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Surprise! Independent bookstores fare well over the holidays

January 7, 2010

Thomas Keller

In a holiday season dominated by buzz about the Kindle and other digital reading devices, independent bookstores held their own, according to Publishers Weekly. with neither a surge nor a plunge in sales. The hottest title: A comfort food cookbook.

I choose to view this as excellent news. Despite the rise first of chain stores, and then discount Internet retailers, independent bookstores remain the fundamental commercial institution of literary culture, places where you can’t by an e-reader, only real books and magazines, where books are sold by hand by clerks who actually read.

After polling more than a dozen leading independent stores around the country, PW reports booksellers experienced “a typical” holiday season, with most stores slightly up or slightly down in sales. “There were no reports of exceptionally strong or exceptionally bad sales.”

As might be expected, mega-hyped bestsellers like Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, didn’t do as well at independent bookstores as they did elsewhere. Customers preferred entertainments like the paperback edition of Steig Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a literate thriller that started with little publisher support and grew to popularity through positive reviews and word of mouth.

Other “favorites” at independent bookstores: Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kittridge; Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna; R. Crumb’s The Book of Genesis; Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin; and the nonfiction Stones into Schools, by Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea.

That’s an eclectic list of novels and nonfiction, plus a graphic retelling of the first book of the Bible by an “underground” artist. As you can see, “independent” not only refers to the business model of these booksellers, but also to the taste and sophistication of their customers.

Still, many independent bookstores reported the title most in demand was Ad Hoc at Home, a $50 cookbook by Thomas Keller, a chef who runs five-star restaurants in New York and Los Angeles, plus the “casual family eatery” Ad Hoc in Yountville, Calif. It’s a book praised by The New York Times for its “cozy” versions of easy-to-make American classics like fried chicken, spaghetti-and-meatballs, chicken pot pies and other comfort foods. Many stores couldn’t keep the book in stock.

Not surprisingly, given the economic climate, customers were selective and price-conscious, with high-end books and gift items doing poorly. People wanted more for less, PW reports.

That makes it all the more encouraging independents avoided a bad holiday season. As I’ve noted elsewhere and often, anyone who cares about books, reading and literary culture should buy all or most of their books from independent stores, whenever possible. If we lose these stores, it will be a cultural calamity.

So get on down to the independent bookstore, if there’s one in your community. You too can be smart and sophisticated, and if you can’t decide what you want, ask for a recommendation from a store clerk who will likely have read the book she suggests. Who wants to follow the Amazon herd anyway?

25 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    January 7, 2010 11:56 am

    Since I bought books for a majority of the people on my Christmas gift list, and since every time I went into the bookstore, I had to shove my way through a gazilion people and parking spots were never available, I am not surprised. I just wish the independent bookstores in my area of southwestern Virginia offered bigger selections.

    Oh, and I must admit, Mr. Chauncey Mabe, that I have one friend who got a Kindle for Christmas. Sorry.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 7, 2010 12:22 pm

      Forgive them, for they know not what they do. I have such wayward friends, too. I pray for their souls.

  2. Tommy permalink
    January 7, 2010 11:58 am

    Recently a friend and I were just about to purchase Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin when we realized where we were, Target. We both agreed we wanted the book, yet neither her nor I was willing to purchase it from this store. Okay so there is the solution, problem is we now need to drive all the way to Miami or West Palm to find an independent book-seller. There must be an easier way to support independents while not being so in·convenienced.

    Strange, a cookbook is #1.

  3. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    January 7, 2010 12:24 pm

    I say, if you can’t get to an independent without going to excessive time, trouble and expense, then the next best thing is a bricks-and-mortar chain store, like Barnes & Noble or Borders. Or, you could save up your books dollars, make a list, and go to the trouble and expense of driving to WPB or Miami once a month, once a quarter, or whatever. In the meantime, there’s always the library, and both Broward and Dade have good systems.

    • Tommy permalink
      January 7, 2010 1:17 pm

      Ha! Save your dollars, Chauncey I was drinking milk when I read that and the milk did that thing milk does when you laugh while trying to drink it. I will get you back for that.

      I guess like everything it’s the attitude I have towards something that makes all the difference. It could have an adventure book hunting down in Miami, I nice hero quest full of pitfalls and crazy motorists or it could be a schlep, a cursed chore full of grumblings about how stupid the whole affair is.

      Which shall I choose? I am having fun already!

      And yes, thank the gods of reading there is always the library.

  4. rachel permalink
    January 7, 2010 12:33 pm

    I think it makes perfect sense for a cookbook to be number one. In fact, yesterday I heard a guy at work say he reads cookbooks every once in a while. No doubt in response to the question: do you read? Often people who read and also those who don’t really read will give cookbooks to people who don’t really read. It makes sense. I think that people think of cookbooks as a kind of universally acceptable gift.

    I agree with Tommy, in the frustration of not having a local indie bookstore. Fort Lauderdale is the worse for it and I probably buy less books as a result. When I worked at Books&Books I spent entirely too much of my paycheck on books that I didn’t need nor could I afford. Just wanted.

    • Tommy permalink
      January 7, 2010 1:36 pm

      I guess cookbooks are a safe present. I never really thought of reading a cookbook, I think I use cookbooks as opposed to reading reading them. People who gift cookbooks should have the decency to come over and prepare at least one meal from the book. Yes/No?

      • alexis permalink
        January 7, 2010 1:48 pm

        I think that the person who gets the cookbook should cook a meal for the gift giver

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 8, 2010 12:09 pm

      Some cookbooks are readable, indeed. As for books, if a person is going to have one extravagance, this is the one to have.

  5. DeeBishoff permalink
    January 7, 2010 1:09 pm

    I have mentioned on here before that I use the library frequently due to the amount of books I read now that I am retired. Everything is so convenient. I am able to renew books online, reserve books online and even have a drive thru book return on the days when I don’t need to go into the library. I still buy books as gifts and when I just can’t wait to get one at the library, usually at Barnes and Noble.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 8, 2010 12:11 pm

      Well, you do have that lovely Barnes & Nobel in the Power Plant at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, which, I admit, I seldom fail to visit when I’m in Charm City. Surely Baltimore has a good independent store, though. I’ll have to find it the next time I’m there.

  6. January 7, 2010 2:25 pm

    If the Indie stores do it right they will survive. They can not let the distributors control to much. The profit margin can be lower if over head is. Same with the news papers. They can survive on less. Indies can be tough to deal with as a Publisher. That is why they have less. They only have so much shelf space so they pick the best sellers. I hope they keep going.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 8, 2010 12:13 pm

      I believe the fact is independents don’t do as well with bestsellers as the discounters and chain stores do. That’s why they are the best place to find books that aren’t as well known.

  7. alexis permalink
    January 7, 2010 2:29 pm

    I feel really lucky that we have a great independent book store here in South Florida. I realize that it isn’t exactly “local,” but I consider it my local bookstore because I can still benefit from what it has to offer if I make a special trip.

    • Tommy permalink
      January 7, 2010 2:55 pm

      “I think that the person who gets the cookbook should cook a meal for the gift giver”


      Come to think of it, I have a gift here that I forgot to give you. Mangia!

      • alexis permalink
        January 7, 2010 3:46 pm

        yes, like a thank you for the gift. if the gift-giver made the meal then it would be like two gifts in one.

  8. Tommy permalink
    January 7, 2010 4:25 pm

    And what is wrong with two gifts in one? Nothing. I just think a cookbook is well, I used the word safe before and Rachel used acceptable but really I think lame is the word I would use. So if I give a cookbook I would make the recipient a meal from said book. Now that we have had this conversation here on Mr. Mabe’s blog and I am not sure how it fits in with the topic of today’s blog, let me try to bring it around. Are there books that deal exclusively with gift giving? Maybe one should. Oh and not just gift giving but gift receiving. Tips and such. Also it could answer gift related questions such as, “does the Queen of England give out Christmas gifts?” and if so what does she give. What do you get someone like the Queen who really has everything. This book will only be sold at independent bookstores like Books&Books. One of us needs to get writing, one of us needs to get cooking and who will do the dishes?

    • Alexis permalink
      January 7, 2010 11:11 pm

      Yes, there should be a book on gift giving! It should be a coffee table book, and it should look like a present, maybe with a bow and everything. (and no, I did NOT steal this idea from Kramer’s coffee table coffee table book.)

      ps.I think you have to really like the person to give two gifts in one. and I do not think you could give just anyone a cookbook. it depends on the person.

      • Tommy permalink
        January 8, 2010 12:29 am

        Sheesh! I was just trying to be nice and get you a present. I didn’t know for sure what you wanted or what you need. To be honest I didn’t put much thought into it and the word cookbook sprung to mind. But now it’s all complicated. Do I like you enough to gift you a cookbook? Now I have and I am obligated to make dinner. So I go the next step and pay Robert Downey Jr to make us dinner. So here we are having hors d’oeuvres and Holmes is in there with his shirt off and I can’t get your attention. Great, Christmas is ruined.

        I really like your idea that the book should look like a present.

  9. Candice Simmons permalink
    January 7, 2010 4:32 pm

    I give cookbooks to people who like to cook. Not people who like to read. Unless they like both.

    As for me, I don’t so much read cookbooks, as look at the photos. Some cookbooks can be quite artistic.

    I give comic books to people who don’t like to read.

    • Alexis permalink
      January 7, 2010 11:12 pm

      hahaha, at least you still give books to people who don’t like to read 🙂

  10. January 7, 2010 5:55 pm

    It is always worth the trip to shop local. The money tends to stay in the neighborhoods more. Not wall street . If America is to survive as more than a second tier swap shop, We had better start keeping money and jobs here. Force business to. Buy local. May be even pay a bit more. That way your neighbor has a job a buys from your business to. I want a cook book. too. I make the best beef stroganoff in America. (I’m not sure I can spell it but I can make it). Buy books and come over and eat. That goood.

  11. Candice Simmons permalink
    January 8, 2010 8:21 pm

    And don’t forget how popular all those cooking show are these days–Grilling with Bobby Flay, the Iron Chef….No wonder so many cookbooks were bought.

  12. January 9, 2010 1:14 pm

    Channels of distribution control who gets the best sellers. So in that way the Indys do have some others books , but it is not there first choice for sure. I still think profit margins will fall. Size will be smaller but profitable. Some Indys will not let you sell to them if you do not use their distributor. If you already have one, it is not profitable at all to go there.

  13. June 1, 2010 8:08 am

    I love these kinds of book stores. My post today was on this subject. My book, “The Mandolin Case” is due out next week. I’m an old man, but I still have a dream and hope to someday sign books and play my mandolin in stores like this.

    Dr. B

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