS numbers to see what we might do better or differently moving forward.”

Reilly said he’s also optimistic about the bookstore’s future since his son, Emil Christmann, has rejoined the business and returned to the area with his new wife, Megan Irland.

“We’re going to be celebrating our 20th anniversary in the spring,” Reilly said. “Our son has joined the bookstore. There’s a new generation of enthusiasm and ideas, and we’re looking forward to the years ahead.”

Further west, in Whitefish, Montana, Bookworks of Whitefish manager Marti Brandt said sales were down a bit this holiday season compared to the last two years. She did have a couple of ideas as to why, including Christmas falling on a Monday and schools remaining in session through the preceding Friday, which affected the flow of tourist traffic.

Brandt said her customers seemed to be in good spirits, and many of the store’s regulars turned out to buy their holiday gifts. Some of the biggest sellers this holiday season included Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: The Illustrated Edition (Scholastic) and the rest of the illustrated series, Grant by Ron Chernow (Penguin Press), and Pete Souza’s Obama: An Intimate Portrait (Little, Brown).

One of the trends booksellers at Bookworks observed this year was fewer customers visiting with an item already in mind, said Brandt, which gave booksellers a chance to do a lot of hand-selling.

“We didn’t have many people coming in with something super-specific that they wanted. A lot of the time, it was just general. Like, ‘Oh, what would you recommend?’ or ‘I’m just looking around and browsing,’” Brandt said. “A lot of people were very open to recommendations.”

In Irvine, California, Alex Uhl, owner of A Whale of a Tale Children’s Bookshoppe said longtime customers turned out this holiday season to give sales a “slight increase” over last year.

“Loyalty is a big factor,” Uhl said. “We have a lot of history in the community. People are community-oriented and prefer to shop independent. Not everyone likes to shop online. We’ve been here for almost 30 years.”

“Fun” was the theme for shoppers this holiday season, she added, with people looking for fun books and fun picture books.

“We did sell holiday books, but not as many as in the past. I think people are looking for books that would last all year long,” she said.

The Wolf, the Duck, and the Mouse, written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Jon Klassen (Candlewick), was a popular choice for picture book shoppers, as was There’s a Bear on My Chair, written and illustrated by Ross Collins (Nosy Crow), while Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth by Oliver Jeffers (Philomel Books) sold well among those giving gifts to new parents.

Shoppers buying for middle grade and YA readers opted for signed copies of such titles as The Wonderling by Mira Bartók (Candlewick) and Turtles All the Way Down by John Green (Dutton Books for Young Readers). The illustrated Harry Potter gift books also did surprisingly well, despite the hefty price tag, said Uhl.

While A Whale of a Tale was not directly affected by the fires in Southern California, Uhl said the disaster weighed on the spirits of staff and customers.

“We certainly felt for other people,” she said. “The mother of one of my employees lives in Santa Barbara. We were constantly thinking about the fires. I was glued to the fire app. A lot of authors live in the Santa Barbara and L.A. area, and I personally live in a fire zone.”

While sales varied among booksellers over the holiday season, some stores’ holiday sales tracked with the rest of the year. Susan Thomas, owner of Coffeetree Books in Morehead, Kentucky, said this year’s holiday season was unusually steady.

“We’re a college town, so the university empties on December 16th,” she said. “Sometimes the first part of the month is bigger than the last, but this year it was pretty consistent.”

Sales were on par with 2016 for both the holiday season and the year, according to Thomas. “We are even with last year, which I’m ok with,” she said. “We had some weird dips, which I attribute to the state of the union in November and December 2016. Then, we had a slow start, but things picked up really well.”

According to Thomas, top sellers for the season included titles from the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association’s catalog as well as Pete Souza’s Obama: An Intimate Portrait. “I was so glad to finally get the Obama book,” Thomas said. “Everybody chased it all season, but we did finally get that in.”

Thomas was also happy to see the wide array of titles her customers chose. “I’m in a small, rural town in Eastern Kentucky,” she said. “To see the diversity of books we sell every year just makes me so happy. It’s so much fun to look at my daily sales and do my re-orders.” —by Liz Button and Julie Alterio