Cristin Stickles (with the best Twitter handle ever @ThtsWhatSheRead), the Children’s & Young Adult Buyer at McNally Jackson Books in Manhattan, recently wrote about the very terrifying reality of Elf on the Shelf for BookRiot.
We’ve covered the dark underbelly of Christmas that is represented in this Elf on the Shelf; the implications of its promoting a snitching culture, the racial unrest it leads to, and the overall creepiness of it all. Stickles tackles these issues and more as she examines how this new holiday tradition “is a psychological weapon that perpetuates a culture of fear among children. Still worse, it makes parents active participants in the destruction of childhood wonder.”
She has also reached that point in the holiday retail world where, well, she’s gone a little crazy. It’s a normal condition, quite commonly found in anyone within the general retail working community this time of year, but usually reaches a more virulent and aggressive state among booksellers. That’s science.
Let’s not forget that this whole rant started while she was repeatedly circling a display using her retail Jedi powers to discover what book was missing. A book was missing, a book is always missing, and a true bookseller will always sense a disturbance within their displays.
The best booksellers out there are Jedis, they have to be; have you ever watched a bookseller explain to someone on Christmas Eve that the particular book they’re looking for is out of stock and no, it can’t be ordered in time? Did that customer then destroy the galaxy? Nope. Jedi Bookseller Mind Trick. It’s a thing.
Now that we’ve gotten completely off topic, and apparently tried to establish that the Elf on the Shelf are Stormtroopers and Santa is actually Emperor Palpatine (you have invited that evil into your homes people and only have yourselves to blame), you should go read Stickles’ original post and try, deep down, to remember that Christmas isn’t supposed to be about little snitching backstabbing elves, but a good, old-fashioned year round fear (respect) of your parents.
But, if you haven’t had several meltdowns and completely given up yet like I have, and you’re still out there shopping on Christmas Eve, at least do yourself a favor and just take what they give you.
Looking for a coffee-table pop-up book on late 19th century Japanese warships and you’re given a wonders of the world bargain book? Take it. Need a new charging cable for your Zune? Wait, what? Really? Had your heart set on picking up the bluray of “Star Wars: the Force Awakens” and you know it’s out because you saw it on Amazon—no! It’s pre-order! It just came out in theaters, why do you not understand how the world works? Take that copy of “the Wiz” the salesperson is trying to stab you in the face with and go away.
Those retail employees are one clueless customer away from falling to the Dark Side, and as someone who personally witnessed two Target employees earlier this week have a full-on lightsaber duel in the middle of the electronics section, a Retail Jedi who has given into the hate is not someone you want to mess with.
It happens throughout the year, but it’s during the holidays when this particular customer has the power to reach right into your chest and rip out your heart, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom style. Like Mola Ram, this heartbreaking customer lies in plain sight, manipulating you and all those around them to their evil ends.
Or… in order to purchase Christmas presents. Ok, it may not be quite so sinister as enslaving children and stealing sacred stones towards the ultimate goal of world domination in the name of the great Kali, but it’s pretty up there.
The set-up is that you never see them coming. They usually don’t show up wearing a necklace of teeth or a ram’s skull with a shrunken head mounted on it. Fashion scarves and sensible outerwear, is what this lot typically appears wearing. They seem so sweet, so trustworthy; they could be your mother, your favorite aunt. Don’t let this fool you! They are no less dangerous than Thuggee high priest high on chilled monkey brain and snake surprise.
“I’m looking for this book for my son,” she asked, “I’ve looked on all the tables but can’t seem to find it. It’s called the Boys in the Boat.”
“Oh yeah, we should definitely have that,” I say, and type it in to the computer to pull up where in the store we put it. “I remember when that came out, I think it was one of the Buffalo News’ picks, everyone was looking for it.”
Small talk. I’m not particularly good at small talk, but I try. Usually I lose interest in what I’m saying and just kind of trail off. In most cases, it’s just to stall until our Pentium 4 IBMs can process the search and tell me that the book I’m looking for is, in fact, only six feet away. In my defense, we sold out of the stack of them on the table, so I couldn’t physically see the book from where I was standing. It was only on the floor underneath the table. Shut up.
I took her over, and put the book in her hand as we do, and prepared to have praise showered upon me before returning to the information desk where the next customer will undoubtedly crush out the desperate, smoldering attempt at holiday cheer I feel by yelling at me that we are “raping our customers” because our online prices are lower than those in-store.
But that is not to be, not yet.
“You don’t happen to have this in hardcover, do you? He really prefers that,” she says.
You can’t win.
Da Vinci Code, anything even remotely Harry Potter, or pretty much anything you’ve seen on the bestsellers’ list. These books can spend years in hardcover and all you hear is, “Do you have this in paperback? Why isn’t this in paperback? When is this coming out in paperback? Amazon has this in paperback, you know, I’ll just buy it there.”
Customers will ask for James Patterson’s newest release in paperback. That book came out three weeks ago: spoilers, it’s not in paperback. Not for a year. At least. And Amazon doesn’t have it in paperback, they have the option to preorder it in paperback. When it comes out. In six months.
It never fails though. As soon as it hits paperback and all the hardcovers have been returned because, well, who would want them anymore, that’s when suddenly everyone needs the hardcover. Hey, but sometimes we have one.
“I had one the other day, let me look it up again and see if we still have it.”
I check. One. One book on hand. Usually, this means we’re never going to see it, that we’re never going to find it. It’s difficult enough any other time of year, but Christmas? Yeah, it goes something like this:
you’re going to check the shelf, check the cart, check the other cart, check the sorting table, check the computer for when it came in, check the table again, look at pile of boxes still unopened and wonder, give up, check three other carts just because, look on the return shelf, check the computer again to make sure it wasn’t on hold, hope the hold didn’t expire in the computer but that the book was still physically on the holds shelf, check the shelf again, check the computer again to see when it came in, feel your heart sink when you realize it was six months ago, check the cart, check the shelf and find it.
You found it. You found it one bookshelf over and three shelves down from where it was supposed to be, and in no way alphabetical by author. But it’s there. It’s there!
I hand it over to her, and she’s as excited as I am. The store is incredibly busy, and she saw you running trying to find that single copy for her. Against the odds, you found it and its still looks perfect. It’s a little Christmas miracle.
Until three hours later you find it on the “What Teens are Reading” table under a copy of Hollow City, and your heart breaks a little. This happens all year long, you should be used to it. But it’s always more difficult during the holidays. While you’re searching for these books, dodging customers and digging through carts and shelves to find what they’ve whined about and guilted you to find, while you’re searching for this perfect gift, this present, they absolutely have to have or Christmas is ruined forever, you really think you’re making a difference.
That moment of excitement, of victory, you feel when you find that book—spot it out the corner of your eye on a completely wrong shelf, entirely by chance—is supposed to be exactly what someone is going to feel when they open this gift on Christmas. It’s a little Christmas present from Jesus and Santa and the bookselling gods, all for you.
So it hurts. It hurts when, for whatever reason (and one completely out of your control) you find that book discarded hours later. That was your connection to someone, your contribution to making someone’s holiday just a little bit more special. This time of year, it will crush your holiday spirit, and every time it will break your heart, just a little.
Some of these heartbreakers you can spot. You’ll start to predict when you’ll find that book later that night; their hesitation taking it from your hand, their instantly asking the price, them immediately slapping you in the face with it. (At which point, according to the code of bookseller conduct, you must challenge them to a dual at sunrise the next Tuesday before the new releases are put on sale.) Some take you by surprise. But if you want to work in a bookstore for Christmas, you won’t let it stop you. You can’t. You have to keep going, keep smiling, keep searching and checking and double checking for whatever crazy thing they may be asking for. One in ten might break your heart, but the rest? Well, actually, the rest will break your heart too.
It should still break, but for a different reason. Instead, it should break a little each time because the rest of those people, each and every one of those customers, now have that perfect gift they were looking for. On Christmas morning, they’ll get to see someone’s face light up as they open it. It might be the first book in a series a kid was hoping for, it could be a memoir by someone’s favorite musician, it might be a party game they want to open immediately and start playing.
That’s why you go home every day exhausted and sore and with your feet soaking in sweat and reeking in a way you never imagined possible. Seriously, it feels like you’re walking on sponges—that’s not normal. But it’s ok. It’s ok. As long as you remember that every person who walks through those doors isn’t just asking for your help, they are inviting you to be a part of their holiday experience. You’re not a computer screen promising free shipping if they spend a little more money. You’re the person who saw in their face just how much they wanted this game or movie or terrible teen series about steampunk assassins fighting supernatural in a prep school on the site of a former psych hospital, and you checked every shelf, every cart and shoved that old lady out of your way to get that perfect item for them.
They can’t do it without you. Literally. They can’t. These people will wander around the store in a daze until you ask them what they’re looking for. If it wasn’t for you they’d still be there at four in the morning wandering in slow motion down the middle of the aisle and stopping randomly for no reason at all.
Instead, because of you, they’re able to make someone’s Christmas. So be ready for the heartbreaker who will hide the book you found for them under that giant pile of Sons of Anarchy Collector’s Edition—no, I’m just kidding. We don’t have that, no one does, that’s on backorder until Valentine’s.
Be ready for them, those spirit-crushers who don’t realize finding that book for them was the sad high point of your day. But be ready for the other heartbreakers, too. The ones who take the books you found for them and give them a special place under their tree, who get excited to watch it get opened, who have given it a place in the life of someone they care about. You are going to save Christmas. You are going to change someone’s life.
So stay strong, don’t forget to smile, always double check the shelf, and for God’s sake man, change your socks.
It’s been a difficult Christmas. But aren’t they all?
There are a lot of reasons that go into why; from the typical Christmas present buying stress that everyone feels to the typical Christmas present shopping stress that every retail employee feels (the knowledge that before or after your shift of dealing with stupid people, you have to become one of the stupid people); there’s certain ‘first Christmas’ jitters that comes with a new relationship, with new friends, new people. All of these things, if left unchecked, can add a little more anxiety to the already rushed and overwhelming holiday season.
There’s the stress involved in surviving a retail Christmas when the team of people you depend on for exactly that—to survive; to make it out without too severe a nervous tick or a larger drinking problem then at the start—has changed. A few months before the holiday season kicked into gear a total management shift left me with a team that I didn’t know. This was a team pulled together from multiple stores, with new skills and ways of doing things. I was depending on strangers, essentially, and counting on people I didn’t know to pull together during the most intense period of time in retail. That experience alone is already a difficult process, but to do it during the time of year when we’re already overworked and ready to collapse can be a recipe for disaster.
I’ve survived. More or less.
I’ve survived because of something that happened to me the first Christmas I worked at the bookstore. No, it wasn’t the Mary-Kate & Ashley Olsen official fan club key-chain I found on the floor that year. Sadly, that was lost when my car was broken into or I’d still have my store keys hanging from it. (I’ve been on the lookout since for a new one, in case you come across one) It wasn’t the keychain, it wasn’t a physical thing so much as it was something that happened. I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone this story, but it comes to me every once in a while when I get run down at work. When I get exhausted, frustrated and question why I’m doing this, why I want to work here anymore, this is what I remember. It’s good to have a story like this.
I was hired in the spring to work in the stockroom, but a week or two before Thanksgiving I got pulled out onto the book floor. I was going up to the Show, right? This was my big chance to help out at the customer service desk. To the detriment of my sanity, I’ve remained out there pretty much ever since. It seems, unfortunately, that I’m quite good at it. I am apparently able to switch on this alternate persona of “Customer Service Matt” who is cheerful and talkative, and able to engage in smalltalk.
That’s how I ended up working Christmas Eve. That’s how I ended up finding that Olsen twins key-chain. That’s how, about a half hour or so before we closed, I met this mother. At that point in the night we were all chomping at the bit a little. We could taste the eggnog waiting at home and wanted to close up, sticker all the calendars half-off as quickly as possible and get out. We were all in recovery mode, which means putting back together a store that just did two days’ worth of sales in eight hours. We were tired. We were dragging. Everything hurt.
What customers were left fell into two categories: oblivious that it was Christmas Eve or pissed off at us that we didn’t have whatever book they just realized they needed. The book they were looking for was either some obscure title that hasn’t been in print in this country in twenty years, or the must-have biography that year that’s been on backorder across the entire world since Thanksgiving. You don’t want to deal with either group. They’re both complete time-sucks.
A woman came up to me as I was straightening up a table. She was a little frazzled and asked about a specific children’s book. Just what I needed. Half an hour to go and I was forced to venture into the post-apocalyptic wasteland that was the Children’s Department. On a Wednesday night in July you can’t get within five feet of Childrens’ without losing an hour of your life, but during the Christmas season? You stumble out days later, disoriented and near death, hoping one of the girls from the café is nearby with a tray of cheesecake samples you can gorge yourself on.
It only got worse after looking up this title that I had never heard of before as it turned out we had one copy. One. It had come in back in July. It could be anywhere. It could be nowhere. All I could imagine was ending my first retail Christmas by having my ass handed to me by this petite blonde woman over a kid’s book she had realized twenty minutes ago was the most important thing in the world to her.
And so we went to search the shelves, excavate the debris of discarded holiday purchases, forgotten coffee cups, narrowly avoiding a collapsing cardboard display, and what I hoped to Krampus was only a brownie mashed into the carpet. I was a retail Indiana Jones on a quest for the one true cup—or book. This was life or death. The clock was ticking here; the first closing announcement was moments away.
In this situation you’re prepared for one of two reactions from the customer: a burning festive fury or utter indifference. Either you don’t have the book and you just ruined their Christmas, in which case they will make sure you damn well know what a disappointment you are, or you have it and get a mumbled thank you (if that, in some cases) as they run for the registers.
But there it was! I slid it off the shelf slowly, silently, in complete awe at its pristine condition. I was as surprised as she was it was there and I have to admit, I was pretty proud of myself. Deep down I didn’t expect her to share my excitement or even congratulate me on what I saw as winning a hard-fought battle. It was less than that, I didn’t even expect a thank you. I expected her to take the book and disappear into the fog of faceless, thankless customers that had come before her.
Instead, she hugged me.
With tears in her eyes she explained why, at the last minute, she needed this particular book. Her son was sick. He was spending his Christmas in the hospital and I got the impression that he had been hospitalized for a quite a while. On Christmas Eve she had remembered this book, perhaps it was one she had read as a kid, that book that somehow retained all of wonder and excitement that Christmas possesses for you as a child and suddenly wanted to share that with him. There was nothing more she wanted then to spend Christmas Eve reading it to her son. More than any other gift, she wanted to read this story to him, she wanted to share this story, this piece of Christmas magic with him.
She said it was a Christmas miracle. I’d heard that phrase a few times already, and countless times since. Most of the time now we mean it more as a joke than anything else. We found a book actually shelved alphabetically by author like it was supposed to be. Christmas miracle. More often than not we’d find that Christmas miracle in a pile of discarded books for us to put back on the shelf later that night. That saying doesn’t carry much weight anymore. The miracle lasts right up until the moment they see how long the line is. But this one was.
I don’t know her name; I didn’t ask her son’s. I didn’t ask what hospital he was in and I don’t know if he’s even still alive. I believe he is. I decided years ago he was, and not just because this would be a terrible story otherwise. Of course, I wouldn’t recognize the woman now; it’s been too long and there have been too many faces since. She could have come in a hundred times since then and I wouldn’t have known. But I remember the tears in her eyes and I remember her story.
When this store, this job, when this holiday season that’s lost its spark starts crushing me and I feel defeated by the negativity of customers or coworkers, and expectations, by my own pessimism, and by the seemingly endless repetitious pointlessness of it all, I remember this story.
I remember there was one copy of that book, just one copy that had sat lost and ignored on the shelf, unwanted as the thousands of people tore at the titles around it. One copy that, at the last minute, was needed to share this sliver of love and wonder and Christmas magic with a little boy too sick to spend Christmas Eve in his own bed at home. I hope he remembers that story, and remembers to be thankful for the people he spends his holidays with, for the experiences each day that make all this worth it. I hope he reads that book to his kids years from now and maybe he even tells them how their grandmother suddenly went out on Christmas Eve to find it for him they stayed up late while she read it to him. He should add to his version of the story a terrible snow storm his mother had to battle through. It might add a little more excitement to it. A little embellishment isn’t so bad. Over the years of remembering and clinging to this story I may have exaggerated my memory of it. I might remember him as being much sicker then he was. For all I know he only had a broken leg or his tonsils out, and his mother is a very emotional woman who unintentionally led me to believe the kid was on his deathbed. I like the story I have now. It’s a good story. It’s special to me.
I hope the story that he has to be special for him. I hope that picture book gives him a reason to find that something hopeful and brand new in a holiday that so many of us have buried beneath a pile of meaningless presents.
So I remember.
I remember this mother, running out at the last minute on Christmas Eve, not to buy some toy or other empty thing, but instead to buy this book, a story, an opportunity to create a beautiful memory in being able to read this story to her son. That’s the only Christmas miracle I believe in.
Maybe you said it enough for both of us that night, with tears in your eyes and the excitement of going back to your son victorious, but I’m the one who should have said it. Thank you.