Remember Black Friday? Just last year, the National Retail Federation reported that Black Friday had been the busiest day for in-store activity, with 84.2 million shoppers, followed by Small Business Saturday (59.9 million), Thanksgiving Day (37.8 million), Sunday (29.2 million) and Cyber Monday (21.8 million).
I've been feeling a little Black Friday nostalgia. This was heightened yesterday by a Seattle Times article in which Tom Nissley, owner of Phinney Books and Madison Books, spoke of the myriad challenges indie booksellers are currently facing. He also reminisced about the fun of shopping for the holidays in a bookshop before he was in the business, "spending half the day at Elliott Bay and choosing all my books for people."
But now there's #PandemicBlackFriday2020. Who's gearing up for that? People won't even be able to sneak away from family gatherings for a good old-fashioned bricks-and-mortar shopping frenzy. Instead, they'll have to turn off the video on their family's Zoom Thanksgiving and do some secret online buying. The only large, angry crowds gathering outside stores will be there to protest mask requirements.
|At Chicago's Volumes Bookcafe
"Gatherings during the upcoming holidays can be an opportunity to reconnect with family and friends," the CDC just said in its latest cautionary tale. "This holiday season, consider how your holiday plans can be modified to reduce the spread of Covid-19 to keep your friends, families, and communities healthy and safe."
Happy... never mind.
WalMart is offering a "reinvented" Black Friday in-store experience, which actually means shoppers will be required to form a single-file line before the 5 a.m. opening "and follow directional signs to avoid others while shopping." Sounds festive.
Target CEO Brian Cornell got into the 2020 holiday spirit early by noting that "the investments we've made in our business and our incredible team have enabled us to move with flexibility and speed to meet guests' changing needs during this global pandemic. This year more than ever, a joyful holiday will be inseparable from a safe one, and we're continuing to adjust our plans to deliver ease, value and the joy of the season."
For indie booksellers this year, the holiday refrains of "Buy Early, Buy Local" and "November Is the New December" ring out through the land. A recent Facebook message to customers from Word Up Community Bookshop/Librería Comunitaria in New York City sums up the mission well: "Hi all, please consider shopping early! While you'll be able to shop online all season, shipping in time for the holidays is not guaranteed. And if you have special books you're looking for, it may take longer to get them in. We recommend placing orders before December. The last quarter is always the most important one for booksellers and will help determine how we do next year. Buy local and buy early to help your community bookshops!"
Remember when Black Friday mattered to bookstores? My first as a bookseller scared the hell out of me for a month before it arrived. In 1992, I was just a 42-year-old kid with a crazy dream. I'd been a bookseller for six months and believed nirvana had been attained. Like most rookies, I wanted nothing more from life at that point than to be in the stacks all day, talking with other book lovers about our mutual addiction. Who knew there was a catch?
Shortly after Halloween, my colleagues began spinning cautionary tales about the post-Thanksgiving blitz--crowds, noise, complaints, screaming kids (and, sometimes, adults), the crush of bodies, the scattered heaps of browsed and discarded books. Zombies were still a couple of decades away from becoming fashionable, so I imagined an episode of The Twilight Zone as conceived by Stephen King.
"It's bad?" I asked.
"You don't want to know," they replied.
That first Black Friday, I arrived at the store early and we went through last-minute battle plans: register and lunch schedules, sales floor assignments, pep talks. Then it was time to open the doors. Overwhelming is a fair description of what happened next, but panic somehow blended nicely with adrenaline-laced professionalism to turn the day into an efficient, exhausting and profitable blur. Not scary, as it turned out, but not quite un-scary either.
By the end of the '90s and into the early 21st century, Amazon began to take some of the thrill out of Black Friday. Then indies gradually found their footing and struck back against the evil empire through initiatives like Plaid Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cider Monday to regain book buyer's attention.
At the same time, Black Friday was efficiently devouring itself, with earlier store openings and a hyperextended sales season. "Long gone are the days of 'Black Friday' for in-store shopping and solely 'Cyber Monday' for online shopping," Fast Company reported, adding: "In a reimagined pandemic landscape, we're moving into an era of 'online first' where consumers can shop throughout the season for deals versus waiting for a one-day event."
So, what will Pandemic Holiday Season 2020 bring out in indie booksellers? Their best, I expect.
As Annie Carl, owner of the Neverending Bookshop in Edmonds, Wash., told the Seattle Times: "That's the really great thing about the book industry, especially the indie book industry--we're all in this together.... We're all really tired. We've hit this point in the year and we're exhausted and we don't know what to expect, we don't know how long we've got to hang in there for, hopefully not a long while. But the big key thing is kindness and patience."
And Black Friday is in quarantine.