Keystone Cops Behind the Counter

Elizabeth Bluemle -- December 16th, 2016

dreamstime_xl_14826546We are well and truly in it, aren’t we? That last mad dash as we all realize how close the holidays are, and how much there is to do. Bricks-and-mortar retailers must set aside our own personal lists of gift-shopping; if we haven’t done it by now, it’s not happening.

If you want to know the most critical — or most crazy — time in a bookseller’s year,* it is the two hours before 11:45 am on the Thursday morning before the holiday season’s last gift-buying weekend. This precious morning is our last chance to ensure that the giant weekend, usually the peak of a bricks-and-mortar store’s year, so vital to its survival, won’t catch us with our pants down.

In our region, there are three book distributors we use for overnight deliveries: Baker & Taylor, Bookazine, and Ingram (listed in alphabetical order; we love you all). Each has a slightly different cut-off time to ensure next-day bookstore arrival, and each has different stock and slightly different strengths. The earliest of these deadlines is noon, which means that our entire order must be ready by that time, because if the early-deadline warehouse is the only one that carries a customer’s special order, we’ve got to get that order in the queue first thing. And it’s a whopper of an order.

We send one huge order to the first warehouse of choice; whatever it doesn’t have cascades to a new order we send to the second warehouse, and then the rest gets sent to the third.

If you wander unsuspectingly into a bookstore during Zero Hour, here’s what you’re likely to see: four people typing madly on keyboards, eyes darting back and forth between screens and sheafs of paper. That’s because we are frantically scanning sales reports, emails, and inventory numbers to see:

  • what we’re out of
  • what we’re low on
  • what we aren’t immediately low on, but what publishers and distributors have told us they’re running out of
  • which gift categories that especially pop this time of year need replenishing (sports, novelty books, humor, comics, cookbooks, calendars, history, biography, poetry, classics, coffee table books, expensive nature guides, deluxe and boxed set versions of popular titles, etc.)
  • important volumes missing from popular series, especially firsts and lasts in series
  • books that have just been reviewed in the New York Times, or mentioned on NPR, or covered in local media
  • favorite staff picks we are recommending like crazy
  • steady sellers you can never be out of (for instance, Raina Telgemeier, I’m looking at you)
  • unusual books that make your store unique
  • general sections that are unaccountably understocked
  • probably eight more categories I can’t think of

It’s not that we haven’t been preparing for this order all week, but sales volume is so abnormally high every day that a book we had 12 copies of on Tuesday might be gone by Thursday, so everything has to be re-assessed on Thursday morning.

It’s also the hour we are double-checking customer special orders to make sure we’ve ordered or re-ordered any that

  • arrived damaged
  • didn’t arrive due to short shipments
  • came in off the website that morning

It’s a lot to fit into a couple of hours. And customers unwittingly walk right into this insanity and assume we are able to help recommend books, locate books, wrap books, chitchat, activate gift cards, and make change. Silly wabbits. What’s weird is, we actually ARE able to do that. Somehow, booksellers grow four heads and six hands, and we multitask the dickens out of that Thursday morning. We run around the store and back to our computers, looking like Keystone Cops. If only our Fitbits could log the intensity!

When we absolutely cannot risk taking a second longer, we hit F6, our electronic order button. It’s hard to convey the tense, finger-drumming anxiety of finally sending off the order. Today, Flying Pig staffer Laura and I held vigil while the first order went through. We ordered first from the later-deadline warehouses because we get the best terms from them, which meant that the last cascaded order, which had most of the obscure special orders still on it, HAD to make it in by noon. The first order processed quickly, but the second order stalled out midway, taking minutes to finally confirm.

It was 11:58 when we hit Send on that last order, to the warehouse with the noon deadline, and it was agonizing to watch the seconds tick by. It seemed to take forever, and when the computer’s clock ticked 12:00 and the order still hadn’t finished processing, we slumped. At 12:02, we got confirmation that the order had sent, but it seemed too late. A call to the warehouse and a short wait on hold for a very helpful customer service agent brought good news. “Your order should go out today,” she said brightly. “It came in under the wire by two seconds.” Two seconds. Those seconds have the power to affect a whole weekend’s worth — and therefore, to some extent because of this particular weekend’s importance, the whole year’s worth — of bookselling.

*I wonder if this Thursday madness is true for most bookstores, and if it is, is it different for large stores with a large staff and multiple buyers? I’d throw that out as a question to my colleagues, but I know that, like me, they are too busy to answer it.

One thought on “Keystone Cops Behind the Counter

  1. Carol B. Chittenden

    Ah yes. Now that you mention it, I realize again how glad I am to have retired from this madness! Not that it stops me from adding to the buyer’s burden of ramming all my title requests into the order at the drop of a hat.

    And for the first time in 30 years, all my gifts (more than two, for a change!) are acquired, wrapped, and shipped. (Smugness will probably get me 10 to life among New England booksellers.)

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