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A Murky Crystal Ball for Booksellers

Independent booksellers across the U.S. reported having strong sales in 2021, especially in the final months of the year, when nearly every store opted to return to in-store shopping for the holiday season. The well-publicized supply chain issues affected fewer titles than expected.

A number of book categories that had driven sales in 2020—notably, politics—fell off in popularity last year, booksellers said, while self-help and personal growth continued to gain momentum, fueled by late-in-the-year bestsellers like Brene Brown’s Atlas of the Heart.

Online sales are here to stay, though many booksellers are relieved by the transition back to in-store shopping and the shift away from being virtual fulfillment centers. And much uncertainty remains regarding events. Many booksellers said they plan to do exclusively online events as long as the omicron surge continues, and that they are also committed to hosting outdoor events when the weather permits.

Staffing—particularly hiring and retaining employees and keeping them healthy—is a top priority for booksellers in 2022. Also of concern is the lack of networking and educational opportunities available because of the continuing cancellation of in-person conferences and conventions, such as the recently canceled in-person edition of Winter Institute.

In general, booksellers interviewed by PW noted significant sales gains in 2021 over 2020—typically around 10% for the year. Some did much better, such as at Bookends and Beginnings in Evanston, Ill., where owner Nina Barrett reported that sales last year were up 43% over 2020, and up 128% since 2019. The addition of a street-front facade (formerly the entrance to the store was through an alley) and the closing of two Barnes & Nobles were cited as reasons for the sales boom.

Independent stores were also helped by a growing awareness of the importance of shopping local. The top nonfiction bestseller at Barrett’s store was How to Resist Amazon and Why by Danny Caine, the owner of the Raven Bookstore in Lawrence, Kans. “It was an impulse purchase at all of our cash registers,” Barrett said.

Kelly Justice, owner of Fountain Bookstore in Richmond, Va., said the shop-local trend resulted in her store having the best December sales in its history, after a slow start to the year due to a delayed return to in-store shopping. “Overall, I think customers have become more conscious of where they buy their books and of the impact buying locally from independent stores, as opposed to Amazon, has on their communities,” she said.

Online sales are here to stay

Online sales continued to be important at most bookstores across the country, though for some, it has cooled from the highs of 2020. Barrett at Bookends and Beginnings reported online sales were down 50% from 2020, but only because 2020 was so huge. “Online sales in 2020 were up 2,540% over 2019,” she said. “Online sales were half in 2021 of what they were in 2020, but they are still a substantial part of our business. It’s absolutely going to be a permanent part of our business.”

According to Gretchen West, owner of Valley Bookseller in Stillwater, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis, web orders “were about half of what they were in 2020 but five times what they were before the pandemic hit.” She predicted sales in 2022 will be about the same as 2021.

At Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Mich., which was closed for in-person shopping from March 2020 to end of May 2021, online orders took on a new importance and represented about 25% of overall sales in 2021. “I think because we were closed for a long time, a lot of our customers got comfortable with ordering online,” said co-owner Hilary Gustafson.

At Village Books and Paper Dreams in Bellingham, Wash., co-owner Sarah Hutton reported that she now has an online team because online sales have become such a critical part of the business. “People are used to reserving items ahead now, too,” she said. “A lot of customers are checking if we have what they want before they come in, making sure it’s worth the trip.”

That said, many booksellers were relieved that in-store sales have bounced back. Kate Rattenborg, owner of Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, where online sales represented a little less than 10% of business last year, was among them. “I didn’t open my store to become a shipping center,” she said. Still, Rattenborg’s plans for 2022 include growing both the store’s online and B2B businesses.

As the pandemic continues, some booksellers have become dependent on online orders. At Capital Books in Sacramento, Calif., “probably two-thirds of our orders come from online,” said co-owner Ross Rojek. “We use Bookmanager. I knew I wanted a good online system, and I agonized for months about that. Once Covid happened, the system started to work—our point-of-sale provider went from a few sales a day to tens of thousands, so we spent the last year scrambling.”

Others have outsourced their online sales altogether. Scout and Morgan in Cambridge, Minn., lets Bookshop.org handle online sales. “It’s going well, though online sales remain only a small percentage of overall sales,” said owner Judith Kissner. “We really focus on the in-store customer, rather than becoming a shipping fulfillment center. We let Bookshop deal with online sales and will continue to talk to our customers about Bookshop as an alternative to Amazon.”

In-person events remain uncertain

At Blue Willow Books in Houston, selling online—particularly through social media—has become a “norm,” said owner Valerie Koehler. Since the start of the pandemic, the store pursued a variety of opportunities and took advantage of the closing of Scholastic and Follett school book fairs to increase its business with local schools.

“School orders became a significant business for us,” said Koehler, who noted that total sales at the store were up 10% in 2021 over the previous year. Part of the success was due to a total commitment to hosting virtual events. “We did over 400 last year, including one with some local celebrities, like Brené Brown and President George W. Bush, where we sold 700 copies of his book Out of Many, One.

Like many booksellers, Koehler said she had scheduled numerous in-person events for the start of 2022 but is now having doubts. “We have a couple planned in February,” she added. “And if we go ahead with them, they will have to be completely masked and we may limit numbers. We are also still talking about running our TeenBookCon [a popular daylong event for YA authors], which is scheduled for April 9 at a local high school. But if we do, it will likely be a hybrid event.”

Third Place Books in Seattle is also experimenting with hybrid events, according to managing partner Robert Sindelar. “On January 12, we did an event with local author Jonathan Evison for his book Small World,” he noted. “It was basically a private in-store event for 30 guests, by invitation only, livestreamed. Most of our customers will participate online. We might do some more of those hybrids, as well.”

Warwick’s in La Jolla, Calif., experimented with live events during the pandemic as early as June 2020, when it hosted one with Elin Hilderbrand. The store has again started holding events, albeit irregularly. “We dipped our toe, and we’re trying one a month,” said Adrian Newell, head book buyer and operations manager. “We used to pack them in here, and now we have a layout and reserved seating, so we can limit the numbers to 40–50 people max in store. People are not eager to sit elbow to elbow, and attendance is down 25%–35%.”

Politics falls off, but social justice persists

Several categories that drove sales in 2020 saw significant declines in 2021, including political books. Travel books, which had all but died as a category in 2020, had a small resurgence in interest in 2021 but once again trailed off toward the end of the year. Still, Village Books and Paper Dreams’ Hutton pointed out that local travel books, such as titles on day hikes in Washington, remained popular. “For kids, too,” she said, “people were buying books about exploring your backyard, bird watching for kids, and enrichment activities for when school is not in school.”

While numerous booksellers cited strong sales of general fiction, science fiction, and graphic novels, a trio of nonfiction titles came up time and time again when booksellers were asked what was selling: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, and The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones.

Metaphysical and personal growth categories also took off in 2021. Larry Yeaw, buyer for Books Inc. in Alameda, Calif., noted that his store was “carrying a lot of tarot.” He added that he felt there was a significant number of titles on back order at major publishers, though this didn’t pose a problem during the holiday season.

Health of staff is a priority

The “great resignation” affecting the retail and service sectors has been well publicized, and it’s impacting booksellers as well. “We’re worried about staff burnout,” said Sally McPherson, co-owner of Broadway Books in Portland, Ore. “The job isn’t as fun when you’re dealing with a pandemic and supply chain issues—it’s lost a bit of luster. We’ve got a lovely small-but-hardy group. When you operate at a frantic level for so long, you have to ask, How long can this go on?”

For Suzanne DeGaetano, owner of Mac’s Backs Books on Coventry in Cleveland, finding people to hire is proving difficult. “Just recruiting permanent part-time staff that has the skill sets and versatility necessary for frontline booksellers has been hard,” she said. “I’d love to get back to longer hours, but I need more staff to be able to do that.”

Fountain Books’ Justice is trying to prioritize staff well-being in the coming year, and to that end purchased subscriptions to the Headspace meditation app for her five employees. “We also shortened our hours,” she said. “Previously we had been open 362 days a year and did inventory on New Year’s Day. Now we are closed on Mondays. And you know, our sales have not been impacted at all.”

All booksellers said much remains uncertain going into 2022. One on the East Coast, who asked to remain anonymous, admitted that he was not sure what to think of the past several years and had no idea what to expect next. “The last year was one of incredibly varying emotional and material responses to an incredibly varying and unpredictable set of circumstances,” he said. “Trying to make sense of it feels impossible. Trying to make sense of the coming year feels equally impossible. Or at least it should, if we’re being honest with ourselves.”

A version of this article appeared in the 01/17/2022 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: A Cloudy Crystal Ball

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