Though a strong fourth quarter is essential to indie booksellers every year, months of losses due to the impact of Covid-19 have made it more critical than ever in 2020. “The holidays are always important,” says Pete Mulvihill, co-owner of Green Apple Books in San Francisco. “Given the terrible margins we work with, combined with high rent, payroll, and health-care costs, Green Apple breaks even for 11 months, then makes some profit in the December rush. But we’re not usually in debt to landlords and vendors after a several-month shutdown. So this holiday season will be crucial for our stores in order to make it through to December 2021.”

More than a dozen indies PW surveyed about the upcoming holiday season agree that they need a strong finish to the year. But many also fear that, if there is a second wave of Covid-19, holiday sales will evaporate. Even without a second wave, indie bookstores are operating in a challenging retail environment in which they need to offer in-store, online, and curbside pickup options.

To ensure strong holiday sales, most booksellers queried plan to begin ramping up holiday promotions in October. In its weekly digital newsletter, Main Point Books in Wayne, Pa., has already begun highlighting books and sidelines that will make good gifts. “If they see something they like, they should buy it now,” says owner Cathy Fiebach. “Later they might not be able to get it, due to printing issues or mail delays, which already are a problem for us.”

Beginning in mid-September with local children’s author Beth Kephart (Cloud Hopper, Penelope Editions), Main Point is virtually hosting one author each weekend leading up to Christmas. This is instead of the full day of signings it held in previous years on Small Business Saturday, which takes place the weekend after Thanksgiving.

Limits on the number of customers and staff allowed in stores could also adversely impact holiday sales. “The wonderful thing about the holidays is the energy in the store,” says Nina Barrett, owner of Bookends & Beginnings in Evanston, Ill. “It’s crowded with shoppers, filled with so much excitement. It’s the best time to be a bookseller. But that sounds like a nightmare right now.”

To reduce in-store crowding, Barrett is offering private holiday shopping. “Give us your list,” she says. “We’ll pick a stack of books. Then we can meet in person or virtually for a consultation.” The store will also gift wrap and deliver purchases to locals for a nominal fee.

Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., is planning to add more hours for shopping by appointment. “Our store is open eight hours each day,” says co-owner Bradley Graham. “We’re going to tack on two hours in early November just for appointments.” Graham adds that he’s also planning to hire more staff for anticipated surges in online holiday sales due to more people shipping gifts.

Stephanie Hochschild, owner of the Book Stall in Winnetka, Ill., is planning virtual events to help with her store’s emphasis on books as gifts, while other booksellers are focusing on holiday catalogs. Four-year-old Gramercy Books in Bexley, Ohio, is ordering copies of the GLIBA holiday catalog for the first time, in hopes that customers will make buying decisions early and spend less time browsing. Zenith Bookstore in Duluth, Minn. is debuting its own catalog, featuring 66 titles that owner Bob Dobrow says staff are “super jazzed” about. Zenith is starting its annual Jólabókaflóð promotion, featuring free gift wrapping and a chocolate bar with each book purchased, in November rather than December.

“We hope for the best and plan cautiously,” says Claire Benedict, co-owner of Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vt. “I think it will be a healthy season, though I think we’ll still come up short for the year. People are going to make up for being stuck at home. Parents aren’t going to hold back for their kids; they’re going to want to make it special. And people are going to appreciate being with family. This all will translate into strong sales for us.”

Big books, beloved authors

As for which books customers will want this season, Benedict has high expectations for Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (Random House). “It’s already flying off the shelves,” she says. “If that’s not among our top three sellers for the year, I’ll be surprised.”

Other frequently mentioned nonfiction titles include Claudia Rankine’s Just Us (Graywolf) and Laila Lalami’s Conditional Citizens (Pantheon). Nostalgic for “a president who could unite and inspire us,” Gramercy manager Deb Boggs recommends Frederik Logevall’s JFK (Random House). And Barrett says she is excited to sell Nancy Pearl and Jeff Schwager’s The Writers Library (HarperOne).

Fiction is the big draw this year, as many readers crave escape. “This is going to be a year for the tried and true: customers returning to those authors whose previous novels they’ve loved,” says Gramercy owner Linda Kass. “There’s a certain comfort factor for books like John Grisham’s A Time for Mercy and Louise Penney’s All the Devils Are Here.”

Mark Laframboise, head book buyer at Politics and Prose, agrees: “Big literary titles are going to pull us through.” He cites Marilynne Robinson’s Jack (FSG) and Elena Ferrante’s Lying Life of Adults (Europa). Others are looking forward to strong sales for Ken Follett’s The Evening and the Morning (Viking), Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom (Knopf), and Jess Walters’s Cold Millions (Harper).

Laframboise is also counting on books by celebrity chefs to be strong sellers: Ina Garten’s Modern Comfort Food (Clarkson Potter), Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry, Per Se (Artisan), and Yotam Ottolenghi‘s Ottolenghi Flavor (Ten Speed). “Three real big deals,” he says. “We’re going to be stacked high with copies.”

On the kids’ side, booksellers also predict big sales for works by familiar names. Praveen Madan, co-owner of Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, Calif., is excited about A Polar Bear in the Snow (Candlewick) by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Shawn Harris. Barrett is looking forward to Vermonters John and Jennifer Churchman’s picture book The Christmas Barn (Little Bee). And Green Apple’s Mulvihill mentions new books from Dav Pilkey—Grime and Punishment (Graphix), book nine in the Dog Man series, as well as his first book in a new series, Cat Kid Comic Club (Graphix)—and Rick Riordan’s The Tower of Nero (Disney-Hyperion).

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A version of this article appeared in the 09/14/2020 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Getting into the Holiday Spirit Early