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Wishing You a 'Fezziwig Smile' for the Holidays

Shelf Awareness: Friday, December 21, 2007

Whether you believe the spirit of Christmas resides in the Christian or Dickensian or Santa Clausian or Wal-Martian tradition, the next four days will engulf you. I'll be spending this weekend on the bookstore's crazed sales floor. By Christmas Eve, I will have seen the holiday in all its guises, both merry and not-so-merry, played out on a very public stage. Certain things can be predicted:

  • Someone will ask, with frustration and anger twisting their features, "Where is your humor book section?"
  • Someone will complain because the Christmas cards and calendars aren't on sale yet.
  • Someone will request book gift suggestions for a relative who doesn't like to read.
  • Someone will threaten their kids with "no presents" if they don't start behaving "right now!"
  • Someone will say, "Merry Christmas," with intent to provoke, and I'll say, "Merry Christmas," in return because it generates a smile and sometimes even a "thank you."
  • Someone, cast adrift in the gift-buying maelstrom, will still be looking for a good read and ask for a recommendation.

We are a curious species.

Before hurling myself into the deep end of the holiday retail pool, I wanted to wrap up a year in which many books were published and many dire economic predictions were made for our industry. Where could I turn for perspective?

I opted for a little time traveling. Readers solved the mystery of the fourth dimension long ago, even if physicists still struggle with it. You want to travel in time? Read. Oddly, the best advice for this journey comes from the film version of the Time Machine, in which Filby so memorably tells George, "Relax, try to relax. You've all the time in the world."

Sometimes we forget, but readers do have all the time in the world. Literally. At their fingertips. As 2007 draws to a close, I'm turning the clock back a century to give you a peek at the 1907 Christmas season, as seen in the pages of the New York Times.

Yes, they were just as confused as we are. Among the headlines with a familiar ring from 1907 were "Holiday exercises held in a way to satisfy all religious beliefs: sectarianism is avoided," "No war toys for children," "Employees in financial district don't expect usual big bonuses," "Record Christmas travel" and even a meteorological prediction: "Cold for Christmas, says weather man: Yesterday's storm gave buyers a late start, but the stores were crowded before noon."  

There was a report on an exhibition of the year's books at the National Arts Club, noting that a similar event 29 years before, called a "Book Fair," had been less successful, since "the buying and selling of books at wholesale and retail was the principal object." Happily, in 1907, the "mere buying and selling of books has been prohibited in this year's exhibition by a ruling of the Library Committee of the Arts Club, the desire of the latter being to divest their enterprise, as much as possible, of the purely commercial features which it might otherwise take on."

My favorite discovery came from "An Englishman's views on an American Christmas," in which the writer recounted his adventures "buying--buying--buying as if the Christmas 'stores' had just opened and were due to close again in six minutes. It's all so American, but none the less Christmassy. They get the right spirit, too, but like everything else in America, they get it in a hurry and all at once. . . . here the idea seems to be to wait until the last minute, then draw all the money from the bank and rush to the Christmas shops to spend it wildly--recklessly--joyously--madly. It's pandemonium! But it's great, old chap. It's Christmas!"

In the December 28 edition of the Times, the headline "Boston's holiday book trade keen" introduced an article on bookshop sales in that city, where "the holiday season has left a Fezziwig smile, and a comfortable willingness to erect a handsome tombstone over the dead past of 1907."

With the turn of a virtual page, we're back in the present and at the end of our year. I want to thank the great people I interviewed for this column in 2007, met at trade shows, conversed with by email and phone; and I want to especially thank all of you for reading.

However you choose to celebrate this weekend and next, I wish you a merry Christmas, a new year filled with extraordinary books and, of course, a "Fezziwig smile."



Paper Calendars Still Rule the Day

Shelf Awareness: December 14, 2007

At Christmas time we spent a feverish ten days struggling with Christmas cards and calendars, which are tiresome things to sell but good business while the season lasts. It used to interest me to see the brutal cynicism with which Christian sentiment is exploited. The touts from the Christmas card firms used to come round with their catalogues as early as June. A phrase from one of their invoices sticks in my memory. It was: "2 doz. Infant Jesus with rabbits."--George Orwell, "Bookshop Memories" (1936)

On Wednesday, at the China Internet Information Center's website, I read that "wall calendars, which used to be decent seasons gift to a friend, have unceremoniously receded from the city's consumer market. The Yantai Daily has reported that Xinhua Bookstores in the city's urban area have stopped selling them completely. Wall calendars are no longer considered a must in [peoples'] daily life as many new digital devices can do the work better and easier."

That news certainly hasn't reached bookstores in Vermont, where customers still seem to care about paper calendars--big time.

How big?

"But I get the same one every year and you always used to carry it!"

That big.

"Where are your calendars?" customers often ask when they first enter the bookshop this time of year. For many of them, it is the gift of first, as well as last, resort. And customers seldom arrive at the checkout counter with just one. Multiple buys are the rule.

For booksellers, dealing with calendar inventory is a year-round affair. Orwell's "good business while the season lasts" has evolved into a season that never ends. Bookstores started ordering their 2008 calendars last spring while still selling the 2007s. They blew out most of their remaining 2007 stock during mid-year sales--Memorial Day Weekend, perhaps--just weeks before deliveries of the 2008 models began rolling in.

Despite the fact that a bookstore may carry dozens of variations on theme, size, and function--wall and engagement and page-a-day calendars; Zen Gardens and Great Fish of North America and Snowboarding and John Deere Tractor and Fruit Crate Labels and Modigliani and Bad President calendars--at least one customer a day will be disappointed that we don't carry the specific one they're looking for.

In Vermont, we also offer suitably regional options by artists Sabra Field and Wolf Kahn and Woody Jackson (his is actually a "cowlendar"); and traditional scenic versions like the Vermont Life and Covered Bridges of Vermont calendars. Ours is a state of time as well as a state of mind.

Is it all worth it? Is it really so important? Is there still a role for paper calendars in a digitized world?

Well, how many calendars did you receive as gifts last year? How many did you give? How many did you buy for yourself after you re-gifted the ones that came your way? How many times did you replace the perfect engagement calendar you bought in October with a better one you saw in January, and then again with one that was on sale in March?

How many calendars did you sell last year? What role do these "tiresome things" play in your bookstore's bottom line?

The biggest challenge when writing about calendars is to avoid sounding like Andy Rooney, whining in a cranky, gravelly voice, "Remember when calendars were something the insurance guy or the fuel company left at your house; something you hung in an obscure corner of the kitchen and scribbled on all year long? Whatever happened . . . ?"

Maybe it's Orwell's memory of the "2 doz. Infant Jesus with rabbits" or just a bad case of holiday season dysfunction disorder, but I'm reminded of a black velvet painting I once noticed for sale at an impromptu gas station parking lot exhibition. Picture this: Santa Claus kneeling before the manger in Bethlehem, paying his jolly respects to the baby Jesus. Mary looked justifiably concerned for her son's welfare.

What a calendar that would have made.

Neither cynicism nor nostalgia is really the point, however. Paper calendars are still in the game. Will they ever be rendered obsolete by the digitized alternatives that are within such easy reach in our quiver of personal electronic devices?

Shouldn't they be obsolete already?

Perhaps, but for now calendar season just lasts and lasts.



How to Handsell Books You Don't Like

Shelf Awareness: Thursday, December 6, 2007

What I'm about to reveal is a closely guarded secret among frontline booksellers, and I may have to pay the ultimate price for my indiscreet revelation. Still, as this warm-hearted, blissful time of year wraps us in the simple joys of holiday consumption, I believe a confession is in order.

Booksellers sometimes handsell books we haven't read. We handsell books we don't even like that much. This is not usually a sin of intention. No one wants to handsell a "bad" book. It is, at worst, a sin of omission. What we refrain from saying to a customer during a conversation about a particular title can be more important than what we do say.  

A bookseller's life would be ideal if we could just spend the day recommending titles we absolutely love, but often we are caught in discussions about not-so-great books with customers who love them passionately and would like us to suggest comparable works.

By "not-so-great," I mean books that we've dismissed for any number of objective, subjective, and even irrational reasons. This list can consist of anything, including works that have been well-reviewed, popular or award-winners.

For example, I've handsold dozens of copies of one particular novel (which will remain title-less to protect the innocent) over the past few years. I remember the moment when I first read it and thought, "I'm not crazy about this book, but it's going to be very easy to handsell." I just tell the right customers I believe they will love it, and they do.

Conversely, there are books I love that I couldn't handsell at a 100% discount.

The reasons why we like or dislike books are many, but since a bookseller's job description is to express--or withhold--judgment depending upon the situation, we must occasionally walk a conversational high wire.

Nodding and smiling help; saying "a lot of people liked that one" or "he's very popular" or "it's been getting good reviews" will get you through, too. A personal favorite, which I've leaned on more than a few times, is that a particular author "knows his (or her) audience well and always writes with them in mind."

If you are feeling pressured this holiday season for your opinion on a book you just don't like, may I prescribe a small dose of retail therapy consisting of scenes from two Bill Murray films? These should prepare you to face any impending crisis with a spotless conscience.

In How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, Pierre Bayard devotes a chapter to the movie Groundhog Day, in which a snarky weatherman, Phil (Murray), is caught in a time-loop on the eponymous day and forced to relive it again and again.

He puts his unfortunate circumstances to good, if unethical, use in his seduction of Rita (Andie MacDowell). When he surreptitously discovers that she studied nineteenth-century Italian poetry, Phil memorizes and then passionately recites excerpts from the libretto of Rigoletto.

"By training himself in Rita's preferred reading material," Bayard writes, "and thus penetrating as deeply as possible into her private world, Phil is straining to create the illusion that their inner books are the same."

Sounds like handselling to me. Not love, precisely, but a subtle illusion that "inner books" can match even when they don't.

And I can go Bayard one Bill Murray movie better by citing the epic American film, Caddyshack, and a scene that eloquently sums up a dilemma booksellers face every day.

Loudmouth contractor Al Czervic (Rodney Dangerfield) bursts into a posh country club's pro shop and starts buying everything in sight. He notices a particularly garish hat on display and says, "This is the worst lookin' hat I ever saw."

Then he sees the club's president, Judge Smails (Ted Knight), standing nearby, wearing the same hat. "Oh, it looks good on you, though," Czervic adds. 

Welcome to the world of handselling, where we often must smile and utter the book equivalent of "Oh, it looks good on you, though."

Mea culpa.

Is that wrong? Absolutely not. In fact, it is a kind of biblio-diplomacy. We want customers to be comfortable with their choices. We don't want them to feel judged. We hope they walk away from a handselling conversation thinking, "That was fun."

Well, to be honest, we want them to walk away with a huge stack of new books, thinking, "That was fun."



Selling Books & Remembering to Breathe

Shelf Awareness: Friday, November 30, 2007

I didn't really need any clues to know it was Black Friday, but I drove straight into my first piece of evidence on the New York State Thruway as I was heading north to Vermont after spending Thanksgiving with friends in New Jersey.

Scheduled to work the bookstore's afternoon/evening shift, I was cruising comfortably on Route 87, knowing I had allotted plenty of travel time. My overconfidence was literally stalled, however, just a few miles south of the toll booths near exit 16, where I suddenly found myself stuck in what became a three-lane, interstate highway parking lot.

What had happened? An accident? Too many cars trying to squeeze through the toll booths? A tsunami on the Hudson River?     

The mystery wasn't solved for an hour; an hour spent driving at a cool 5 mph. Finally, as we neared exit 16, the gridlock culprit was identified--Woodbury Common Premium Outlets.

Black Friday had officially begun, and I was still three hours from home. By the time I hit the bookstore sales floor that afternoon, the crush of book buyers seemed like a nice change of pace. In fact, I soon realized that they were walking faster than I had been driving.  

What was Black Friday like?

One of the first stories I heard when I arrived was about cell abuse. A customer had approached one of my colleagues and asked if we carried a particular book. As he responded, her cell phone chirped and she turned away to answer it. She talked while he stood by, waiting patiently. Then she put her hand over the phone and asked if he'd show her where the book was. As he led her to the section, she went back to her cell conversation.

Human interaction is a beautiful thing.

Most of the day wasn't like that. Despite the rush, there were moments for simple conversations with good readers about good books. In the end, you have to catch your breath and realize that bookselling is bookselling. Black Friday numbers don’t change that. Somehow, in a bookstore, in a crowd, you can still have those conversations, one customer at a time.

Stanley Hadsell, a fine bookseller who works at Market Block Books, Troy, N.Y., wrote to me on the day before Thanksgiving, and what he said stayed with me through the weekend:

"I have to say, reading your columns this week added to my agita. What people go through and the chaos. Yes, there will be a new breed of customer in the store. Not just the regulars, but the Desperate Seekers for anything to fill the void. Those are the scary ones. They come with cell phones permanently on, scouting out the best bargain, seeing no one in front of them, just merchandise. Happily most of our customers are nothing like that. But this time of the year brings a heightened awareness of consumerism and what drives this country (mad). So, when I read your column, I tensed up. My back was in spasms. I managed to have two migraines in one week.

"But today I felt a calm and a realization that I don't have to go to any malls. I can walk to work or take the bus. I can only sell what is within reach. I have a limited amount of wrapping paper. And I have a great staff to work with. We are open on Thanksgiving Day. Yes, it's true and odd to tell folks that. But the Turkey Trot, a race that gets its fair share of international runners, starts and ends practically in front of our store. It's a delight to be there for it. We're only open a few hours and it's such a leisurely pace that it barely feels like work at all. But that's the way I feel about bookselling as a whole; it barely feels like work. It's a joy. I love it. I love seeing a customer interested in books, even when it's not one of my recommendations. Isn't that why we do this?

"As for Black Friday, well, we have that same flight to the malls. We're not overwhelmed or frantic. We start the season with a sensible surge in business because we're selling books, which have a different energy than the latest handheld gadget. So, I feel calmer today. I know it will be busy. I can handle it. I don't have to do it alone. I breathe. That's the key. I always have to remember to breathe."



Transcending the Holidaze

Shelf Awareness: Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Take a deep breath, folks.

In Monday's column, we heard from booksellers regarding their Black Friday game plans, but for some bookstores BF is simply a prelude to the busy holiday sales season rather than a retail lightning strike.

"Honestly, Black Friday in Hardwick does not usually include frenzy--a lot of people go out of town to shop," says Linda Ramsdell of Galaxy Bookshop, Hardwick, Vt.. She opted for a preemptive strategy to "create frenzy" by offering a Sirius Reader sale and party on America Unchained Day last weekend. "So, in a way, that is a tip--if Black Friday is not a big shopping day in a small town, create other opportunities for big sales."

Valerie Kohler of Blue Willow Bookshop, Houston, Tex., plans to "take off Thanksgiving weekend and go to the beach with my extended family. Throughout the year, I am very liberal with staff vacations (they all work part time). In return, several key staff members keep the shop open for me. It's not a particularly big weekend for us as we are in a strip center and our core customers are weekday shoppers."

Blue Willow is, however, "in full holiday mode now that the temperature has dropped below 80--free coffee and cider; homemade cookies from the cookbooks we want to sell; free gift wrap, which means keep the wrap counter clean and remember that we are all in this together."

Having Fridays off greatly helps Linda Bond deal with the BF issue at Auntie's Bookstore, Spokane, Wash., but she does offer a few survival tips for her colleagues: "Remember who and where you are (it helps to stay focused); remember why you are working at a bookstore; remember these people are your friends--they are working to keep you in business and bringing you money to back up their promises; they, too, are frustrated, pressed for time and a tad bit out of sorts--take a deep breath and let it pass over you! And remember, above all, THIS TOO SHALL PASS!"

Perhaps the most important survival skill is to remember the ideal spirit of this particular holiday.

"I told our staff the other day that I am very thankful to be in the book business during the holiday season," notes Vivien Jennings of Rainy Day Books, Fairway, Kan. "For us, it is not the make-it or break-it for our financial year. It is just a wonderful opportunity to get more people of all ages excited about reading and books by matching their interests with selections from the amazing array of books that are available. We are so lucky to be able to believe in what we sell. Books can make you laugh, keep you on the edge of your chair in suspense, take you back in history, help you be healthier, and encourage you to live a better life in a better world. Best of all, they are always the right color and size, won't wilt, are non-fattening, lead-free, and are recyclable. What more can we ask?"

Her husband, Roger Doeren, offers a Thanksgiving weekend checklist that will resonate for many of us:

  1. We give thanks for our loyal customers.
  2. We familiarize ourselves with our inventory selection; on our sales floor, in our back room, and in our warehouses.
  3. We remain calm, capable, competent, and confident about our knowledgeable service and selection.
  4. We welcome our new and loyal customers with the same genuine friendly greeting and smile and look them straight in the eyes when we offer to assist them in their shopping experience.
  5. We match our customers' interests with the best choices of reading and listening material and sidelines.
  6. We offer complimentary high quality gift wrapping service while they shop with us or with our neighbor merchants.
  7. We encourage our customers to "Shop Local and Buy Local." In the present and future it is best for them and their community.
  8. We thank our customers as they leave with their packages.
  9. We restock and re-straighten our sales floor.
  10. We breathe deeply and welcome the next customers and repeat the same steps as often as possible.
Happy Thanksgiving. Have a sane and profitable Black Friday. Let me know how it all turns out.