What It’s Like in the Trenches

Josie Leavitt - December 22, 2011

There comes a time when every bookseller realizes they have run out of time to order books at the holidays. I love this moment. It takes the pressure off. Gone are the frantic stock checks to see which distributor has the coveted special order for a customer. The last few days before this moment are some of the most intense for booksellers.
Every phone call or customer request during the week of Christmas and Hanukkah is a sprint. Gone is the leisurely ordering pace of other months. I found myself sending two, sometimes three orders a day to ensure securing a particular title and delivery when I need it. Some books are so hot (Plenty and Death Comes to Pemberley, to mention a few) that when they turn up in a stock check you order immediately to get the book rather than waiting until the end of the day and risk losing out because it’s now out of stock.
As I left work yesterday, Elizabeth was on hold with Baker and Taylor checking on a CD for South Pacific while making a note about just how to get the Complete Peanuts 1963-1966 that seemed to only be out of stock right now, but was in stock when the order was placed. It’s a very frustrating situation to explain to customers that stock levels fluctuate constantly. I tried in vain to explain to someone why the said Peanuts book was now really hard to get fast. She made it clear she didn’t really care about that. What she cared about, and rightly so, was when her book was going to come in.
I did not tear my hair out, but rather called the small publisher and asked about shipping. I was told I had just missed the cut-off for standard free shipping to get to me in time, so I had to do express, and order 25 more books that I wasn’t sure I could sell. But it was that or getting half my usual discount. Every day is like this. Over and over. As we help customers find books for every member of their family we are still putting out other fires. Where is the missing box from the distributor? Why am I being told I missed the order cut-off for next day shipping by two minutes? Why does the cash drawer that was perfect this morning now only contains twenties, five dollar bills, and dimes? We are so busy there is literally not enough time in the day to get it all done. That would explain why Elizabeth toils in the store well past dinner; it’s the only time she can think and get organized.
Oh, add to this chaos of calling in the myriad of special orders and the day can fly by at an alarmingly fast rate. It’s often 4 pm when there is a lull and all of us booksellers look at each other and someone says, “Have you eaten?” and we all realize we’re starving. Pizza is ordered and we snack on Christmas cookies and coffee while we wait for the delivery. No one has eaten since breakfast. It feels a little bit like a siege, but a very fun one. It didn’t help that the local newspaper had a front page article about a book we only had two of and said we were one of the two bookstores in the state that had the book. We were able to get 10 books and in the span of two hours we already had 15 special orders for it. We allocated the last stock in the warehouse and will keep our fingers crossed come Friday that the books actually come in. Had we had a week’s heads up, we could have brought in enough copies for all the folks who wanted one.
We are ready for anything. In one minute the store can go from three people browsing to completely full. And it stays full for hours. The two main registers are flying and the back computer in the office is also used to process sales. Customers stand in the office and look around. Some look  a little scared by all the stuff, although it’s actually pretty neat. Others love it. One guy today said he loved the energy of “the little room.” It was charming.
There are more people working than normal and that adds to the bustle. Our back counter area is not large enough to easily contain more than two people, so when up to three more folks are working, it can feel like a dance to just pull a special order from the shelf. And we have our Christmas miracles: books found that we thought we couldn’t get, finding a book that delights the customer, someone giving up a book after seeing someone else really, really wants it.
So, the time has come to stop ordering and I can breathe a little easier. I need that breath because the next two and a half days are the busiest of the year and it’ll be a blast.

2 thoughts on “What It’s Like in the Trenches

  1. Carol B. Chittenden

    We now refer to the area behind our counter as The Mosh Pit. But the busy pace IS a happy feeling. All 600 names on the Giving Tree have been gifted, wrapped, packed and delivered. Customers are more relaxed because they too know the shipping deadline is past. I love adding a little extra effort to making the giftwrapping look special: it helps reassure the customers that they’re giving something perfectly wonderful. And they are!!
    Now, back into the mosh pit.


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