Back in the summer, I wrote a little post called Dear Parents, with love from your bookseller, with some general suggestions for making the most of a trip to the bookstore with children in tow. I’d like to add to that list a bit, with a holiday-themed version on parenting advice from your friendly neighborhood bookshop and its slightly footsore staff, who are currently operating on equal parts caffeine, the broken bits of decorated sugar cookies, and dreams of …. well, sleep. I will call this the “Naughty and Nice” customer list, and allow you to choose your allegiance accordingly.
Let it be known that:
While bookstores are beacons of truth and inclusion, at this time of year, we must prioritize the needs of our youngest little reindeer over all else. There is to be no audible discussion in our stores of “believing” or “not believing.” We cannot provide you with new, creative Elf on the Shelf ideas, Mensch on a Bench inspiration, or hear your “when my kids found out” stories. Come back later, like in January, when we have lots of time to chat.
Good Elves don’t say OUT LOUD that they are shopping for “stocking stuffers.” Many of our young customers would be shocked that some people think that these items are purchased in a store. If you need small sized items or trinkets, just say so. We have those. We spend days at gift shows in the summer agonizing over those purchases, hours more figuring out how to merchandise them, untold weeks ahead trying to sort out the backorders and get the invoices paid correctly. How you choose to gift them is up to you. (By the way, if you’ve chosen two dozen small items and want them all wrapped individually while you wait in a busy shop… well, may your tree drop its needles early.)
Naughty, devious elves use brick and mortar stores to browse, then purchase items online from some nameless behemoth — sometimes even when they ARE RIGHT INSIDE THE STORE. I have it on good authority that Santa can see you if you do this, and he is not amused. This is not a risk I would be willing to take.
If a shopkeeper offers to gift wrap your purchases, there are really only two answers: “Yes, thank you very much!” or “No, thank you.” If you only need a few items wrapped, please just indicate that — we don’t need the reasons, the full planogram of your color-coordinated wrapping system, or to hear (for the 70th time today) that you “won’t remember what’s inside.” (Hint: that’s why we use Post-It notes.) The fact that “Santa doesn’t wrap” at your house is opening the door to all kinds of questions and concerns for those young customers listening who DO expect wrapped gifts from the big guy under the tree. Furthermore, why are Santa’s gifts even here at the store?
Trips to the children’s bookstore during the holidays are a treat for children, just as they are the rest of the year. Our shelves are full of tempting items, there is a sense of abundance and possibility, and the flying scraps of gift wrap and the smell of warm cider (we hosted “Cider Monday” this year to distract from online nonsense, and it was really fun) all combine to make kids just want stuff. They will ask. They might wheedle. Some might even whine. We don’t hear it, but you may get irritated. Here’s the thing: you can say more than just “no.” You can show them how to make a list for Santa, then take them to the post office and mail it.* You can include them in the selection of gifts for other people, and you can participate in our giving tree. You can give them an expense account for their sibling gifts. You can let them earn “holiday dollars” by doing chores or acts of charity. You can include them in the spirit of the holidays in so many ways, and we are right here with you. What doesn’t work, in our opinion, is to answer a crying child with the words “I knew I shouldn’t bring you,” or even worse “OK, just get that” in anger or frustration. Let them be elves, too.
Nice customer elves support their local businesses year round as they are able, and realize that their community is richer for the contributions of well-run small businesses. Not-so-nice customers show up asking for price matching with big box or online shopping competitors. Interestingly, these are the same customers asking “where did that other store down the street go… the one we were at LAST YEAR?” They were great… we were such loyal customers…. we found lots of cool stuff there (that we bought online.) You know, it’s a shame they are not here, because we would have spent a lot of money there.” Of course, there is no reason in the world that customers need to support a business just because they are small, or local, or independent — unless they find value there. But if they do, and they choose not to support that business with their dollars…. well then, even Santa knows that we get what we vote for, and what we chose not to vote for by not showing up.
As deputized elves, all our of bookstore staff want our customers to have the happiest of holidays. We love the idea of our wrapped packages under the tree, our gift suggestions turning out to be “just the thing,” and lots of children spending their winter vacation with their noses inside a new book. We can do our part to make this holiday special — you do yours, too.
* Here in Indiana we have the only town in the world that bears the name of Santa Claus. Because of this popular name, the post office receives thousands of letters to Santa from all over the world each year. A group of volunteers known as Santa’s Elves ensures each child receives a reply from Santa Claus; this tradition has been in existence since at least 1914. Every year, the post office also creates a special Christmas hand-cancellation pictorial postmark for use during December, which also attracts mail from all over the world. The pictorial postmark is chosen each year from submissions from art students at nearby Heritage Hills and and South Spencer High Schools.