Ginger Handly checks her phone from her desk at the Friends of the Library Bookstore at the Walnut Creek Library in Walnut Creek in September. Handly volunteers at the bookstore to raise money from the sales for children's programs at the library. (Harika Maddala/Bay City News)

The last week before Christmas brings memories of last-ditch runs to the nearest bookstore, which was never far.

They were the final refuge of the holiday procrastinator and an odd heart-pumping highlight to the season, when — oh darn — you had to go through shelf after shelf to match the right gift to the right reader.

And if you accidentally bought an extra book that happened to be more to your liking than, say, your Uncle Kenneth’s … well, maybe it would “accidentally” get lost at the bottom of a bag, and he’d have to settle for a box of candy.

Then you’d have something to read on Dec. 26.

The two-decade drawdown of the bookstore as a cultural mainstay is real, no doubt, thanks mostly to the swarming convenience of the internet and changing entertainment tastes, especially among younger people as pursuits like online gaming have exploded in popularity.

But by the end of 2021, sales bounced back to levels not seen since before 2019, according to the U.S. Census’ monthly retail trade survey, hitting $1.2 billion in sales in September.

Like vinyl music and newspapers, bookstores have been cultural mainstays for so long, they likely will never go away. And, after a serious plunge in numbers from 1998 (12,151 U.S. bookstores) to 2019 (6,045), the numbers are leveling off, at least since 2016 or 2017.

And – lucky for us – California is still king when it comes to bookstores.

Though California is still the most populous state in the union, numbers from the 2020 Census confirm the Golden State had more bookstores in 2019 (605) the any other state. It also employed the most workers (7,763).

Bookstores in the U.S. employed 61,068 workers in 2019, with $1.1 billion in payroll (averaging only $17,660 per employee, per year — but who ever got rich working at a bookstore?). Hawaii had the highest average payroll per employee — $26,007, but the second-worst ratio of residents per bookstore — 101,134 people.

On average, there was one bookstore per 54,299 people in the U.S. in 2019 — a bookstore for every Novato or West Sacramento.

California’s next-door neighbor Nevada had the nation’s lowest number of bookstores per capita — one for every 110,006 residents. Meaning that may not be the worst place to open a new bookstore.

Another sign that bookstores aren’t giving up the ghost: Despite a 50 percent decline in bookstores between 1997 and 2019, sales increased from $12.4 billion in 1997, to $16.8 billion in 2007. That dipped again by 2019 ($9.1 billion), but still is far from insignificant.

About 90 percent of that $10 million in 2017 was for trade books and textbooks. The next 10 percent were religious books, mass market paperbacks, professional books, and others.

In 2017, bookstores still sold more books, dollarwise, than electronic shopping and mail-order houses, warehouse clubs and super centers, other direct selling establishments and general merchandise stores, supermarkets and grocery stores, and other miscellaneous stores.

In addition to the 6,143 bookstores with employees, there were also 8,109 non-employee bookstores in the U.S. in 2018. Which sounds small until you hear those non-employee stores generated $339.8 million in 2018 sales — an average of $41,901 each (though nearly 30 percent earned less than $5,000 in 2018). Of all states, Arkansas reported the nation’s highest average annual sales — $108,596 — per employer bookstore.

All these numbers just confirm bookstores are still alive and well … and waiting for the holiday procrastinators right now. There’s still time; don’t let them down.