bookstores, giving, strangers

Bookstores before Christmas

Let me begin by saying I love Christmas. I am Jewish, and I love Christmas. It is more complicated than that, obviously. Half of my family is one religion, Jewish, and the other is Catholic. At different times throughout my life, I have identified as a Cashew, or as Jew-ish. I’ll save my religious identity for some other time, because it has nothing to do with my love for Christmas.

Christmas, to me, is about presents. This comes from being raised in a household where religion was either forced upon us kids or nonexistent after we rebelled against it. (We were spoiled, and if we refused to go to Sunday school, we won!) We didn’t go to church, didn’t go to temple after second grade or thereabouts, but we still selected, wrapped, gave and received presents. I’m sure my conditioning as an American consumer also influenced my love for this most famous gift-giving day, but I prefer to think that I enjoy celebrating family, togetherness, and giving tokens of care to my family and close friends.

And, I love a sale.

There are two types of retail employees you’ll encounter at the holidays. When I was a bookstore employee, I was generally of the camp that is just SO FLIPPING EXCITED to be a part of holiday joy that no amount of snow or lack of parking would harsh my vibe. I was Happy to Help, and it helped that my position was mostly cashier and not customer service; that meant that I didn’t have to spend a great deal of time dealing with frantic people and trying to find whatever godforsaken item they wanted. I just got to take their money and send them on their way. With a smile! And sometimes forgetting to put their bookmarks into their bags! Bookmarks are small, you guys, and there is so much Necessary Cash Wrap Shit (manuals?? Yes. Gift card covers?? In spades. Random detritus, you bet!!) under the counter that you can’t see.

The other retail employee variety is sullen, angry, and resentful of all this joy bullshit because what the hell, there were no parking spaces and if one more person screams at me about a book that sold out in stores AND online, I swear to god… Given my anti-people tendencies, I could have ended up being this bah-humbug person, but I was spared by the mercy of seasonal work. I worked during breaks from college, and so got to recharge my batteries and surround myself with pleasant (or not pleasant, but at least non-Customers) people in my daily life.

Even when I was depressed, hated my first full-time job & my ex-boyfriend & my new city & myself–in the classroom and out, coming home and working over Christmas worked its magic. I dressed up in all the reds and festive dress and enthusiastically shouted “I can help you here!!!!!” with a little wave. I became the best version of myself I knew to be. Friendly, perky, helpful and funny. My managers had my back, my coworkers made me laugh, and there were no parent emails to answer. There were no children talking back, and if someone didn’t listen to me, I waited until they were ready, wasting no one’s time but their own.

Here, in addition to Customers, there were people who cared about other people and wanted to show them that through books (or stationery, or music, or puzzles or games or Lego). Here, there were people with seven extra dollars to donate to children who were spending the holidays in a hospital. Here, now, there was nonstop Christmas music, and the giftwrapping volunteers –hallelujah!– so we didn’t have to wrap cylindrical items with micromanager Customers watching like hawks, eager to interject!

When that same ex-boyfriend’s intimidating mother ended up at my counter due to some divine curse of timing, my face did not break its fierce smile. I squeaked through small-talk, nervous and an octave higher than I usually use, but I was polite and helpful and kind and I can’t remember but I probably said “give my love to everyone” or made a joke, or some such desperation. After all, it had been exactly one year prior that I had met her son, in the very same place. When her transaction was complete, I could not unglue my frozen smile from my face and in a jittery voice told my next customer, “that was my ex-boyfriend’s mother! Do I look okay? Was I cool!? Or weird?!” And she, a beautiful, friendly middle-age black lady, told me “you look adorable. I love your [red] skirt! You did great, honey!”

And that impulse towards kindness is one example of why I love retail. And bookstores. And shopping in brick-and-mortar buildings, with human people to Help you checkout and Help you be a human.

This week, I fear I have become a Customer. I called the bookstore yesterday, while driving there before work, and asked whether a book was in stock. As is now the custom, they placed it on hold for me so I could glide in and not have to dilly-dally, heading straight to checkout like a VIP. I was disappointed when I approached the counter to learn that I had gotten the non-cheery version of retail employee. She was not unkind, and did not rush me, but when my coupon didn’t work, I did the previously-detestable and walked out without buying what a bookstore employee had specifically taken the time to locate for me. I had turned my back on the retail codebook.

I mean, shit, I might as well have bought an Elf on the Shelf.

But, tomorrow is another day, and today, I received another coupon. So I’ll be back this week to redeem myself and buy that hardcover book because this gifty season is the only time I would ever consider doing such a thing. I might even blow $5 and get a peppermint mocha, with almond milk and maybe extra whip, and drink it while browsing.

And, you can bet your ass that when that beverage is empty, it will find its way to a garbage can. I have not forgotten everything I learned in retail.

2 thoughts on “Bookstores before Christmas”

  1. I love how you describe brick and mortar shopping, with human people helping you to be human. One of the reasons I still like to do it and don’t cave to the amazon prime two-day delivery (mostly). However, sometimes, the human interactions creates anger in me. Something that you also touch upon briefly. Thanks for sharing! I’m excited to keep reading 🙂


    1. I by no means ONLY shop in stores, but I try to as much as I can. Yet another reason I love being in retail around the holidays–there are so many people! Yes, this results in lines/personal space limitations, but.. There is also a vibrancy 🙂 And until I find a local gathering place that is not based in capitalism, I will continue to love retail at the holidays.
      Also, I DO get impatient in lines. Just far far slower than most, because I know what it’s like to be the cashier. But I’m also far more aware when cashiers aren’t doing what they’re supposed to, too.
      Thanks for reading, friend!


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