Each year at this time we retail folks hear words of sympathy from non-retail folks who imagine we must hate the holiday rush. Truth be told, this is my FAVORITE retail time of year. It’s exhausting, yes. But I love it! Holiday "RUSH" indeed!
Before you send for the men with the white coats, let me to explain myself. During the holiday season, my job as a children’s book buyer/children’s section manager/children’s author events coordinator is considerably less stressful (in that slow burn sort of way…) because I’m not trying to juggle as many things. I don’t have to make time for lengthy visits with sales reps. I don’t have to fret much about author events, as we do scant few (if any) in December and most publicists hold back, knowing we booksellers don’t have time for them at this time of the year. I still fill school orders for teachers with purchase orders to burn, but these tend to come in less frequently during this home stretch, and with a lot less urgency.
During these December days my job consists primarily of three activities: shelving books, selling books, reordering books. Lather, rinse, repeat. I’m still inundated with e-mail, but anyone sending me messages nowadays knows I’ll be even slower than usual to reply. And they understand that. (Or at least they will now…)
In addition to the "less juggling=less stress" reason, I also enjoy the holiday push because it brings an exhilarating sort of energy to the store that simply doesn’t exist during the other months of the year. Because all of our booksellers are working flat-out these days, tending to the needs of customers, wrapping gifts at the speed of light, tag-teaming one another at the cash register, we all feel very much like we’re part of a team — much more so than on our slower days. It’s gratifying to feel like we’re all working together, and working HARD, to keep the wheels of our beloved machine running, keep people happy, and go home feeling good about what we’ve done.
And just what have we done that’s so gratifying? Sent people home with wonderful books! Hand-picked titles for Milo and Suzy, Hector and Lola, Great-Aunt Stephanie and Grandpa Dave, anonymous kids receiving charitable donations. And oh the praise! Oh, the countless thank-you’s and "Wow! You really know your stuff" and "What would we do without your store? You guys are the BEST!" (my personal favorite).
Of course, there are the handful of folks who make us feel like our time would be better spent, say, shoveling coal than selling literature. These are the people who reject each of the 20 books you show them, either because they feel a general dissatisfaction with everything or because they have something specific and nonexistent in mind. By this point in the holiday season, though, most of the shoppers fitting this description have already flown south (i.e. to the malls). In their place come the frantic but friendly souls who will buy almost ANYTHING (making for swift, satisfying transactions) and their seemingly evil counterparts, the kind who are simply NOT going to be happy with you. The latter adopt attitudes like the one I was met with on the phone this morning, when I told a women that, sorry, we were out of a book she wanted and therefore couldn’t get a copy to her today, the date by which she apparently needed it. In a very unfriendly tone she snipped, "You’re going to force me to go to Barnes and Noble, aren’t you?" which is a weirdly nasty statement to which I wasn’t really sure how to reply…
For the most part, though, exhausting customers are in short supply at our store these days (thank goodness). What’s NOT in short supply is snow. Flakes and mounds and mountains of it. Last week we got slammed with a snowstorm that turned my usual 40-minute drive home into a 4-hour ordeal. Over the weekend, when Gareth and I were out of town, we got hit with snow again. Then with sleet. Then with the detritus of passing snowplows, the accumulation of which formed semi-solid ice hill at the end of our driveway. The ice-encrusted sight that greeted us upon our return from the Southland (stay tuned to find out just where…) made for a back-breaking adventure when we dug out on Tuesday morning. We were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves until Mother Nature decided to dump on us again yesterday, leaving us with still more inches of the inescapable white stuff, and leaving the parking lot behind our bookstore in absolute turmoil, as no one could see the lines that create the boundary around a parking space.
For we New England booksellers, pre-Christmas snow can function as both friend and foe. In small doses it puts everyone into the festive, holiday, spend-like-there’s-no-tomorrow spirit. But in large doses like the ones we’ve had this past week, it can keep customers away and considerably limit a store’s available parking space, which tends already to be at a premium. When this happens, leaving us with slower traffic levels at the store, we catch up on our shelving, find time to relax a bit, fortify ourselves with Christmas cookies, and try not to imagine that our gift-panicked customers might be curled up at their home computers, giving their business to online retailers not affiliated with our bricks and mortar. (Sigh…)
But we beat on, boats against the current. Or shovels against the snowdrifts, I should say. As we do, I treasure the moments when our customers hobble out of the store, their arms laden with text-filled treasures, their faces sporting "I just checked every name off my list!" expressions. It’s satisfying to imagine the worlds their kids are about to discover, to know the stories that will flare up to consume their school-free afternoons (but probably only after they’ve run down the batteries in their other gifts from Santa).
It’s satisfying, too, to reenact your own childhood fantasies — your sleuthing dreams, let’s say — as part of your daily bookselling routine. Here’s how it happens: A shifty-eyed mother sidles up to you, slips a book and credit card into your hand, and glances at you out of the corner of her eye. Her lips barely moving, she whispers, "I don’t want my son to see this…" then walks purposefully in the opposite direction, her face betraying no hint of your (non)conversation, her son oblivious to the exchange. Five minutes later you watch as she leaves your store, a Wellesley Booksmith bag in one hand, her still-believes-in-Santa son in the other.
Alex Rider, eat your heart out.
And have a happy holiday.
You got every nuance, every minute of exhilaration, and every customer exactly right- I love the Holiday Rush!