Imagine: it’s a chilly day, but you don’t mind. You’re bundled up in your favorite cozy winter gear: scarf, hat, mittens. You have the warm beverage of your choice, and you’re about to check off half the people on your holiday shopping list. You’re headed to your independent bookstore and you feel great about supporting a local business while also giving your loved ones thoughtful gifts.
You enter the bookstore, excited for your You’ve Got Mail moment, but instead you encounter something more resembling Jingle All the Way, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s classic film about pre-internet Christmas shopping panic. Books are scattered, children are crying, and someone is shouting that the one-size-fits-all Books are Beautiful children’s socks certainly will not fit their 6’5 Uncle Bud, perhaps you should change the label, and didn’t you know their sock exchange is in 20 minutes? They are trying to support local businesses. The bookseller is smiling wanly.
I am entering my third Christmas shopping season as a bookseller, and my second during a global pandemic. To be honest, I love the chaos — okay, not the pandemic-induced chaos, but the rest of it: trying to find the perfect book on our shelves for a customer who needs something for a distant family member is always a fun challenge. The look of relief when I hand a customer a stack of beautifully wrapped books is priceless. The fast pace is invigorating and, listen, I love a solid holiday playlist.
But I also know I’m headed into one of the most exhausting times of the year. I just ordered new slipper insoles as a precautionary measure, put in a bulk coffee bean order so I can bring extra thermoses to work, and I’m already shifting my personal schedule around to give myself extra time to rest up. On the macro level, booksellers around the country have beefed up their inventories over the last few months as they hear more and more about supply chain issues and watch as those shortages affect every aspect of bookselling.
So, is there anything you, as a customer, can do to support booksellers while also supporting local businesses? I’m so glad you asked! While new slipper insoles might be a bit too personal and bringing your bookseller a caffeinated beverage might be a hit-or-miss proposition (unless you’re close enough friends to text them ahead of time to ask for an order), there are a few things you can do to lighten the load for booksellers. And, I have a hunch most of these would work for any retail worker this year.
By the time this article is up, we’ve just about passed the “shop early” dates, especially for Hanukkah, but now is better than later! The supply chain issues, combined with compounded shipping issues as we get nearer to Christmas, will make it harder and harder for bookstores to restock their shelves. Place your orders or stop in ASAP!
Use What They Got
Use the services your bookstore has! Does your bookstore have a robust website? Use it! Are you able to check stock or place a big order? Placing orders or sending queries through the website allows your bookstore to process your questions after hours or between rushes. Your bookstore is always happy to help you over the phone, but when there’s a long line of people in the store, it’s difficult to prioritize phone calls. You might also sign up for text or email alerts to be notified of when a special order arrives, since these are more easily automated than phone calls.
Buy Where You Shop
You might be surprised at this one, but more than once, I’ve spent a significant amount of time helping a customer find that just-right gift, only to have them glance at the price, look up the product on Amazon and sneak out the door. I get it! I also like to save money! I want Jeff Bezos to find happiness and fulfillment, too! But you might consider those extra couple of dollars as a payment covering the services your local bookstore provides. Besides, Jeff Bezos has never offered to help you decide between four bestselling WWII books for your father-in-law.
Your bookseller is working overtime to make this the best possible shopping experience for you this year, but lines get long and deliveries get delayed. If your bookstore offers gift wrap, you might offer to come back a little later to pick up your packages.
I asked several booksellers what the number one thing was that they’d like to tell customers this year, and I was surprised to hear the same thing from each one: be flexible. You may be looking for Molly Baz’s excellent Cook This Book for the former Bon Appetit stan on your list, but if that’s sold out, perhaps Carla Lalli Music’s equally excellent That Sounds So Good would be a perfect substitute, and a surprise for the recipient, to boot. Stef, a bookseller in Exeter, New Hampshire, said, “I know sometimes people want what they want, but booksellers are pretty darn good at recommendations! You might end up with something more interesting than that book that’s on every gift guide.”
These are just a few things you can do to lighten the load for your booksellers, but to be honest, we’re as happy to see you come through the door in your holiday sweater as you are to be there. It’s a magical time of year, and booksellers around the country have their favorite recommendations in hand to help you have the perfect You’ve Got Mail/Miracle on 34th Street/Hallmark movie bookstore moment.