Note This story comes from a series called “Booksellers”. I’ve been working on it off and on for years, and might even publish it someday. Basically I’ve been taking my memories of working in a bunch of different bookstores, mashing them together, and trying to turn them into something entertaining by ignoring the boring parts. You know. Things like “what actually happened”.

November-December, 1994

There are two days that all retail employees dread: Black Friday and Christmas Eve.

A quick word about Black Friday, by the way. That name is ours, not yours. If you’ve never worked a sales floor or restaurant when hoards of people, most of them trying to escape the in-laws, descend on you in a frantic retail-therapy mass you don’t get to call it that. All that crap about “Black Friday is the day that your retail establishment finally gets into the black” is idiocy. If you’re only turning a profit the last six weeks of the year you don’t open the other forty-six. It’s called Black Friday because it’s the day salespeople die. I don’t know who the marketing genius is who thought they could take that name and turn it into an…an event, but I hate them.

So, clearly, as a bookseller Black Friday is a day you should dread. People come in, get hopped up on espresso and start bargain hunting. Anything to make them forget that they have to go back to Mom’s house and try not to kill their idiot brother who still hasn’t moved out.

And don’t worry, they will tell you all about it. Booksellers are a lot like bartenders, apparently. The actual barista in the cafe don’t even get as much random self-confessional as the guy trying to put books away out on the sales floor.

“It’s not that I don’t love my brother, I do, but he’s…well, he’s killing Mom.” A lady was telling me. She introduced the subject by asking me to help her find Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.

“I see.” I said.

“Mom won’t ever push him out the door, is the thing. She’s afraid that he’ll get into real trouble if he’s on his own.”

“Could be,” I mumbled. I had a large stock of absolutely non-committal phrases.

“But how is he ever going to find out, if he doesn’t take a chance? You can’t just stay in your room all the time and suddenly be ready to be a professional businessman or…or a doctor. What’s this?”

“Childhood’s End.”

She looked at the cover, dominated by a huge spaceship over a city. “Do you think he’ll like it?”

“It’s a good book, but not really everyone’s cup of tea.”

“Why not?”

“Pretty much everyone dies at the end.”

She nodded thoughtfully. “Do you think my brother will like it?”

You’ve read every word she said to me, you know her brother as well as I did. “It’ll be a good read for him, I think.”

She nodded. “Thanks.” And walked off to the registers. And there it is. I was an accessory to one of the most passive-aggressive gifts of 1994.

But Christmas Eve! It’s a whole different story. Manic? Absolutely. Busy? Definitely. And exhausting. But you have one big advantage:

People are out of time. On Black Friday people have a whole month ahead of them. If you aren’t willing to wheel and deal they’ve got time to find something else. On Christmas Eve they want the first thing that looks thoughtful. And here’s where you get to see how good you actually are. Anybody can sell the latest Oprah’s Book Club choice to a guy looking for a last-minute wife/girlfriend gift. We had hundreds of the things up at the registers. On Christmas Eve the real booksellers challenge themselves in one of two ways. The first is for customers who are jerks: how high can you jack up their final purchase? The second is for the nice customers: how perfectly can you fit the book to their loved one?

All modesty aside, I was better at the second. My friend Chad focused on the first. “I just sold a complete Feynman Lectures to that guy. His son’s an engineering major.” he told me as his customer walked out the door.

“That’s like, what, $200? Nice!” I said.

“Thanks. And you know the best part? He came in looking for A Brief History of Time in paperback”. (Retail price:$14.95)

My victories were harder to brag about, but better for me.

“Um,” a tall man in a Carhartt jacket and worn blue jeans walked up to me as I was shelving some books.

“Can I help you, sir?”

“Yeh. I’m looking for something for my wife. She likes readin’.”

“Okay! Well, you’ve come to the right place. Did you have something in mind?”

He shifted uncomfortably. His hands were huge, scarred, and calloused. My hands have often been called “decidedly feminine”. He looked down at me. “What would you get?”

“Well, let’s see. Maybe if you can tell me a little about her I can help you find something she likes.” Again, this is where you see how good you are. You can judge this guy as a Neanderthal who knows he’ll be sleeping on the couch until New Years Day if he doesn’t get something. Or you can try to make tomorrow a great day for two people; one you’ve only met once, one you’ll never meet.

“She likes them old books. Jane Austin and stuff, but she’s already read all them Pride and Prejudice ones,” he said, looking a little lost. “And she likes going outside, campin’ and hikin’ and stuff. We both do, really.”

“Okay, sir, that’s really helpful, I think we can find something…”

“An’, an’, she’s kind, but life ain’t all that kind to her, ya know, an’ she been puttin’ up with a lug like me for a long time…”

I fell silent.

“Anyway, you got somethin’ that would be good?”

And now it’s personal. I’m getting this guy something good for his wife if it takes me an hour.

We looked at books of poetry, and he thought she might like Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. We looked at journals, something she could take camping, and picked a good spiral bound one that was on sale. We found her a CD of Bach in the music department that I thought she’d like. I wrapped all of these things, each individually, each in different paper, each with two colors of ribbon wrapped around the gift in different patterns. Finally I omitted the “Star Books” foil stickers. These are from her husband, not from us. He was out the door in under $30, but with some good choices.

“Thanks. I mean, I don’t always know how to find things like that an’…” he trailed off as I put his purchases in a bag and handed him his change.

“Merry Christmas, sir,” I said.

“Yeah. You too, er…” he squinted at my name tag, then muttered something about not having his “readin’ glasses”. And then he offered his hand. I shook it, and he left, smiling a little bit.

“Hey, Chad.” I said as he finished ringing up his customer.

“What’s up?”

“I win.”