“Are you eligible for any discounts today? Are you a teacher, or perhaps a grandparent?”
We train our staff at the store to begin each transaction with these phrases, both to underscore our commitment to local schools but also to politely sidestep the awkwardness of asking a customer if they are old enough to have grandchildren. The discount for grandma and grandpa is small — only 10% — but its acknowledgment almost always elicits a proud smile, and we follow up with a request to see pictures while we’re wrapping their gifts. There’s usually a rather complicated list: this group in Chicago, this bunch here in town, and one or two in…. somewhere too far away to see frequently. Often, too, there’s the grandchildren that live with just mom, or just dad, or some calendarized combination that also includes stepparents and their children, all of whom have birthdays and special days carefully noted.
Grandparents, unless they are drafted for summer child care duty, are usually shopping without kids in tow, and have time to consider their selections more deliberately. Sadly (to me) there’s a lot of texting for permission from the daughter or daughter-in-law before a purchase is finalized, with the accompanying waiting period for a response because “they’re all so terribly busy, you know.” There’s a complicated dance of decision-making to choreograph, including solving the mystery of what the child might like, the parent approval process, and then the leveling of gifts that occurs for siblings — either “a little something” for the brothers and sisters to open in a birthday package, or a careful weighing of cost and significance of gifts when they are sent for a more general occasion (did you know that the 4th of July is now a gift-giving holiday? Me either! All Hail Independence Day, and pass the red, white and blue curling ribbon).
Grandparents, who are largely removed from the day to day challenges and frustrations of child raising, are more aspirational in their gift giving. The child who scribbles on walls is an artist, the one who deconstructs the vacuum cleaner is an engineer, and the collection of pots of pans on the kitchen floor surrounded by discarded spoons and sticks is evidence of a musician on a break between sets. Gifts must be equally individualized and special, reflecting all that potential and all the pride in the child who is “such a good reader, you know, (insert HP reference here.)” There’s an opportunity for us booksellers to hear about the customer’s own favorite stories, both those they read themselves and those they selected for their children. Many times, as we wander toward the picture book shelves, grandparents will offer hesitantly that they “just don’t keep up with children’s books, anymore… ” and look a bit overwhelmed. My favorite question in reply “what book do you remember reading to your kids SO MANY TIMES you could recite it?” usually brings a smile and the universal story of the child who demanded the same book every night at bedtime, and sat bolt upright in bed if the parent dared to skip a page or even a paragraph, demanding the story be read “just so.” Priming the storybook pump with Ferdinand, Officer Buckle, and the Sneetches is usually all it takes to start those stacks of books, with the offer of a shopping basket quickly to follow.
Sometimes, to my great dismay, the grandparent waves aside the huge wall of books at the shop, with a “oh, we bought them a Kindle last year, what else do you have that’s new and popular?” Equally dismaying is the all-too-frequent “Well, we bought them a Kindle, but they don’t use it much. Kids just don’t have time to read, you know.” I wonder, silently, how the first sentence might be causing the second to occur… Actually, I don’t wonder at all, but sometimes we can start with a science kit or an art project, and then suggest an accompanying title “just for fun.”
There is one part of any grandparent’s purchase that is so important to me, for very personal reasons, and takes the transaction from the ordinary to special. After books are selected and totaled, I pull out my fountain pen from the drawer beneath the register, and offer it for inscription. “Would you like to write a note inside, and maybe the date?” As the only child of older parents, three of my four grandparents were gone before I was even born. My Nana, who lived with us off and on until I was 10, was a great reader and gifter of books. She was a poet, who liked to write on the backs of receipts and shopping lists, and on saved pieces of butcher paper torn from the big counter roll at the town grocer. I remember finding bits of notes and poetry like discarded tissue throughout our house, all of which were boxed and sent to the family homestead when my family was transferred overseas. While we were gone, the homestead burned down, and all of that ephemera gone in a cloud of ash. My Nana died shortly after, succumbing to lung disease which she always called “the wheezes” while coughing softly into a lavender scented handkerchief. Everything tangible about my precious grandmother was gone, except for those lines she would write in spidery cursive inside every book she gave me for birthdays and Christmas. “To my dearest child, on this special day.” Her handwriting is the only part of her I can still hold in my hands, even though I will always hold her in my heart, and often (particularly while selecting ripe peaches or watermelon) in my head. Every time I watch a grandparent write inside a book, I smell lavender and see Nana’s nod of approval as she finds my childhood self, “so very busy, you know” but curled up with a favorite book.