It occurred to me over the Thanksgiving weekend that after three years of paid participation in the holiday retail experience, this year I am free to don my civilian garb and stroll blithely past the giftwrap lined trenches in which I used to toil. I have to admit before I started working in a bookstore I never gave much thought to what the month of December means to America’s retail army. But then, on December 1st, 2001, I was hired as holiday help. I hadn’t been at my new gig for longer than a few hours when I was informed that, since there was no time to train me on cash register, phones or anything else really, I would be “designated giftwrapper.” This came as quite a shock. Up until that point, every single gift I had ever purchased had been wrapped by my mother, sisters, or girlfriend. If none of them were available, I would simply present the gift to its recipient in the shopping bag that it came in. That December, though, I put in many hours at the “wrapping station,” struggling with fists full of Scotch tape and wrapping paper as disapproving customers peered over my shoulders.
For many stores, and, it seemed, my independent bookstore in particular, the holiday gift-buying season is vital. Between success and failure lie two dozen days in December. There was a lot of pressure, but it was fun, too. With double the staff and quadruple the customers, the crush of human generosity was heartening.
But the holidays bring out a certain amount of desperation, too. Every year, I fielded scores of questions that were variations of this one: “My dad’s a lawyer. Do you have any books about lawyers?” Or worse: “What do you think I should get my mom?” As I got good at it, I could watch the blind panic fade from their eyes, reassured that the book that I had just slid into their hands might do the trick. As Christmas neared, the real tough cases came out. The frantic parents emptyhanded on the way to the houses of their grown children, or the daughter who decides at the last minute that she’ll get a gift for her step-mother after all, if only just to make her feel guilty. Saddest of all were the drunks on holiday-inspired benders who might stumble in a day or two before Christmas, forgetting why they were there but pulled by some ingrained impulse to try to buy something for someone.
I’ll just be a regular shopper this year, but miss I’ll the frenzied energy of working at the bookstore, and for many Decembers to come, I suspect that the peaceful snowfall of whatever northern clime I inhabit will remind me of December drama at a bookstore nestled in the palm trees of Los Angeles.