Our mystery writer returns to explain what the festive season means for the real angels among us – retailers.
The Spinoff published the original behind-the-scenes essay by this bookseller a few months ago. We still can’t tell you who she is. We can tell you she really does work in a New Zealand bookstore, and it’s not Unity.
Whenever someone says “I can’t believe it’s almost Christmas!” I just think – I can. Every bookseller, everyone in retail, can believe it, because we’ve been preparing since September, and by mid-December it absolutely feels like it should be over.
For many people, December is the winding-down part of the year. Boozy lunches, Christmas parties, days of knocking off early, plans for the holidays. In retail December is the trenches, a gradual build-up to the climax of Christmas Eve and the long, relieved doze of Christmas Day.
The regular 12 days of Christmas – you know, the ones involving doves, geese, hens, swans and leaping lords – aren’t the ones shared by booksellers (apart from those industrious maids-a-milking, perhaps). No, we have our own traditions, our own milestones to mark the festive season. These are our 12 days of Christmas.
At the start of December we have our pre-Christmas war meeting. The idea is to mentally and emotionally prepare us for the trials to come. There’s wine, strawberries, and quickfire quiz questions:
“A customer wants a book for their 85-year-old mother – something light and uplifting. What do you recommend?”
“A woman’s husband only reads Lee Child, and she wants to push him out of his comfort zone. What do you suggest?”
“This customer wants a cheap Secret Santa present for someone at work who they’ve never spoken to. What three books come to mind?”
We learn which new release books everyone else has read so that we can say, “Well I haven’t read it yet but my colleague absolutely loved it … ”
This is all part of the most crucial element of Christmas bookselling: the hive mind and colleague telepathy. Through December we have to draw on our collective pool of knowledge and anticipate each others’ needs, whether that need is a handful of ribbons, a two-minute break, gift-wrapping assistance, to take a phone call, or to help with a niggly book recommendation. Individual booksellers become a unit for the duration. We draw on one another’s strength.
We leave the meeting feeling steeled, unified, and tipsy, anticipating what is to come.
By December 3 we start to see that we’re going to run out of the Sally Rooney any day now, while the 200-copy pile of Jonathan Franzen isn’t budging. In a quiet moment, we discuss whether Franzen’s book would be more appealing if organised in the shape of a Christmas tree.
(Feel free to swap “Sally Rooney” with any madly high-selling book title in a given year. Feel free to swap “Franzen” with any highly anticipated but poorly-selling book title. There’s always at least one, and it’s usually 800 pages long.)
By early December, we start receiving emails such as:
Please find below a list of my 20 closest relatives, whom I am obliged to buy presents for each year. I have disclosed their gender, age, and one fact that should hint at their taste in books, eg “likes horses”. I would like you to select and gift wrap one book for each person on the list. Do not tell me what you have chosen; I do not care. I look forward to collecting them tomorrow.
Workaholic With Familial Obligations
Maybe you’re horrified by this kind of impersonal gift-buying behaviour, but honestly, this is the best possible customer at Christmas time.
Our feet ache and we are thirsty. A tween has been hired for the pre-Christmas period. In charge of cutting wrapping paper and ribbons, they sit at a desk on an actual chair, able to listen to music and drink water whenever they like. We are all sick with envy and longing.
Merry Christmas to the abundant dad jokers who answer the question “Do you need any help?” by tapping their temples madly and saying “Yes – but nothing you can help with!” Your tenacity and will to keep this joke alive, Christmas after Christmas, helps us to maintain our sense of order in the world.
A man brings his wife into the shop with him, despite the purpose of his visit being to secretly select and buy her Christmas presents. He watches her movements closely and sidles up to the till. “Could you please sell me these books?” he whispers, taking the new Ottolenghi and a Jane Harper novel from under his jacket. “The recipient is right there looking at the New Zealand non-fiction, so if you could hide them from view when you gift wrap – ”
The key to properly embodying this customer stereotype is to behave as if it is the bookseller’s responsibility to keep the presents a secret. Tips for getting it right: hiss “can’t you scan those out of view?” or mutter “careful! She’s coming this way.”
We roll our eyes and wrap his presents behind the till on the floor.
It’s a week until Christmas, and the skin is peeling off our thumbs from so much sellotaping of presents. The question, “Have you taken the price off that?” has led to so many faux-polite smiles that our collective cheeks ache.
We’re hollow versions of our former selves, fuelled by Christmas cookies and mania. We’re worried that the red food colouring from the cookie fondant is slowly poisoning us, but we can’t stop eating it.
We start taking turns going out the back of the shop for two-minute deep breathing/smoking/meditation sessions.
There aren’t many “true loves” giving poultry to us booksellers. Instead, there are creepy older men winking and standing far too close – because while some things change at Christmas time, others, sadly, do not.
Here’s a quick tip: If a bookseller, retail assistant, or human of any other variety is on their hands and knees out of work-related necessity, i.e. collecting a book for you from the bottom shelf, do not raise an eyebrow while saying “Looks as if you like it down there.” Also do not say, “Is that your favourite position?”
A customer who is at least 70% angel brings in a fruit cake for the staff, and we all gag into our mouths at the idea of more sugar, then eat a piece for lunch.
A woman requests a book for someone who enjoys “war stories and tear-jerkers” and then gasps “That sounds very depressing!” at every suggestion.
Someone we know enters the shop and we fall into their arms, remembering the existence of the outside world. “This is madness!” they inevitably say. All we can do is nod.
It’s Christmas Eve, and everything good has been sold. The answer to the question “do you have … ?” is “no.” We’re left with 90 copies of the new Jodi Picoult and 60 copies of a book that’s rife with incest (not too Christmassy as things go) and are desperate to get rid of them. A competition starts between staff: who can sell the most Jodi today?
Luckily shoppers are really desperate and panicked at this stage and will basically buy anything.
On Christmas Day we have never been happier. It’s over. The shop is closed for the first time in 364 days. It feels like it’s the first time we have not been covered in price stickers and bits of ribbon in 364 days. Pause for napping, wine drinking, and eating huge quantities of potato salad.
For a few of us, Boxing Day means back to work. A one-day break might sound sucky, but arguably this is the best time of the year to be a bookseller.
A switch is flicked on Christmas Day. Beforehand, there’s total frenzy – everyone is rushing, frazzled, in a state of heightened tension, basically the worst version of themselves. (Don’t tell us that Christmas is meaningless to adults; unless you’re vetoing the holiday or don’t celebrate it, it changes us all.)
After Christmas, it’s bliss. People are relaxed, sated – like cats who have just woken from long naps in the sun, stretching and wandering languidly to their food bowls. They wander into the shop in a happy daze and demand nothing. The shop is pleasantly empty, and for the first time in months, there’s a quiet moment to read a few pages of a book.
For a jaded bookseller, Boxing Day is the light at the end of the tunnel, the day that makes us think, I guess I could do this again next year.