Lines at the cash register. Shoppers two or three deep at the shelves. Not enough staff to help all the people needing advice about their selections. For many, this is holiday shopping hell. For those of us with retail stores, it’s a heavenly time of year. For booksellers, it’s the time when the paper book reigns supreme as a gift to readers. Why give a piece of plastic that will allow the recipient to download a book when you can give a hefty tome that feels (and is) real? Why not show your thoughtfulness by choosing a book that suits the reader, instead of saying, “Get whatever you want”? Why not give yourself the pleasure of watching a friend or family member open your gift, exclaiming “I’ve been wanting to read this”?
The 2011 holiday season was pretty stressful in my store; the nearby Borders had recently closed, and I had no idea how to plan. I expected increased volume, but how much? And what books would be the most desired? Every locale in the country has different preferences, so nationwide best seller lists or reviews can only be a guide. A bookseller has to know her patrons and order to suit their tastes. I knew my regular customers, even those who appear infrequently, and what they would likely be looking for. But what about those just discovering that there was another bookstore in town, and used to shopping in a huge chain store offering almost unlimited options? Would they be disappointed and not return? Would they be willing to wait a few days while a book was ordered?
December 2011 was a month of almost daily book ordering. There were frequently requested books I had overlooked, and special requests for more unusual titles. The biggest problem, not a bad one to have, was running out of the most popular titles and having to restock. Experience is a wonderful teacher, and this year I was a much better “guesser”; ordering has been twice weekly, mostly for special requests and normal restocking.
This year’s holiday season has been even busier than last year, but I have had more time to enjoy the bustle and relish my favorite part of the job, helping people choosing books. For most of the year, customers are choosing books for themselves; at this time, they are most often buying for others, and the process of helping is different. (We will revert to the buyer and reader being the same person next month, when all of those gift certificates are redeemed!) When the shopper has a list of requested books or has determined on their own what the recipient would like, helping is just a matter if locating the books or placing an order. Other shoppers spend a great deal of time scanning the shelves and reading book jackets or even the first few paragraphs, determining on their own what choice is best, and often buying more than they intended as they discover a wealth of good reading. No complaints there, but one wonders what would (will?) happen when physical bookstores are gone and this “browsing” is no longer possible.
The more difficult customers are those who are not readers themselves, but are looking for gifts for their peculiar friends or family members who entertain themselves by sitting in silence with no visual stimulation other than letters on a piece of paper. They tend to wander through the aisles as if lost in a strange country. They sincerely want to make an appropriate choice, but they make it very clear (almost bragging) that they don’t read and thus have no familiarity with what might appeal. Fortunately, they often know more than they think they do about the recipient’s tastes and interests, and several well-chosen questions by the bookseller will yield enough information to make a selection. The gratitude from this stranger in a strange land is one of the benefits of the season.
The non-readers seriously shopping for books are only part of the broad spectrum of the consuming public that finds its way into book shops at this season. I often comment that I love having a book shop not only because I love books, but because the customers are the best; they respect the merchandise and the staff and are shopping for what they love. During the holiday rush, the book shop becomes more like any other shop. Shelves always require a certain amount of straightening, but now those who carefully replace books after scanning them are supplemented by those who put (toss?) them in the nearest empty spot, on top of others or on the floor. One hears from across the shop complaints that there is “nothing I want here,” although the speaker has walked through in two minutes and refused help. There is a disgusted sneer in response to, “I’m sorry, we don’t carry DVDs or CDs”; it is, after all, a book shop. Magazines are sold at the newsstand around the corner, and I don’t try to compete with their business. Often these shoppers are those just going from store to store looking for gift ideas; their criticism or lack of patience is more with themselves than the shop, but it can be irritating. Amazingly, these same people often come back in the following months, less stressed by the need to complete their shopping, and willing to explore a shop they hurried through in December.
The longer hours a shop of any kind requires at the holidays means limited time for one’s own shopping. This year, I really “shopped local”; everyone is getting books. At least, thanks to more experience in ordering, I will not have to commit the sin I did last year. Having run out of the Steve Jobs biography, and with my supplier out of stock, and really wanting to give it to my nephew – I (blush) bought it for him at Wal-Mart.
The holiday season from the other side of the counter really is a joy, and not just because it accounts for a big portion of the yearly business. Despite the long hours and minor irritations, the spirit of the season is all around, from the decorations to the music to the happy shoppers who are pleased that you had just what they wanted. If you didn’t do it this year, I recommend that you bypass some of that on-line ordering next year and get out with the crowds, in the local shops, and enjoy the hustle and bustle. For this year, I wish everyone Happy Holidays.