Today business starts heating up at about the same time the store does. High winds knocked out the power, and the first order of the day is hitting the restart button on the furnace. This 100-year-old bank building with its marble floor, tin ceiling, huge glass windows, vault, and drive-up window is aesthetically pleasing but a challenge to heat. I keep on all my coats and sweaters, and while Sandy goes about the routines of opening, I order 118 books, mostly special orders, from two wholesalers.
Sandy, The Big Author’s gift to booksellers, is back from college to work for a couple weeks. We do a little dance behind the counter and occasionally answer the phone simultaneously as we get used to working together again, but mostly I feel like I have two or three brains instead of one, and four hands instead of two. Two customers stand at the counter, and we can help them both at the same time.
Pretty soon we are in full swing. Credit cards, gift wrap, books, twenty-dollar bills, gift certificates, all warm our blood as the heat starts to overcome its challenges. The high winds (one customer reports 70 mph!) have brought in colder temperatures and changed the rain to ice and snow, and it looks like Christmas again. All the schools in the area are closed, and kids and parents are shopping together. It’s the season of giving, I hear one mother insist to her son, explaining that they are there to pick out presents for other people, not for him, but when he isn’t looking she sneaks books over to the counter and Sandy hides them in a bag within a bag, Santa’s secrets safe.
Vinnie arrives with boxes and boxes of books and by noon the counter looks like the layers of an archeological dig. The pile for customers I will be able to reach about their special orders, the pile for customers who aren’t home, the pile for people who don’t want to be called, the pile of books to be mailed, books, papers, new orders, somewhere there is Scotch tape and the phone number of that person I was going to call back and an invoice I need to price this book and I want one of those sifting tools they use at a dig, at least for my mind. I make all the phone calls to tell people their books have arrived. It is a task I could easily delegate and often do, but this time of year I like to do it because it’s a little like delivering flowers; it’s good news, and the appreciation in people’s voices pays me for fretting about whether the books will arrive on time. When I call Will to tell him X-Presidents is here, his four-year-old son answers, and we have a very sweet conversation while he figures out I am calling from the bookstore, not the pet store. I might give that one another try tomorrow, on the off chance Will doesn’t get the message
Somewhere, we find room on the counter to gift-wrap. It’s free, and we’re quick, and customers love the paper, “stars and moons” and “snowpeople” as I insist on calling them. Here is a little game I play: Try to guess which customers will accept the offer of gift wrapping. Here are the clues: Most men reply with an enthusiastic and incredulous yes, thinking, this must be their lucky day. Many women say, “No, that’s OK, I can do it,” as if they would like to accept, but are so used to having to do everything, they really can’t give it up. Many other women say, “Hell yes,” if not in so many words; they know a good deal when it stares them in the face. Sometimes I like to try to encourage the reluctant ones: I’m happy to do it/It’s no problem/It’ll just take a minute … It feels like trying to convince a friend to stay for another beer when she feels obligated to go home and clean the bathroom. “Well, if you don’t mind,” they might say slowly as they change their mind, and I’m off, another convert, another person leaving with more than she expected. People get very excited about gift wrap. Nice paper, neat corners, a sticky label, and a few pleasant words while you put it all together—that little bit of energy comes back to you and magnifies when you hand a customer their bag. It takes so little to make people happy.
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