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Positive Shades of Gray on Black Friday--Part I

What if we planned for a Gray Friday, expressed reasonably cautious fatalism--just to avoid angering the vengeful retail gods--and then people came out and shopped after all? Wouldn't that be great?

As it happens, this seems to have been the scenario for many booksellers last weekend. I had a front row seat myself, working the sales floor at the Northshire Bookstore, Manchester, Vt., and marveling at the traffic. Hadn't these people heard the economy is dying and Black Friday is for mall discounters only?

Apparently not.

"Our Black Friday was better than expected, Saturday was respectable and Sunday was a bit weaker because of the weather," said Chris Morrow, Northshire's general manager. "The weekend was better than the last three months have been, so let's hope December is more like this past weekend than the previous few months. I have my prayer beads working."

Allison Hill of Vroman's Bookstore, Pasadena, Calif., noted that the bookshop's "sales exceeded our expectations. We were up both Friday and Saturday against last year's Black Friday weekend. The overall feeling in the store was really festive and feel-good, and people were definitely spending money. Our average dollars-per-transaction was only about a dollar down from last year and we saw big ticket items sell at a better rate than anticipated. Obviously, it's a more compressed holiday season with Thanksgiving falling so late so we'll see if the trend continues. Let's hope this keeps up!"

Having said last week that she expected a "quiet weekend," Lauretta Nagel of Constellation Books, Reisterstown, Md., found Black Friday sales "were about the same as last year (my first in business). The weekend was very good, however, and I think having the whole Main Street run a 'Holiday Market Day' event really helped. This weekend was up a bit over 300% compared to last year's weekend. Mind you, this is only my second year in business so any trending is still suspect."

Left Bank Books, St. Louis, Mo., was "16% up for the weekend," said Kris Kleindienst. "This far surpassed our wildest expectations. We were down about 11% in October, no surprise, but we have been running up all November. We can't explain it except maybe to say that our Friends of Left Bank Books membership drive in October (which netted us $14K in memberships--not included in the October sales) may have also reminded folks of the need to shop locally at a critical moment. I also credit the general euphoria of most of our customers over Obama's victory. The economy may actually be helping us because perhaps books look better and more meaningful to our customers right now than trampling a store employee to death to get a 'deal' on a wildly expensive flat screen TV. And we have been getting a lot of ink lately in anticipation of our downtown store opening December 10."

Tattered Cover Bookstore, Denver, Colo., had to weather the weather, but Cathy Langer said, "Friday's sales were very encouraging, compared to Saturday and Sunday, which were somewhat disappointing, in part due to the weather conditions on Sunday with snow and media news reports of road problems and closures up north, south and I-70 from the mountains into town. It was a sit-by-the-fire kind of day. I will say we're cautiously optimistic within our managed expectations (how's that for qualified?), with some good media exposure coming up and the feeling that books always make great, meaningful gifts and even more so in years like this."

Steve Bercu of BookPeople, Austin, Tex., thought "everything measured up well. We were up slightly for the last two weeks in November (Thanksgiving was in a different week last year so it was hard to measure the weeks by themselves) and we were up slightly for November as a whole. Black Friday was up 20%, but the whole weekend was only up 3%. Of course, Black Friday is not our biggest day or even in our top 20 for the year. We will do better than that at least 10 times before Dec. 25. In any case I look at it as positive for the season."

As we mentioned last week, Village Books, Bellingham, Wash., offered a Wednesday-before-Thanksgiving coupon, and Chuck Robinson pronounced the experiment a success: "We got 95 of the coupons (15% off total purchase) back that day and our business was up 42% over the Wednesday before Thanksgiving last year. We also think it helped jump-start some business. We were up nearly 10% on Black Friday and Saturday was just about dead-even with the Saturday after T-Day last year (these are combined sales with our card and gift shop that we haven't separated out yet). Where our sales are trailing are in our card and gift store, immediately adjacent to the bookstore. Because we don't carry many non-book items in the bookstore it appears those are the lagging sales items. I'd be curious to see if those stores who can separate their non-book sales are seeing a bigger drop there than in book sales as we are."

Coupon-inspired sales were also reported by Sarah Bagby of Watermark Books, Wichita, Kan. "We redeemed many of our Black Friday coupons," she said. "People were buying bigger ticket items with the discount. Our sales were in line with expectations and customers were upbeat, open to suggestions of titles they hadn't come in for and just getting started shopping for holiday giving. People seem more cautious about gift cards than in years past; however, those sales typically don't really crank up until mid-December. To confirm what we heard from various groups, our customers want to send something personal and well chosen."

Anne Holman of the King's English Bookshop, Salt Lake City, Utah, observed a gift card trend as well, noting that "sales were good, but they were lower than last year. Gift card orders are fewer this year so far, which is interesting and we'll see if it continues. [Black Friday] went better than we'd braced ourselves for and it could have been better. The weather in SLC has been unseasonably warm and sunny, so maybe people aren't fully in the shopping mode yet."

Stay tuned for more Gray Friday results tomorrow.


A Black Friday By Any Other Name . . .

After lengthy consultation with my key advisers, I've decided to assume personal responsibility for the day after Thanksgiving by rechristening it Gray Friday. I believe this will more accurately reflect the uncertainty of the upcoming retail holiday season.

In the spirit of a year as unhinged as this one has become, I wondered what we're expecting--and how we've prepared--for Gray Friday. So I asked around.

"I think our sales will hold up pretty well," says Mitchell Kaplan of Books & Books, Miami, Fla. "We usually have reduced expectations as we're primarily in non-mall locations. Over Black Friday, most folks hit the malls first for bargains and then head over to us. We're hoping to get that first wave this year, though, because we're going to promote the notion of books as a 'value' gift. Not necessarily value = price, though. So, the notion of IndieBound and how we can get the message of our independence across will also be important; we want our customers to know that when they support us, they also support their community."

Watermark Books, Wichita, Kan., is featuring "a black coupon good for Black Friday that went out with last week's e-letter," notes Sarah Bagby. "Our customers love coupons and they were successful last year. Our expectations are not widely varied from previous years. During the latter two weeks of October and all through November, three of us have gone out on the circuit, speaking to book clubs, philanthropic groups and auxiliary groups. We asked attendees how they felt about giving books as presents and whether they will give the same amount as in previous years. The answers were overwhelmingly positive. Customers seemed adamant about giving books to facilitate an authentic experience, rather than more stuff or gadgets."

Village Books, Bellingham, Wash., also sent a coupon to its e-mail list, seeking to draw customers in on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Owner Chuck Robinson hopes "that the exposure will help on Black Friday, even though the coupon won't be valid then. Our historic district always has a two-day gallery walk on Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving. This year the entire area has ramped it up with a carriage-arrival of a Victorian Santa, performers throughout the district and other activities."

November sales have been good thus far at Beaverdale Books, Des Moines, Iowa. Alice Meyer is "optimistic about sales next Friday. We don't have anything special planned. I guess I made the decision when I opened that I can't compete with donuts at midnight and $20 DVRs. Not to say that we're not nervous about the economy and the shopping season, and I am monitoring everything very closely. We love IndieBound, and I think our customers are more aware than ever of the impact of buying locally."

According to Joe Foster of Maria's Bookshop, Durango, Colo., "Historically, Black Friday has been a pretty busy day for us, but not outrageously so. I'm honestly predicting a really solid holiday, despite the shrieking Nostradomi in the news. As for any new strategies, I've been a bit more judicious with inventory and, much to the chagrin of our suppliers I think, we got ridiculously aggressive with returns last month. We support and exploit the MPIBA Winter Catalogue very heavily, doing newspaper inserts the Sunday before Thanksgiving and we historically see a huge response from that."

Russ Marshalek of Wordsmiths Books, Decatur, Ga., says his expectations are "tempered and minimal at best. The economy's been a friend to no one, and, honestly, bookstores/book sales aren't something usually impacted, in my frame of reference, by Black Friday." Wordsmiths will be "focusing on gift titles rather than the 'big' books. Also, despite the economic downturn we're carrying on with our event-focused in-store promotions to continue to encourage people to come into the store."

Expecting "a quiet Friday," Lauretta Nagel of Constellation Books, Reisterstown, Md., has an alternative plan to enhance sales: "My retail neighbors and I are banding together to hold a November Market Days Open House up and down Main Street, in the hopes that we will attract people who might otherwise shop the mall."

Linda Ramsdell of the Galaxy Bookshop, Hardwick, Vt., says, "Black Friday is traditionally not a big sales day for us, so we're expecting 'the usual.' We haven't done anything different for a Black Friday promotion, as we are putting the focus on our 20th anniversary sale on December 6. We will send out a newsletter before Thanksgiving, reminding people how important it is, now more than ever, to spend money locally."

At Red Fox Books, Glens Falls, N.Y., owner Susan Fox says, "We're just not sure what to expect this year. We have been rather busy these past couple of weekends, so we hope that bodes well for the rest of the season. We haven't found Black Friday to be especially big for us in the past two years. We're not doing anything special for it, largely because the following weekend is a town-wide event and we try to save our energies for that."

Kelly Justice of Fountain Bookstore, Richmond, Va., sees "an overall holiday season that is slightly down, but not as bad as the grim forecasts. I have noticed an increased awareness on the part of our customers about where they spend money and what the long-term value of that investment will be. While price-conscious, I'm hearing more parents explain to their children why they are here rather than the mall, because we are connected to their community.

"Also, we are reaching out to our fellow local businesses with a special discount campaign for people in our neighborhood who are in the service industry. Service industry people are their own huge network, particularly those in restaurant and retail and they support their own. By reaching out to them by both providing incentives for them to shop with us and by patronizing their businesses, I hope to create positive word of mouth that they will then share with those they serve."

Valerie Koehler of Blue Willow Bookshop, Houston, Tex., says, "We tend to do steady, brisk business on the two days following Thanksgiving. We get a fair number of families coming in bringing extended family from out of town. Many of our customers like to show off to their family where their gifts come from. So we don't plan any big sales or other pushes. Our December is jammed with activity--onsite and off."

And, in a thankful mood, Roger Doeren of Rainy Day Books, Fairway, Kan., notes that for his bookshop, "the day after Thanksgiving is a day to meet and greet our customers with a positive, helpful and thankful attitude and make that day, just like any other day, into whatever it will be; turning 'Read' into 'Black.' The big picture is read in 365 days rather then the minutiae of one day."

As for me, I'll be on the sales floor for my 17th straight Black--now Gray--Friday. I'll tell how that went next week, and I invite you to send me your reactions and even photos, too.


Fun Books List Is 'Never Finished'

In the latest issue of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Philippe de Montebello writes about the Met's recent acquisitions, observing that a "museum is never finished, a collection never fully formed."

The same can be said for a book list because "finished" means more than simply "the end." So this week we'll just say we plan to "wrap up"--a diversionary tactic by any definition--the fun books series.

Though fiction picks were the original quest, nonfiction titles did manage to slip through. Ginny Mortorff, who works in telephone sales for Random House, is one of several Brysoniacs who "couldn't resist being part of the fun by sending in my all time favorite because I didn't see Bill Bryson on the list. A Walk in the Woods, In a Sunburned Country, I'm a Stranger Here Myself and The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid are all laugh-out-loud funny."

Heart in the Right Place by Carolyn Jourdan "fits under the 'fun' category, but I tell my staff it's a feel good book," writes Sheryl Cotleur of Book Passage, Corte Madera, Calif. "I laughed dozens of times as she describes the denizens of her small town in Tennessee who come in to see her father, the town's doctor. There is a more touching note to this memoir in the end, but it's quite Bill Bryson-like for much of the way. All in all it's wonderful."

Susan Weis, owner of breathe books, Baltimore, Md., shared a case of fiction reading meets nonfiction experience: "I really enjoyed Enlightenment for Idiots by Anne Cushman--yoga, India, relationships, gurus and book publishing all in one book! And a happy ending. It was well-written and delightful. I recently took a group to India and one of the women traveling with me brought this book along at my recommendation. She so enjoyed reading it as we drove through the mountains of Northern India. If someone can find enlightenment and joy in a 12-hour bus ride, the book must be fun!"

This has been an entertaining fun read ride. Thanks for all your great suggestions. I'll "finish" with some of the spirited recommendations from reader Ellen Stimson, who admits that "thinking about the fun books I always recommend was actually quite a bit of fun." Her suggestions:

  • Fun for the middle-aged who may have been a little disappointed somewhere along the way--Texasville by Larry McMurtry. One of the funniest American novels ever and particularly timely since it is written during the oil mess in the '70s when everyone in oil country was going broke. It takes regular old daily pathos and beautifully illustrates the humor that's there all the time.
  • Fun for thriller lovers--any of the Gabriel books by Daniel Silva. They are cleverly plotted with likable characters. They move along at a speedy pace and feel exciting the way those Ocean movies do.
  • Fun for women of a certain age--any of the Rhoda stories by Ellen Gilchrist. Rhoda Manning and her clan are a lot of clever happy brash women who rule their messy worlds and their macho men with the sugary charms of the South. These ladies are always thinking up something to do, and they remind women that teasing fun out of life is in our genetic code.
  • Fun for boys 9-12--the Peter Pan prequels by Dave Barry and Ridley Pierson. They and their parents will appreciate the exciting adventure filled with enough grownup humor to keep everybody happy.
  • Fun for young adult women who are always way too serious--the thrillingly trashy Penny Vincenzi trilogy about publishing. They are smart soapy sagas that will thrill your law student daughter the same way silly Aunt Betty's Real Crime! magazines did us.
  • Fun for older ladies--Jon Hassler's Dear James; sweet charming gentle kind of fun.

And my last word on fun reads? Well, maybe they're all fun, depending . . .

Can you say "eyes of the beholder," boys and girls?

A beautiful catalogue I received yesterday from Shaman Drum Bookshop, Ann Arbor, Mich., features an introductory note by Raymond McDaniel, who asks, "How long does it take to think a thought? An act of discrete cognition clocks in at just over 300 milliseconds . . . In that brief a period of time, your attention can move anywhere, to anything--given provocation, and occasion. Given ideas to which you can respond, pictures to assemble, people to imagine. Given, say, books--such as those we offer you here."

Sounds like the start of another infinite fun reads list to me.


One Reader's Key to the Imperial City

To be liberated into New York, where anything that exists can somehow be got at, is just as exhilarating as to be liberated into literature, to be handed a key to all those boxes of trapped words.

John Leonard wrote this sentence in one of his weekly "Private Lives" columns for the New York Times during the 1970s. As a young reader, isolated in the literary wilderness of a small Vermont town--and with no real experience of "the city"--I discovered in his Times essays one of my first windows with a view of what a life of reading and writing in the Imperial City might be like.

By that I do not mean I thought New York was some ethereal blend of Leonard's bittersweet musings and Woody Allen's Manhattan cinematography (via Gordon Willis, of course). After all, I'd seen Death Wish and Mean Streets, too. But reality is often beside the point when a reader searches for a new home; when a young man struggles to escape the web of what Sherwood Anderson called "the sadness of sophistication."

I simply mean that, once upon a time, Leonard's Imperial City had seemed familiar and irresistible to me, so the news of his death last week inevitaby triggered memories. I found myself immediately setting out on a book safari through the biblio-jungle of my personal library, aware that camouflaged somewhere among the shelves and stacks was a copy of Private Lives in the Imperial City, a collection of those Times columns published by Knopf in 1979.

As would be expected, reaction to the loss of this esteemed critic has been wide-ranging and profound. You can find literary eulogies at the New York Times or Salon or the Los Angeles Times or dozens of other publications for which he wrote or where writers who were influenced by him work now. They all have their own recollections.

And I have mine. After some detours and distractions, my book hunt was successful, and I reread Private Lives in the Imperial City because, ceremonially perhaps, I felt the pull of the past. News of the dead can do that to you sometimes. I never met John Leonard, but his was not a stranger's demise because I am his reader and his was never a stranger's voice.

Maybe the pull is something else as well. We seem to have written too many authors' obituary notes at Shelf Awareness this year--Studs Terkel, Michael Crichton, Tony Hillerman, Arthur C. Clarke, William F. Buckley, Hayden Carruth and more. As Leonard himself wrote, "We are also getting to be of an age when our friends are doing a lot of the dying; each one gone is a surprise, but the surprises now are more likely to arrive one a year than every six years or two decades. To deflect this bad news requires the sort of permanent stupidity even I am not clever enough to sustain."

Nor am I. Bad news turns out to be fuel for my imagination this time and I can't help thinking about the Imperial City again. I still live in Vermont, but I spend enough time in Manhattan now to wipe some, if not all, of the shine from that fantasy Big Apple of my youth. In fact, I suspect that John Leonard's priceless gift to me as a reader was to show how the Imperial City could be both tangible and imaginary. And now, as I flip through the pages of his book, my eyes fall upon a column, "Civility," that seems in itself a near perfect meeting of our minds:

When the news came last week that the English novelist Paul Scott had died, I was sorting books. I should have begun sorting my books--categorizing, alphabetizing, in some cases burning--twenty years ago, but I've pretended instead to subscribe to a principle of serendipity. That is, if I didn't know where to find the particular book I wanted, when I went to look I would find a different, better book, a book I hadn't thought of.

After considering, in classic Leonard style, literary mortality by recalling his serendipitous discovery of Scott and James M. Cain, he concludes, "I will arrange my books according to their civility. Nobody can touch them--these strangers, my friends."

So, thank you, John Leonard, for being one of the writers who, without ever knowing it, helped me "to be liberated into literature, to be handed a key to all those boxes of trapped words." The key, in fact, to the Imperial City.


'Fun Books'--Anthropomorphic & Otherwise

This week we'll be getting a little anthropomorphic on you, which seems appropriate in a year when Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain--narrated by Enzo the lab/terrier mix--showed up on so many indie bookseller staff recommend lists (and was a Shelf Awareness favorite several times over, too).

My own honor role of witty novels includes the brilliant tale of a rat evolving from gastronomic to intellectual consumer of books--Sam Savage's Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife. Here's a . . . taste: "My friend, given the chasm that separates all your experiences from all of mine, I can bring you no closer to that singular savor than by saying that books, in an average sort of way, taste the way coffee smells."

Richard Goldman and Mary Alice Gorman of Mystery Lovers Bookshop, Oakmont, Pa., confess that their choice "has to be Three Bags Full: A Sheep Detective Story by Leonie Swann. Here's our review: A sparkling and original debut in which a flock of sheep investigate the murder of their beloved shepherd George. Yep, you're going to have to buy into talking sheep but after all, George did read to them every night. Unfortunately, he read them mostly romance novels so the sheep have a somewhat unbalanced view of human life in which women mostly named Pamela are constantly fighting off the advances of mustachioed men named Rodney. Once you make that leap you're in for a treat as each, led by Miss Maple--the wisest of them--makes their own contribution to solving the puzzle. Swann's cleverness in translating the nature of sheep into their behavior as sleuths is a marvel and I was truly sorry to come to the end of this totally captivating book."

My Shelf Awareness colleague Marilyn Dahl recommends Lucky Dog by Mark Barrowcliffe: "I know, talking dogs, enough already. But take it from a cat-lover, this one works. It's the kind of book you read and then give as a gift, saying, 'Trust me.'"

Fiction can also meet fauna for bookstore sidelines buyers.

"That's some catch, that Catch-22," says Yossarian in Joseph Heller's classic novel (and another book on my list). But if you think that's some catch, consider Rubberbone Press, which makes "Literachew for the Pupulation." Owner Tracey Ciciora responded to my call for fun titles by asking, "How about fun fiction for you and your pup? Catch-22 and the new 'fun' little sideline--Fetch-22! Curl up with your dog and toss a good book!"

A couple of years ago, Tracey "was attempting to write a children's book--well, long story short, I had this new puppy by my side, and the Tale turned on its Tail: rubber squeaky toy books for dogs! Even though it unfolded into a product line rather than a book, my intentions have always been about literacy, children's self-esteem building through learning, and being in support of the entrepreneurial dream. My hope is that the product serves as a means to not only offer an exclusive product to independents with a nice return, but to be involved and support the different communities as well."

Gliding away from the anthropomorphic, while giving due notice to our feathered friends, Laura Hansen of Bookin' It bookstore, Little Falls, Minn., wonders, "Did no one recommend Nicholas Drayson's A Guide to the Birds of East Africa? A men's club version of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series filled with miscalculations, mishaps, misnomers, missteps, misgivings, birds, betting men, and--sigh!--a happy ending."

Finally, in the spirit of an election year, equal time should be given to animating inanimate objects. Gavin Grant of Small Beer Press suggests one from the home team: "Couch by Benjamin Parzybok, which we are publishing in November. The tag line is 'Three guys carry a couch, save the world' (or as someone said at the Brooklyn Book Fest, 'Tolkein with a couch')." Or, as notes on the back cover warn, "The couch--huge and orange--won't let them put it down."

Since we'll be separating fun fiction from nonfiction in the final installment--and revealing the complete list--perhaps we should preview all that with some thoughts from our bibliophilic rodent, Firmin, who observed, "I had read a great many of the books under FICTION before I halfway understood what the sign meant and why certain books had been placed under it. I had thought I was reading the history of the world. Even today I must constantly remind myself, sometimes by means of a rap on the head, that Eisenhower is real while Oliver Twist is not."