Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Bookstore Xmas Memories

The other day I ran into a bookseller while I was sitting in a coffee shop reading a book (Isherwood’s A Single Man). “Wow, I wish I could have a rep’s job,” said the exhausted bookseller. Immediately defensive, I started sputtering about how busy I was last month and how busy I’d be next month. But in truth, December is a relatively slow time for us “two seasons a year” book reps.

Even after ten years, it’s still a hard thing to adjust to if you come out of book retailing. To me, December should mean long days and high anxiety. Idleness in December- even if I will pay for it with three months of upcoming travel and appointments- feels unnatural.

Having managed the flagship downtown Harry W Schwartz store in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I have vivid memories of Decembers. And occasional nightmares.

Here are some things that have probably not changed too much:

Good booksellers still obsess over having the right books in the right quantities. Every bookseller will face the moment of truth on Dec 26 when he wanders through the shop looking at unsold stacks. Some will prompt a feeling of “how could I have been so stupid as to bet on that one,” while others will just prompt sadness, or maybe even a little guilt. “That’s such a great book, why couldn't I make more people see that?”

There’s still the rush that comes with matching book and customer, especially when it’s a challenge. I always especially enjoyed witnessing tag-team help among staff when they were thrown an oddball or very incomplete request. (Thankfully, this still happens all the time in stores.)

Which is tougher? The customer in search of a gift for a person with incredibly narrow, specific interests, who knows a subject inside out and will likely be disappointed with anything you suggest? Or the maddeningly vague customer? (Bookseller: “What does she like to read?” Customer: “Oh she reads everything!”. “Everything” is never helpful but people seem to think it is somehow.)

I always so loved the few days before Christmas when it was too late to fulfill any requests for books we didn’t have on the shelves. We had hundreds- thousands!- of great titles to choose from, and though it might be frustrating to a customer who was shocked/shocked that we were out of the title everybody wanted, it was liberating for us to be able to focus on all the wonderful stock we did have.

People met up in the shop. The in-store reunions and chance meetings were always a vicarious thrill for the booksellers. We often bragged about our status as a “third place” gathering space, but in December it really seemed that way. And still does.

We worked hard at jazzing up the staff and keeping morale high. I remember many December days where staff mood swings and meltdowns- mine included- added to the overall anxiety level, and I suspect that continues.

And there is the endless monitoring of weather, which can so cruelly break a streak of good sales just when you were getting complacent. Surely that hasn’t changed. I’ve yet to hear a convincing explanation of where those phantom sales go when a couple snow days keep people from the stores. Now the seductively glowing computer screen is the culprit, but fifteen years ago, the sales seemed to just evaporate.

But it seems as if a lot has changed:

Customers, of course, have one huge option they didn’t have fifteen years ago, i.e. internet retailers. In addition to offering what seems like every book in the world, they’ve managed to alter the perception of how long you should have to wait for a book. And how much you should pay for it.

Technology has changed for the better. I remember our early computer system breaking down remarkably often. Each credit card transaction involved a phone call for verbal authorization. Gift certificates were hand-written in lovely gold marker, entered in a Dickensian log book, and crossed out as they were redeemed.

One December- I don’t remember which but it must have been one of the good years, so probably late eighties- David Schwartz came down to the store around 5:00 on Christmas Eve. We’d just sent the last staff home and closed the doors. We opened a bottle of port that a customer had brought as a gift (customers giving thank you gifts to their booksellers, that’s a tradition that I hope endures) and drank a toast to making it through the month.

I got a little misty eyed and started riffing on how great it is to imagine all the books we’d sold and wrapped, and how they’d be opened in 24 hours by all those people. Typically, David immediately started calculating how many there would be exactly, and if memory serves he estimated that we’d sold around 90,000 individual books that month. Granted, these were not all gifts, but most of them probably were.

And for now, that’s something that hasn’t really changed either. Every bookseller is a little farmer sowing seeds far and wide, and some of the ideas in the books they sold will hopefully take root. They should take a huge amount of satisfaction out of making this happen.

But the future makes me nervous. The Kindle is a clever little gadget and I’m sure it would be a fine thing to receive as a gift. But do individual digital books lend themselves to the exchange of books as we've come to know it? A gift card is the likely solution, so you will be able to give a piece of plastic which will entitle the recipient to access "content" on another piece of plastic.

A customer goes into a bookstore and tells a bookseller about her friend’s reading interests, and leaves the store with a customized, gift-wrapped, and possibly quite beautiful physical object. Customer, bookseller, and, one hopes, recipient are all delighted. This routine scenario happened thousands of times this month, and it’s hard to see how it could be replaced by downloads.


  1. John - Thanks for posting this; my days as a bookseller/manager mirror yours in many ways (I did it from 1980 - 1996). And I still believe it to be the noblest of occupations.

  2. John, I agree with Richard - great post. And my years in retail mirror yours, too, although I started earlier. I still get a vicarious thrill when I walk into a bookstore in December, and it makes me long for retail (until I shake my head a few times). But it truly is a thrill to get the right book into the hands of a customer. What I will miss as ebooks become more prevalent is sharing books, and seeing book covers as people read on the bus, or the plane, or in a restaurant. That is part of "community" that is irreplaceable.