Stephen Sparks, co-owner of Point Reyes Books in Point Reyes Station, Calif., reported that the store closed out 2020 with its strongest December ever. Surprisingly, the bookstore was up 12%-15% over December 2019, which had previously been the store's best month ever.
Normally the shop sees strong sales between Christmas and New Years Day, when a lot of tourists come to visit. Sales during that period were down in 2020, Sparks noted, but the first half of the month was so robust that December still set records. Online sales peaked around December 15, but the single highest grossing day of the season was the Friday before Christmas. Daily sales throughout December were more uniform than in years past, and sales didn't spike right before Christmas Eve.
While foot traffic was down in December (and the majority of 2020, for that matter), this was offset by large-ticket sales and by orders from across California and the country. The store relies heavily on tourist traffic, and Sparks said it was "wonderful" to see how widely the bookstore's community extends. It truly seemed that shoppers were making a concerted effort to buy from indies, he said.
Store bestsellers for the month included Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, which was the single strongest seller, combining the paperback and anniversary edition; The Lost Spells by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris; Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake; Caste by Isabel Wilkerson; The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen; and A Promised Land by Barack Obama. On the subject of A Promised Land, Sparks added that the store came within four copies of selling out its big initial order.
Stock issues and delays this year, Sparks said, were "the worst I've ever seen." Some publishers were better than others, and despite being unable to get some titles that "we really wanted to have," customers "seemed to understand that the situation was beyond anyone's control this year." Many customers were open to recommendations for substitutes.
December sales were also helped by a few big events. Normally the store is reluctant to host events in December, but with everything moving online, Sparks and the team had some unexpected flexibility in that regard. It also helps that online events broaden the audience pool.
Despite obstacles, including in-store capacity being reduced to about 20% of normal, many sought-after books being unavailable and some major shipping delays, it was a "remarkably successful" holiday season, he said.
In Greensboro, N.C., Scuppernong Books had its "best December ever" in terms of book sales, owner Brian Lampkin reported. The overall picture, however, is a "little trickier," as the store is also a wine bar and that side of the business has been closed, so the "relatively high mark-up end of the business" is gone.
With in-store capacity reduced, Scuppernong did not have the usual late-season rush before Christmas Eve. About 50% of the store's sales were online, which made up for the lower in-store numbers. Lampkin added that it seemed customers bought more books per visit, since there was "no guarantee that they'd be able to come back." Customers in Greensboro seemed to have a heightened sense of the importance of local shopping, and they "want us to be here for the new times."
Many of the store's biggest titles, Lampkin continued, were major national releases like The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy, Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline, Caste, The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett and of course A Promised Land ("Thanks, Obama!"). Scuppernong also sold plenty of titles by North Carolina authors, as well as some very local titles, such as Jews, Palestinians, and Friends by Richie Zweigenhaft and 27 Views of Greensboro, published by Eno Publishers.
Lampkin said there were some "terribly long" shipping delays, but customers were for the most part incredibly understanding. He noted that Greensboro happens to be the home of the "disastrous" Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, which "only seemed to exacerbate problems in Greensboro's package delivery."
Like many in the industry, Lampkin had worried going into the holiday season that stock shortages would "devastate" holiday sales. Those shortages, however, "never did materialize." There were some big disappearances, such as A Wealth of Pigeons by Steve Martin and Harry Bliss, but not the "large-scale absences" about which he'd worried.
Reflecting on the past year, Lampkin said he thought "hard times can bind communities," and it feels that the store and Greensboro are "in it together" and "our success reflects on the city in some meaningful way." He and his team are trying hard to "live up to our end of this social contract," which seems especially important these days. --Alex Mutter