Once upon a time every year...
By Thanksgiving weekend, you already had your hundred-yard stare (a pleasant, customer service-friendly version) fully engaged as you scanned the bookstore sales floor, keeping watch for challenges and opportunities. You were on your game.
|Shoppers at Scout & Morgan
But now you have to talk one of the new booksellers off a ledge. It happens at some point to every rookie this time of year, especially at the beginning of the long run to Christmas Eve. How can anybody be prepared for this the first time around?
The two of you stand together in the ever-shifting eye of the customer hurricane. The store is churning with book hunters and sidelines harvesters. Queues thread out from the POS/information counter, customer questions and demands are echoing off the walls, and have been since the doors opened. It's a glorious sight if you can handle it.
I'm looking for a book for my uncle.
What does he like to read?
He doesn't read.
How about a blank book, pal?
No, you wouldn't say that. But what can you tell the kid to ease his jitters? He's a quiet person and was a little intimidated from the start. He's been burned a couple of times already today. An idealist, he chose to work in a bookstore for some intellectual stimulation and to be with other readers. He never expected... this. You can tell he isn't sure now if he'll survive until the end of the day, much less the season. Maybe he is worried he'll turn coward under pressure, abandon the sales floor and hide in the staff restroom.
"This is amazing!" he says, masking uncertainty with enthusiasm. "Why do they do it? Why do they all shop at the same second? What are they, lemmings?"
Your expression never wavers. You look the kid in the eyes and co-opt (or regift?) Robert Duvall's classic line from Apocalypse Now, make it your own by whisper/shouting: Lemmings don't shop for books! He has no idea what you are talking about. Never saw the movie. Probably thinks you've lost it, too. He edges back into the fray, almost crowdsurfing a sea of readers, apparently thinking he is safer out there. Immediately he's confronted by a wild-eyed man brandishing a single bronze "reading child" bookend:
Can I help?
I can't find the match for this!
The kid nods, and calmly escorts the customer away in search of the missing bronze child. You lose sight of them, but decide he'll be okay. He just wasn't ready.
Is anybody ever ready for holiday season in a bookstore? Ready is not the word. The key is a kind of constructive anxiety that propels you to take every conceivable precaution you can think of to insure success, or at least avoid disaster. Even then, you hold your breath because so much is riding on this time of year and so many things can go wrong.
It's a retail storm front. You can't fully prepare, though you must try, and you do. You order in extra stock, then second guess yourself and order more. You check and double-check IndieBound and New York Times bestseller lists, keep up with daily reviews and the radar blips you get from sources like NPR's Fresh Air or All Things Considered.
Do you have that book that was on Terry Gross this week... or last week?
Yes we do!
You even check actual radar obsessively, charting storm patterns online at the National Weather Service or Weather Channel, hoping that any current predictions match your ideal conditions for every weekend during the holiday season. You're always on the lookout for those ominous dark green, gray/white or pink radar blobs skimming across the country. Weather is a critical factor in holiday season success. An ill-timed weekend ice or snow storm and well...
Staff is precisely scheduled so that your customers are as overwhelmed by great service as you are by them. Maybe you even set up a soup kitchen or pizza run for staff on the weekends because no one has time to brave streets jammed with holiday revelers and overwhelmed local eateries.
You'll be fine. You've done this so many times before. You remember when there was no such thing as rapid replenishment programs; you even remember... backstock. Although you'd hesitate to say you're ready, you do look forward to this intense month with a perhaps unhealthy enthusiasm.
Suddenly the new kid appears again, emerging from the melee with a different customer, a woman who is holding a book in each hand and appears to be handselling them to him. He's courteous and patient. Most importantly, he is listening. An older man, brandishing a roll of wrapping paper, approaches them shouting "Excuse me!" The kid seems to be handling it all well.
You're more than a little addicted to the holiday energy in this space. But sometimes, in the midst of the pandemonium, someone politely asks if you're busy. You smile. The person smiles back.
I was wondering if you could recommend a book.
For a gift?
No, for myself. I just need a great read for the weekend, something that will shut out all my relatives, but I know you're really busy...
I only have one customer at a time.
Can you tell what the best book you've read this year is?
Sure, I have many. What've you read lately you really loved?
That's why you're here.
--Robert Gray, contributing editor (Column archives at Fresh Eyes Now)