Okay, it’s December. I’m willing to talk Christmas now, and – after decades in retail – I’m also willing to actually enjoy Christmas, too. Last year was my first non-retail Christmas since I was a kid, and it was incredible. I’m hoping for a repeat. But the experience of working in a bookstore has taught me that it might be helpful to be… well… helpful. You might be facing a Christmas ahead of you where you wish to purchase a book for the booklover in your life. Now, if you’re a booklover yourself, you’re probably raising your eyebrow right now and wondering how this could possibly be a problem.
Believe me when I say, every year folks came into the store with almost zero information for booksellers to work with. You might think I’m kidding, but I mean it.
So. Let’s talk.
First, let me be honest here, and say I’m fairly certain I’m writing this advice for men. Married men. Married men with wives who are voracious readers. Married men with wives who are voracious readers who themselves don’t read a lot (and/or don’t read what their wives read). Oh, and they’re going to probably wait until December 20th or later to go buy a present.
This may sound like a huge stereotype I’m putting forth here, but, again, believe me. It’s a thing.
Let me try to make this easier. Understand, you’ll still need to do something, but I’m going to try and take some of the heavy lifting off with some tips and tricks.
Shall we begin?
- Did you ask? This may sound simple, but again, it came up a lot. Did you ask the reader what they might like to read next? I know, I know, if you’re looking to surprise someone, maybe that tips your hand, but you can be sneaky here and get a friend to pop the question – especially if the booklover in your life has another booklover friend and they trade books. Once you learn of a title the booklover wants? Write. It. Down. No, you won’t remember. Write it down. Preferably not in an e-mail you’ll be scrolling through your in-box for five minutes or more trying to locate. Use a note app. Or, y’know, paper. Tell that title to the bookseller and ta-da! Magic.But, okay, say you don’t want to spoil it, or you want to find something awesome the booklover doesn’t even know about. Well, that brings me to my next suggestion.
- Got a smart-phone? Take a picture of the booklover’s books. Now, ideally, you’d take more time than that and actually write down the authors from some of the books you’ve seen the booklover read, but the shortest and least-effort version of this would be to snap a photo on your device of choice of the covers of, say, one shelf, or a single pile of recently loved books you’ve seen this person reading. Giving this information to a bookseller is gold.
- I know my booklover loves this particular author! I only want a book by that author!. This is a big thing, and it comes up a lot. But there can be issues with this shopping method. When the booklover is voraciously loyal to their main authors, and the most recent book is more than a few weeks (or months) since release day – chances are the booklover probably already has the book. Obviously, it’s not too hard to look at their bookshelf (and e-reader) to double-check, but don’t set your heart on “the Newest Danielle Steel” if your booklover is always there on release day for the newest Danielle Steel. I mean, hey, if you’ve got a deal about not buying things for yourselves in November and December, maybe you’ll get lucky, but…
- What do you mean it’s sold out? It’s a bestseller! Also, there’s another scenario that can come up when you go in with one title in specific for your booklover: it can be sold out. Especially super-popular authors. Bestsellers are called bestsellers because they sell the best. That includes selling out. Publishers wind down way before Christmas, and if you’re shopping December 20-somethingth and something is sold out, well, that’s not the bookseller’s fault.
- But what am I going to do? I’d only really thought of that one book! Well, if you brought information (like, say, the list of authors the person likes, or a snapshot of their shelf), and you’ve got a bookseller with you, you’re in luck. Recommending new authors is sort of the best part of bookselling. Seriously. Someone’s read all the Sidney Sheldon and Jackie Collins books? Allow me to introduce you to Rebecca Chance. This is where the magic is at, folks. It’s a wonderful opportunity to try something awesome, and those booksellers are fonts of information. Give them a try. And listen to them. Especially you aunts and uncles and grandparents out there buying for young adults and tweens and younger? Booksellers will know what’s good for an age-range.
- I want my kid/grandchild/nephew/niece to read something other than graphic novels. Okay, how can I put this? Shut up. Buy them a graphic novel that they want to read. The joy is in the reading. Graphic novels are awesome and you want them to enjoy reading. Even if everything you read is high-class nonfiction factbooks one assumes you’re doing so because you enjoy it. Let them enjoy whatever the heck they’re reading. I promise you, that’s more important than whether or not they are reading thick tomed books without illustrations. Force them to read something they don’t like and all you’ll do is kill the motivation to read. Make other books available, sure. But it’s a holiday. Give ’em something you know they’ll like. (The same advice here for reluctant readers of any age – let them read what they love. They’ll get there on their own much faster if you let them build confidence with things they love. Ask the bookseller for comparable stuff, but don’t say things like, ‘but I want it to be a more advanced read than what he’s doing right now.’)
- I literally have zero idea what to get the booklover, and I didn’t listen to your advice up there about photos or lists or whatever. Please make this something I don’t have to do. Okay, first: relax. It kind of sucks that you don’t know anything about this person’s reading habits, but there’s still hope. What kind of television shows do they watch? Movies? Even if you don’t know the books, presumably you know something about what makes them tick. Do they like to laugh? Are they more serious? Watch sports? There’s pretty much a book for every darn thing under the sun. I promise that bookseller will have an idea.
- I don’t like any of the half-dozen things this bookseller has suggested. Okay. Here’s the thing. It’s the holiday season, you’re probably tired and overwhelmed, and I’m willing to bet that bookseller is also tired and overwhelmed. It may happen that communication isn’t working: you’ve told the bookseller the person likes to laugh, watches funny movies, and they’ve suggested some fun and funny books that – for whatever reason – don’t jive with the person you’re buying for (probably due to facets of that booklover’s life or personality the bookseller has no way of knowing). Try giving some more details, sure. But if you’re not finding what you’re looking for, I’m going to gently suggest a gift card. Because the bookseller is a font of information, they’re doing their best, but sometimes, there’s not a good match. And there’s probably a dozen other people that bookseller needs to help, too, and neither of you are getting anywhere helpful, right? Maybe take a walk around the store and see if anything jumps out at you before picking up that gift card, but cut the poor bookseller loose. I personally have a kind of “three-strike” rule in my head. I don’t make any clerk at any store give me more than three options. If I’ve turned them down three times on their suggestions, I know they’ve tried. They’re not perfect. Lord knows I’m not perfect. I let them go, especially if the store is packed. And, like I said: gift card. It’s a valid choice, dude.
- I can’t give them a gift card. That’s a cop out. So, booklovers love books. Often, they don’t treat themselves to the really expensive books – be that hardcovers, or a nice new edition of a book they’ve already got, or a book that isn’t on sale, or… all sorts of things. But let me state this clearly: Booklovers freaking love gift cards for bookstores. It’s permission to indulge in something they love! I cannot tell you the joy on the faces of the booklovers when they whip out that pile of giftcards and realize that whole stack of books they just brought up to the cash is going to cost them nothing! If it really does make you feel twitchy to buy just a gift card, there are great ways to dress this up with minimal effort: do they read in the bath? Get some bubble bath and wrap it up with the gift card and add a note the gift comes with a full hour of uninterrupted tub-and-book time. Or maybe a small packet of their favourite tea, or some coffee, or chocolate, or whatever other indulgence you see said booklover coupling with their quality reading time. One of my favourite presents ever was from a friend who knew me so well that she got me a freaking tub of wine-gums and stuck the gift-card to the top of the tin. It still makes me misty-eyed. Also, now I want wine-gums.
- This bookseller hasn’t read the book I want to know about. This happens. There are millions of books in print, and they arrive daily. My best year, ever, I read two books every three days. I was also single, working full-time at the bookstore (where I was allowed to borrow hardcover books), and broke. My entire entertainment world was books. I didn’t have cable, or a radio. These days, what with having a husband, and also being a writer, and owning a dog, and sometimes even going out to see friends, I average a book or two a week. There is no way I could possibly read everything. If it was a popular book or a bestseller, I was likely to know about it, and if another staff member had read the book, we always shared notes. But no, it is not reasonable for you to get annoyed if the bookseller hasn’t read the book you want to know about. Book blurbs, book reviews, critical reviews printed in the front pages of the book, those are helpful. Being annoyed that the bookseller hasn’t read a particular book isn’t.
- I’m in a really bad mood, and the mall is packed, and I’m tired, and I just want this to be over. Man. I’ve been there. Especially December 20th through the 24th. Those days are killer. Chin up. Be polite. And remember the most important thing: none of what you’re feeling is the bookseller’s fault. Don’t take it out on them. A single polite customer who is genuinely grateful for the help they get will carry a bookseller for hours, dude. Be that guy, not the one making it worse for everyone around them.
- Okay, fine, yeah, I waited too long and this is my fault and I’m buying for a book-lover and didn’t bother to learn anything about what they like and I refuse to get them a gift card but maybe they already have too many books. No. Just… No.
I hope there’s a nugget or two of help in the above, and I hope I don’t offend with the tongue-in-cheekness. The biggest thing you can do, obviously, is plan a bit ahead. Write some stuff down. Do your homework. And, as the wonderful Wil Wheaton puts it, ‘Don’t be a dick.’ But all humour aside, believe me when I say the best thing you’ve got going for you in a bookstore is the booksellers. The vast majority of them love what they do.
I did. For decades. Finding out about new authors and new books and talking about it all with fellow booksellers is still the thing I miss the most.