Sales at sporting goods, hobby, book and music stores declined just 0.2% last year, compared to a 6.2% decline for overall retail and food services sales, according to advance estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau Thursday morning.

Only health and personal care stores, up 3.3% and food services and drinking places, up 0.7% fared better, according to the estimates. The estimates are the earliest released by Census and will likely be revised up or down in coming months, but confirm anecdotal and proprietary estimates that indicated a solid upswing in consumer spending during the key month of December over the same month a year earlier. 

In December, total retail sales reached $353.0 billion, a decrease of 0.3% (±0.5%) from November, but 5.4% (±0.5%) above December 2008, according to estimates adjusted for seasonal variation and holiday and trading-day differences, but not for price changes. Sales by nonstore retailers, which includes online and catalogue retailers, rose by $2.4 billion, or 10.3% in December over December 2008. Gasoline stations sales were up 33.6% (±1.5%) from December 2008.

Total sales for the 12 months of 2009 were down 6.2% (±0.2%) from 2008, or down 4.9% after excluding motor vehicle and parts sales, but including gasoline sales.

Total sales for the October through December 2009 quarter were up 1.9% (±0.3%) from the same period a year ago after an upward revision of the October/November estimate.

December sales were up solidly from a year earlier after adjusting for seasonal variations and holiday and trading-day differences. For instance sales at sporting goods, hobby, book and music stores rose by $327 million to $7.41 billion, up 4.6% from December 2008. Sales at clothing and clothing accessories stores rose by $833 million, or 5% over the same month a year ago.

Interestingly, sales by electronics and applicance stores were essentially flat in December from a year ago despite media reports of strong sales of large TV sets, electronic readers and smartphones.