We’ve always been surprised by how good business is around Easter. You’d think Valentine’s Day would be the stronger bookselling holiday, but the Easter Bunny brings better sales than St. Valentine and St. Patrick put together. Some of it is likely due to the optimism New Englanders feel in springtime; those newly sunny, springy days bring out happy shoppers. And some of it may be due to parents, these healthy Vermonters, wanting to pop something in their kids’ Easter baskets that doesn’t contain sugar.
For 18 years, we’ve had ads or a signboard for the store that says, Fill Their Baskets with Books. When there’s time, those words on the signboard are nestled in a festive drawing of a basket with eggs and a couple of books. When there isn’t, just the words suffice.
In the past, my concerns about the sign were only about whether it might be too Christian. After all, of course, many families don’t celebrate Easter Sunday. And even though the Easter Bunny is as far removed symbolically from the religious Easter story in the national imagination as candy canes are from the traditional Christmas story, it is still a Christian holiday. Occasionally, we’ve chosen a signboard that mentions both Easter and Passover, but Passover isn’t a gift-giving holiday like Hanukkah is, and we have never sold many Passover books beyond family Haggadahs and a few picture and board books, so it hasn’t been too worrisome to highlight Easter as a holiday with a big place for books.
So I was surprised when one of our staff members mentioned her discomfort with our sign because it might tip off kids old enough to read to the fact that parents, um, help out the Easter Bunny. As a kid who clung to a belief in Santa for a long time, I am sympathetic to the charms of childhood magic and am happy to uphold and protect children’s delight and belief in that magic. The current signboard has no images and doesn’t mention Easter at all; the words “fill their baskets with books” could simply mean, “fill their shopping baskets with books,” but its proximity to Easter is definitely suspect. On the other hand, it seems pretty easy to come up with explanations that don’t shatter the story. Perhaps the Easter Bunny solicits parental help for the non-egg, non-candy portions of Easter gifting, especially since it doesn’t know a child’s reading interests. Unlike Santa, who has armies of elves gathering intel, the Easter Bunny hops alone.
Yesterday, our bookseller who is uncomfortable with the sign received a phone call from a customer, a lovely person whose family shops often at the store and prefaced her concerns with the sign by saying how much they love our store. The customer’s daughter is nine, and though the child hasn’t seen our signboard yet, her mom is worried that she would read it driving by the store and begin to doubt. “It’s not a nice sign,” said our bookseller to us privately, and that gave me serious pause. Is it really not a nice sign? Aren’t there so many ads about Easter on TV, and so many displays in markets and drugstores that would send an even less subtle message about who is responsible for the goodies that show up on lawns and in houses across the country? Is our little sign really likely to be the big spoiler? I suppose that doesn’t really matter. I’m not responsible for the choices other advertisers make, but I am responsible for my own.
Perhaps personal bias makes me less sensitive about the Easter issue. I loved Easter as a kid — the hard fist-sized sugar eggs you could peer into, with miniature scenes inside! the malted milk robin’s eggs with their pale, pretty speckles; the Peeps, which I preferred slightly stale and chewy; the bright oblong candy eggs that held a center of spun fluffy sugar; the sugar sugar sugar! and the messy happy egg-dyeing. I clearly remember the eerie magic of going to my grandmother’s little house in Phoenix and searching for the baskets the Easter Bunny had hidden there — always behind the bedroom doors — for my sister and me. But frankly, the Easter Bunny didn’t rate like Santa. I was not strongly attached to the notion of the giant bunny and didn’t feel it had any particular interest in me as a person, unlike the jolly red-suited grandfather-type who invited a letter filled with my hopes and dreams once a year. And so perhaps I am not as attuned to sensitivities around this holiday.
Maybe we do need to rethink our signboard. Perhaps for many children, Easter Bunny magic might be overturned by the suggestion that parents help out with some of the goodies. It’s hard to let go of the sign altogether, though. Since books are such welcome additions to Easter baskets, but not necessarily intuitive ones, we have always felt that a little suggestion brings in a lot of business. But is it worth alienating families? I don’t want to contribute to less magic in the world. One of the great joys of bookselling — of being human — is bringing delight and surprise to the lives of little people.
I suspect there’s a better tag line out there that might serve the purpose with less risk of spoiling the surprise — and I know which bookseller I’m going to ask to write it.