It may not have been the best of times for booksellers on Gray Friday, but the good news is that it doesn't seem to have been the worst of times either.
Business at the Galaxy Bookshop, Hardwick, Vt., "far surpassed" Linda Ramsdell's expectations during what turned out to be the "best Black Friday sales in five years, more than double last year."
Good news was also riding the post-Thanksgiving retail winds for Russ Lawrence of Chapter One Book Store, Hamilton, Mont.: "For the weekend after Thanksgiving, we were up 28% versus last year, which exceeded our expectations by about 33%. We couldn't be more pleased, but we're not going to let up in our efforts to remind people that books make the best gifts and shopping local first builds stronger communities. I think those messages are resonating with people, in spite of Black Friday coverage in the Missoulian (the regional paper with the largest circulation) that focused exclusively on box store sales. In fact, given the news of stampedes and the nature of the comments from box store shoppers, they might not even have needed to mention local independents--the conclusions were there, for thinking people to draw."
Susan Fox of Red Fox Books, Glens Falls, N.Y., said, "Our sales were up about 10% over last year. We're a new store, still growing, so this is about what we expected. We hope that number increases a bit as we get closer to Christmas, but considering all that's going on, we're just happy to be selling books. Foot traffic seemed about the same, but most people were actually shopping rather than browsing. We found that our discounted books are doing better this year than last, and many more people are taking advantage of our frequent buyer program. I think this weekend was a good indication that the Christmas season won't be as difficult as we had feared."
At Sam Wellers Bookstore, Salt Lake City, Utah, "We did better than I thought we would," said Catherine Weller. "Not only did we exceed my expectations, we exceeded our sales projections for the day by a healthy percentage. In fact, we kept the store open an hour later than scheduled to serve the customers who favored us with their patronage. I should note, however, that Black Friday does not hold the significance for Wellers that it seems to have for other stores. In fact, over the years I have begun to view it as a creation of, by, and for the big box/chain retailers. I have heard other independent retailers inside and out of the book industry express similar, though perhaps not as hard-nosed, sentiments. The biggest sales day of the year for us is the Saturday before Christmas. This has been true since at least the 1970s."
Customers buying local helped Fountain Bookstore, Richmond, Va. "We did better than expected, as did our friends at the locally-owned independent music retailer Plan 9," said Kelly Justice. "We are still expecting to be down significantly for the year and have prepared for that probability, but it was a promising start to the holiday season. Looks like we don't have to cut the mistletoe budget just yet."
For Alice Meyer of Beaverdale Books, Des Moines, Iowa, "Black Friday was just about even with last year; Saturday saw about an 80% (yes!) increase; Sunday was a typically slow day (and lousy weather). When you start as modestly as we did, the increases seem exponential, but November as a whole was a great month and I'm beginning to let myself feel that December will continue the trend. Lots of special orders."
A jump in Thanksgiving weekend business at Shaman Drum Bookshop, Ann Arbor, Mich., surprised Karl Pohrt, who observed, "Sales were very slightly up this weekend from the same time last year. This is amazing considering the state of our local economy. I have no explanation."
There was also good news for another Michigan bookstore, McLean & Eakin Booksellers, Petoskey. "Our Friday and Saturday sales were up slightly from last year and we were absolutely delighted," said Julie Norcross. "Sunday sales were down a tiny bit. Remember, we are in a resort area and usually have many visitors at all holidays. A blessing for us."
Joe Foster of Maria's Bookshop, Durango, Colo., reported, "We were slightly up over last year's Black Friday, and neck in neck for the entire weekend."
Mitchell Kaplan observed that the strategy for Books & Books, Miami, Fla., "to emphasize value in our e-mail blasts seemed to work. At our Coral Gables store, which is a freestanding store and where we had the broadest discount offerings, we saw an increase in traffic. Our increases in those areas we gave special discount attention to--used and out of print and art, architecture, photography and design--were sufficient to allow for a sales increase over last Black Friday. We're planning a series of rolling discounts on different sections and will send out e-mail blasts with special value offerings, as well, throughout the week."
"Sales were about usual for us," noted Sheryl Cotleur of Book Passage, Corte Madera, Calif., "not like the mall shopping, I'm told (by newspapers and the like), but fine otherwise. Our city store had a signing with Tom Brokaw Friday so they were jammed and packed all day with big crowds and book buying so they had a great weekend. We don't see an unusual bump after Thanksgiving. but we sailed through fine."
Last week, Diane Van Tassell of Bay Books, Concord and San Ramon, Calif., had anticipated "decent sales on Gray Friday, but we know that they head to the mall before they come to our store." Her prediction came true: "Our sales were about even with any other weekend--which are usually very good. We did a 20% discount on all used books and that really didn't do much for at least our more affluent store. Sunday sales at that store were below normal for even a weekday. We don't buy back books from customers on Sunday in that store--and it may have hurt us. And maybe those customers have more money to spend and were at the Best Buys of the world on Sunday. Now our other store in a more urban area (and lower socio-economics) did better than our suburban store for the three-day weekend--which is very unusual. Our expectations for the holiday season are high because we have a lot of great gift books from CIROBE."
Russ Marshalek of Wordsmiths Books, Decatur, Ga., retained his sense of humor over the long holiday weekend: "Sales were decidedly down from last year, but measurably better than expected for this year--owing, in part, to the fantastic release of the long-awaited I Can Has CheezBurger? book. In this economy, the consumer has spoken and what the royal IT wants is a book of funny cat pictures with humorous captions. Take that, Wally Lamb."
Weekend sales at the Bookloft, Great Barrington, Mass., were "exactly where we thought, predictably down a bit, though not as drastically as I might have thought a few months ago," said Eric Wilska. "Black Friday is never, never our big day. It's always the two days immediately before Christmas. We're doing a 'spend $100 dollars and get a gift from the Bookloft' (a customized gift certificate good after January 1) promotion and it's been very successful. Not only do our customers dig it but it's been giving us an opportunity to literally hand them a gift and say, 'No, thank you; without you, we wouldn't be here.' Many are clearly going to use it as a gift. So, in January and February, we'll at least have a few hundred customers coming in."
Sounds like the makings of a perfect greeting card for booksellers: May all your customers keep coming in throughout the holiday season and beyond.--Robert Gray (column archives available at Fresh Eyes Now)