Indie Bookstores Mark Third Annual Indies First With Festive Celebrations

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On November 28, nearly 500 independent bookstores across the country celebrated the third annual Indies First on Small Business Saturday. Booksellers invited hundreds of authors to serve as guest booksellers in their stores throughout the day, in addition to marking the occasion with unique and creative authorless events and other festivities. 

Following the event, almost all the stores contacted by BTW reported a busy and energetic day, marked by strong customer interest and engagement. While some cited a rise in sales, for others the year-over-year sales for the day were flat or down, with some booksellers speculating that American Express’ decision not to offer statement credits to shoppers making purchases with AmEx cards had resulted in less in-store traffic and a decline in sales.

From a national perspective, the American Booksellers Association said that the unit sales of books as reported by the more than 500 indie stores submitting data to the weekly Indies Bestseller List was slightly up over 2014 for the week including Indies First on Small Business Saturday. According to the Small Business Saturday Consumer Insights Survey, released November 30 by American Express and the National Federation of Independent Business, total spending among U.S. consumers who were aware of Small Business Saturday increased by 14 percent this year, reaching $16.2 billion spent at independent retailers and restaurants on the day, up from $14.3 billion spent in 2014. In addition, a National Retail Federation survey, released on November 29, found that an estimated 103 million people shopped online and 102 million shopped in bricks-and-mortar stores over Black Friday and the Thanksgiving weekend, spending an estimated $4.45 billion online and $12.1 billion in traditional stores on Thursday and Friday.

There was no dip in media coverage throughout the weekend, and a highlight was again a presidential independent bookstore visit. President Obama, accompanied by daughters Malia and Sasha, shopped at Upshur Street Books in Washington, D.C., on  Small Business Saturday, reported the New York Times. Assisted by general manager Anna Thorn, the Obamas picked up a number of titles at the store, which recently celebrated its first anniversary. According to White House officials, the Obamas’ purchases included, among others, Purity by Jonathan Franzen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie (Random House), plus books for younger readers, including Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Hard Luck by Jeff Kinney (Harry N. Abrams) and Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli (Ember).

Spellbound Children’s Bookshop in Asheville, North Carolina, was part of a passport program to promote indie bookstores, an initiative coordinated by Asheville’s Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café. Both stores participated alongside Firestorm Café and BooksBattery Park Book ExchangeDowntown Books & News, and The Captain’s Bookshelf.

The Passport to Asheville’s Indie Bookstores encouraged customers to visit each participating shop, where they could have their passports stamped for entry into a raffle to win prizes that included gift cards to each bookstore.

Spellbound owner Leslie Hawkins said the initiative brought a lot of new customers to the store.

“It was great, actually,” said Hawkins. “For us, it was a success, so hopefully it was for everybody else, too. Last year we had a couple of authors do bookselling, but I would say this passport promotion brought us more business than the guest booksellers did. I think that for every year with Indies First and Small Business Saturday, the profile just continues to get higher.”

Small Business Saturday was “the premiere of the new children’s section” at Skylight Books in Los Angeles, California, said store manager Steven Salardino, and the appeal of the Indies First activities combined with the store’s promotion of the new section — including outreach to local schools — resulted in “a very busy day.” Customers enjoyed Skylight’s festive atmosphere, including cake, wine, and cheese, and Salardino said, “it was a very positive experience in the store.” 
This year’s Small Business Saturday sales at Skylight Books topped those of 2012, but they were lower than either 2013 or 2014, Salardino reported, and, overall, the weekend sales (including Black Friday) were down about seven percent. His estimation, based on the day’s interaction with customers, was that while the absence of a statement credit was not drastically affecting customers’ decision to purchase it might have lowered overall store traffic for the day. However, with sales building steadily in the early days of December, he said that “I’m feeling positive and optimistic for the holiday season.”  

Title Wave Books, Revised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, celebrated Indies First and Small Business Saturday for the first time with the help of new owners Liberty Goldstein and Leslie Gulley, who took over the store in July.

“We had a lot of dreams and hopes and we’re getting to live those out,” said Goldstein, who noted that sales numbers were up over last fall.

Title Wave invited five authors to spend the day greeting customers, signing books, and participating in an open mic event for Indies First. The store also discounted selected titles; offered free cookies, coffee, and hot chocolate; and set up a giving tree to benefit Freedom House, an organization that offers rescue, treatment, and a safe house for sexually trafficked women.

The open mic event proved most popular, and local writers, poets, and lyricists who performed earned themselves a 40 percent discount on their purchases. “We wanted to make this place open to the community and warm and welcoming to the neighborhood, especially teenagers,” said Goldstein. “It was received so well that we’re thinking we might do an open mic once a month.”

“We’ll definitely do this again next year,” added Goldstein. “People shopping said the atmosphere in here was so wonderful. A lady came to the counter with a pile of books and said, ‘It’s so hip in here, it makes me want to buy a pile of books!’”

Flintridge Bookstore & Coffeehouse in La Cañada, California, hosted a full day of guest authors, artists, musicians, and activities for all ages for Indies First on Small Business Saturday. “It was tremendously successful,” said Gail Mishkin, Flintridge Bookstore’s event, marketing, and author manager, who noted that sales were triple that of a regular Saturday.

Among other author events, customers met and mingled with J. Ryan Stradal, author of the Indies Introduce pick Kitchens of the Great Midwest (Viking), and children enjoyed a story time and craft activity with Rita Lossett, author of A Nutty World on the Edge of the Rain Forest (Xlibris).

Guest artists showcased a variety of handcrafted gift items, such as hand-stitched felt ornaments, silver and bronze jewelry, and ceramic vessels. Customers also got creative themselves with artists Sherise Seven, Scott Gordon, and Lynnda Rakos, who shared pages from their respective adult and children’s coloring books. Topping off events, La Cañada High School’s Chamber Singers serenaded visitors with Christmas carols.

“We tried to mix it up a bit to attract as many people with as many interests as possible. People seemed really happy — it was very festive,” said Mishkin. “What I think was helpful was that, besides all the promoting we did here, all the people who were involved as guests were very active on their social media. We drew in not only our regular customers, but we were also seeing an awful lot of new faces.”

For Papercuts J.P. in Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts, Small Business Saturday also commemorated the store’s first anniversary celebration. Festivities included cupcakes and champagne throughout the day, live music based on the poetry of William Blake from local musician Michael Tarbox, an appearance by local author Christopher Irvin, and a signing of Dirty Old Boston by another local author, Jim Botticelli (Union Park Press).

“It was really rainy so I thought it would put a damper on things, but despite the weather we still had a good day. We did twice our usual weekend sales,” said owner Kate Layte. “It was fun to have a couple of the original authors from last year coming back. A lot of new customers came out and a lot of the same ones who made it last year came out, too.”

The fun at Papercuts continued on Cider Monday, an alternative holiday to Cyber Monday created by New England booksellers to attract customers away from online retailers, with a free local craft cider giveaway in the evening, which preceded an author event with Nadine Darling, author of She Came From Beyond! (The Overlook Press).

Thanksgiving weekend sales were double over last year’s at Bellows Falls, Vermont’s Village Square Booksellers, which hosted an entire weekend of festivities: Plaid Friday, Indies First/Small Business Saturday, Grinch Day on Sunday, and Cider Monday. “People were very happy to be shopping local,” said store owner Pat Fowler.

There were plenty of conversations among town residents leading up to the weekend’s town-wide open house events, said Fowler, who serves on the Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance promotions committee, which coordinated the events. “People were getting excited. They were all talking about it amongst themselves.”

Along with many other town businesses, Village Square celebrated Plaid Friday, billed as a colorful, local alternative to Black Friday, where customers who visited the store wearing plaid received a discount. For Indies First on Small Business Saturday, author Ellen Stimson celebrated her newest book, An Old-Fashioned Christmas: Sweet Traditions for Hearth and Home (Countryman Press), by hosting a cookie swap and holiday cookie contest.

On Sunday, Mrs. Claus appeared to read aloud from Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and customers picked up “Grow Your Heart” bingo cards to check off 25 days of good deeds done. On Cider Monday, the store served locally produced Allen Brothers cider and donuts.

In addition to celebrating Indies First, Reading Frenzy in Portland, Oregon, took part in shop local passport events taking place on Small Business Saturday, one for the neighborhood along Mississippi Avenue and another, Little Boxes, that was citywide.

Reading Frenzy owner Chloe Eudaly said, “It’s fun for me because I asked my employees in advance what their favorite books of the past 12 months were. We specialize in self-published and independent small press books, so I ask them to focus on those, but it’s not exclusive. Then I consider bringing in those titles for the event if they are good fit for our shop.”

Along with offering free cider and cookies, the store hosted several authors as guest booksellers, including Delphine Bedient, Michelle Overby, and Sara Renberg. Eudaly had tables set up for the authors, where they could display their book recommendations along with their own books. The displays were accompanied by signs that said, “Ask me for a recommendation.”

The day also included a signing with ‘zine aficionado and former bookseller Joshua James Amberson and the launch of the “Invincible Summer 2016 Mostly Dogs” calendar with graphic novelist Nicole Georges and her Chihuahua, Ponyo.

“It was our first big sales day of the season,” said Eudaly. “The first weekend after Thanksgiving is never our busiest weekend, but I think we did three times the normal average on Saturday.”

In Indianapolis, Indiana, Kids Ink Children’s Bookstore, which had invited authors to come in as guest booksellers in previous years for Indies First, employed a different tactic for its third annual event. “We’ve actually found two authors who are amazing booksellers, but some of them are not real comfortable with it, so we decided to switch it up,” said owner Shirley Mullin.

This year, the store invited authors in not as guest booksellers, but as premium customers. “We sent seven authors gift certificates to thank them for their support all year,” said Mullin. “They seemed to appreciate it.” The authors were invited to visit the store at any point before, on, or after Small Business Saturday, and several came in throughout the weekend to sign stock and chat with customers.

Mullin said the store saw a huge bump in sales for the day, thanks in part to the Shop Small goodies, like tote bags and signage, from American Express. “We pretty much tripled our normal Saturday. It was very busy. Lots of gift wrapping!”

Chapter2Books co-owner Brian Roegge said the Hudson, Wisconsin, store had three authors who dropped in throughout the day to help customers pick out books. In addition to free cocoa and cookies, Chapter2 offered prize drawings and giveaways for collectible Polar Express ornaments, along with stocking stuffers and other freebies.

“The day was very good,” Roegge said. “We were very busy from the time we opened until the time we closed. Sales were great, although it’s tough to compare the day’s sales to those of other Indies Firsts since this has been our third store location in three years.”

“There’s a lot of publicity out there for Small Business Saturday right now, a lot of buzz. A number of people specifically mentioned it to us when they came in,” he added.

In Brockport, New York, Lift Bridge Book Shop held its annual Thanksgiving weekend sale, which owner John Bonczyk, who took over the store with Cody Steffen at the start of 2015, said is always a big event. Boxed sets and adult hardcover books were 25 percent off all weekend, and the store invited customers in for a sneak preview the day before Thanksgiving.

“We have a pretty loyal customer base. It’s tough where we’re located to bring in new people, but we have customers who come once a year on Small Business Saturday, which is nice,” said Bonczyk, who added that sales were almost triple a normal Saturday. “It was a good day.”

To celebrate Small Business Saturday, the bookstore welcomed Pete the Cat, as well as Brockport’s mayor, Margaret Blackman, who arrived as part of an initiative to feature local and town board members at small businesses throughout the day. Lift Bridge also celebrated Cider Monday, serving free hot cider and donuts, on November 30.

At Christopher’s Books in San Francisco, customers could purchase any children’s book at list price and receive 30 percent off any book or item in stock at the store. In addition, 10 percent of sales made on Small Business Saturday were donated to the San Francisco Food Bank.

“It was quite busy and a number of people specifically said they were there for Small Business Saturday,” said owner Tee Minot. “I think our 10 percent donation to the San Francisco Food Bank really went toward encouraging people to purchase a little bit more.”

Several other bookstores were featured in a series of Small Business Saturday commercials produced by American Express. A video highlighting San Francisco Bay Area businesses includes Pete Mulvihill of Green Apple Books sharing his feelings about the sense of community among independent businesses in the store’s neighborhood, and Elaine Petrocelli of Book Passage commenting on the importance of shopping local. Commercials also featured footage of Mitchell Kaplan of Books & Books in Florida, as well as Janet Jones of Source Booksellers in Detroit. View the full playlist of Small Business Saturday commercials here. —Sydney Jarrard and Liz Button