Thursday, December 10, 2015


It's eight years since I worked in a bookshop at Christmas, but even now a split second of 'Let it Snow' makes me flinch like a dog that has been kicked too many times. It's too late to change. Nineteen Christmases in bookselling have reduced my festive spirit to a shrivelled husk. Why did I do it?

On reflection, my relationship with bookselling has mirrored Elizabeth K├╝bler-Ross's model for the five stages of grieving:

1. Denial: This is just a temporary expedient while I find something that is more suited to my talents.

2. Anger: It's been two years now. I'm skint and I still have no idea what to do with my life.

3. Bargaining: While I'm here, I may as well apply for that floor mananger job in Kingston.

4. Depression: I've just turned 30 and I'm still working in a bookshop. What a loser.

5. Acceptance: Actually, there are worse jobs than this. At least I'm a manager now. The pay is better, the work can be interesting and most of my colleagues are lovely people.

As time went on I began to appreciate my work far more, particularly when I worked for Ottakar's. How many other jobs would have given me the opportunity to discuss bedtime reading with Katie Price, or bemoan the state of the book trade with Jacqueline Wilson while sitting on a moving merry-go-round?

But the price for these precious moments was a heavy one: Christmas. I'm not just talking about the Phil Spector loop tapes, but also the sheer volume of books that had to be sold in November and December. It was exhausting.

Most branches of retail sensibly spread their sales across the year. However, in the book trade, 50% of the income is earned during the last ten weeks of the year and much of that money comes from a relatively small selection of bestsellers - usually hardbacks that consist of the following:

  • Two ghostwritten celebrity memoirs, one of which will be by someone in Eastenders
  • A sci-fi/fantasy novel by a man called Terry
  • The new Patricia Cornwell thriller
  • The Guinness Book of Records
  • A biography of a very dull sportsperson/yachtswoman/commentator
  • A quirky, humourous title that has taken everyone by surprise
  • A Jamie Oliver cookery book
  • A Nigella Lawson cookery book
  • A tie-in with a television series on BBC1, usually presented by a man called David
  • The Booker Prize winner, if it's by an author whose name is pronounceable
  • A misery memoir of horrific child abuse - Happy Christmas!
  • A beautiful children's pop-up book, handmade by Bolivian peasants earning 50p an hour
  • A stocking filler about bodily functions
  • The Friendship Book
These books will be given as presents and very few people will actually ever read them, but they are the bread and butter of the publishing industry, making the difference between profit and loss.

As a manager, I knew that my head was on the block. If I ran out of any bestselling titles, it was a big black mark. However, if I ordered too much stock and was still stuck with it on December 27th, I would also be in trouble.

In addition to the bestellers, there were plenty of other things that could go wrong and at some point in the early hours of the morning, I would often wake up and go through tedious lists in my head:
  • Did we have enough Book Tokens?
  • Remember to increase the change float for the weekend.
  • Find out if any of the weekend staff can cover if someone phones in sick.
  • Don't forget to check that we have enough carrier bags.
  • Get more of that bestelling pop-up book because it won't be reprinted before Christmas.
  • Mustn't forget to refresh the window display.
  • Tell X that they can't block the fire exit with boxes.
  • Check last year's sales to see how many Jamie Olivers sold in the final week.
  • Make sure the sale posters have arrived.
  • Check WH Smith to see if they're selling Y for less than us.
What sort of person lies awake at night worrying about carrier bags? But like the nail that lost the kingdom in the famous nursery rhyme, their absence would spell disaster. And if we ran out of change, then harikiri was the only viable option.

The challenge of having to take five times as much money, unpack five times as many deliveries and have enough staff to cover these tasks (and the extended opening hours) was a daunting prospect, but I learned how to avoid the pitfalls and genuinely enjoyed the challenge and camaraderie.


I miss that moment on Christmas Eve, after the doors have finally closed, when you know that the madness is over for another year and that in spite of sickness, missing deliveries and dreadful weather, you've pulled it off. After wishing the staff a Happy Christmas, you walk around the empty shop and take stock (not literally, I hasten to add), looking at the books that surprised everyone by becoming bestsellers and those that were supposed to, but didn't.

Your 16-year-old self would probably be rather disappointed that you've ended up running a shop, but there's not much call for third-rate composers these days and after all, this is a bookshop. So many people would think that having a whole bookshop to yourself is heaven and suddenly, you realise that they're right.


Helena said...

Surely of all shops which could do without Christmas (or any) music, a bookshop qualifies?

But having also worked in a shop at Christmas time, I do understand the points you are making. Decades ago I worked on the men's sock counter on Christmas Eve, having worked on the tie counter the day before. I don't think my manager hated me; it was just that I was a Saturday girl so had to do the worst jobs when I had the nerve to work a normal day too. I actually quite enjoyed helping people match their shirts and jumpers...

It's good to hear from you again!

Steerforth said...

Helena - I agree about the music. I used to ban the Phil Spector/Dean Martin compilations in favour of Carols From Kings - at a suitably low volume.

Rosemary said...

At least you wouldn't have the carrier bag problem any more now. And probably not the change, really, since everyone seems to pay with cards. You might have the problem of mixing up the orders with the click 'n' collect, though.

Steerforth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steerforth said...

I'll try again, without typos:

Rosemary, from what I've heard, I'd be too busy making coffee and serving cakes to deal with any customer orders.

Roger Allen said...

On Christmas music:

The staff canteen serving the BBC rehearsal rooms in Acton, west London, always afforded wonderful opportunities for producers like me to spot off-duty stars such as Sir John Gielgud or Twiggy, both of whose smiles could light up the whole room. But no one matched the impact made by Warren Mitchell one wintry day at Christmas time in the 1990s.

I was eating my turkey “special” meal with its obligatory congealing gravy, feeling mildly irritated by the endless round of Jingle Bells and other seasonal piped music. Suddenly an unmistakable voice could be heard booming out, “The BBC ...”, which instantly caught everyone’s attention.

It was Warren [Mitchel] in his Alf Garnett incarnation, who continued: “The BBC has the finest record collection in the world. They have magnificent music of incomparable beauty. They have uplifted us with Christmas carols of the highest quality year after year, performed by world-class singers and musicians, decade after decade. So why, why, why do we have to listen to this shit?” He received a standing ovation.

Steerforth said...

Roger- Oh, I wish I'd been there. I had no idea that the BBC canteen had piped music to go with the hideous food.

Coline said...

Not exactly a book shop, but my first job was driving Santa's sleigh!

Well a fake department store santa who letched after his bunny girl assistants... He was a generous Santo though and handed out presents of D C Thompson comic annuals worth more than the cost of the visit. A whole truck load of those books had to be wrapped in christmas paper!

For the whole eight weeks before christmas there was only one track of a 45 rpm single set to repeat, I have blanked out what it was but still run mentally screaming from any shop playing "christmas" music.

The disc was finally flipped when santa took his bunny girls for a sleigh ride after the last customer on christmas eve...

Steerforth said...

Coline - As first jobs go, that's one of the more interesting ones I've come across! Eight weeks sounds an awfully long time to drive a sleigh and listen to one record - no wonder you still recoil from Christmas music in shops. The one track that makes me fume with rage more than any other is 'Let it Snow'. I don't know why.

Lucy R. Fisher said...

So here it is, Merry Christmas, everybody's having fun - at least the harmonies are interesting? Who likes those ghastly Christmas compilations?

George said...

Steerforth: I can only say that I doubt the music was worse than I heard piped into an American department store one Christmas season in the late 1970s. I needed the work, but it left me with a distaste for a whole range of Christmas music. (Or generic holiday music--what in particular do "Let it Snow" or "Jingle Bells" have to do with Christmas?) I doubt I disliked so much of it before.

Oh, and Over Here one can substitute Ina Garten ("the barefoot contessa") for either of Jamie Oliver or Nigella Lawson. I know: I have. And in Washington, there is usually someone who has held high elective or appointed office with a memoir out.

Coline: the American writer Larry King wrote once that his father told him that department store Santa was the hardest job he had ever held. Since the senior Mr. King had been a blacksmith, cotton farmer (in the days when tractors had not replaced mules) and oil field roughneck, this surprised his son. The father said that repeatedly lifting children onto the knee, while one is sitting, is a lot of work; and the children were often ungrateful and given to tugging on the beard and such practices. I don't condone sexual harassment, but I do understand how the department store Santas might get a bit eccentric.

Dale said...

Memorable Christmas jobs:
I remember one year in Amsterdam having to work up till late on Christmas Eve, when the science publisher I edited for was preparing papers for a NASA moon-rock symposium in the USA in January. This was before email or even fax existed, so communications were slow, and we had to have the book of symposium papers ready well in advance and shipped by express, which took about 4-5 days.

Walking back and forwards to the printer on Christmas Eve along the old canals, through the snow, may have been romantic, but I developed a raging fever and spent Christmas in bed ill. The printer had to work right through Christmas, but then Sinterklaas (December 5) is the bigger deal in the Netherlands anyway.

Another memorable Christmas job was in New Zealand as a university student, making electric blankets. The factory sacked all the temporary staff on Christmas Eve, then re-hired us after a few days' break. The miserable sods thereby avoided having to shell out a few pennies on holiday pay. Scrooge was a beginner.

Katharine A said...

A lovely post, and I bet your bookshop paid tax too. I really try & avoid amazon for that reason and also because you can't leaf through propsective purchases online.

Peter Sipe said...

Excellent account! (And nice save there at the end. It was looking grim for the Christmas spirit at halftime.)

The closest I've come to working in retail was a paper route. I grew to dread Decembers because the papers were fattened with ads.

I will say that having two two-and-a-half-year-olds has got me listening to Christmas music on the radio whenever I'm in the car - not something I did three Christmases ago, believe me - and their joy when they hear "Jingle Bells" (which for them includes many songs of various titles) causes my icicle heart to melt a drip or two. God bless us, every one.

PS in response to your "Why did I do it?" query, you neglected to mention your followers' reading enjoyment!

Steerforth said...

Lucy - The one Christmas compilation I secretly love is James Last at Christmas. It's quite awful, but it was my father's favourite record and when I play it, it's as if he's in the room with me.

George - I'd never heard of Ina Garten (so much for globalisation), but she looks like the US equivalent of our Delia Smith. It's strange how so people are so exportable and others don't travel at all. As for piped Christmas music, I hate the cynicism behind it - do people really suddenly remember that they need to buy a present for Auntie Doris when Jingle Bells comes on?

Dale - From moon rocks to electric blankets! I can't imagine how stressful it must have been have to try and get a publication ready without even a fax. No wonder you ended up with a fever, but at least you have a good anecdote and can take comfort in the knowledge that you'll never have to do it again.

Katharine - Our shop paid approximately 20 times as much tax as Facebook paid the UK government last year, even though our turnover was less than 0.0001% of Facebook's.

Peter - Yes, children certainly make a difference. I remember how much I loved my older son's first Nativity play. He'd just turned three and it seemed miraculous that this tiny creature who didn't even exist a few years earlier was now singing carols to us.

Vintage Reading said...

Great post. It's difficult to get to the literary fiction in Waterstones without ploughing through all the 'mindful' colouring books. If only life's problems could be solved with a colouring book!

Steerforth said...

Vintage Reading - I'm completely baffled by the colouring book phenomenon - as futile as a jigsaw puzzle - but I know several sane, intelligent people who love them.

Little Nell said...

In the late 1960s I was a Saturday girl for the six weeks leading up top Christmas. I worked in the big Boots Store in Nottingham city. I was on the ‘Annuals’ counter - Dandy, Beano, Bunty, Blue Peter etc. People would buy armfuls and they were all different prices, like 7s 6d or 5s 11d. I had to add them up with pencil and paper as the tills didn’t tot up like they do now. The bonus was it was nice and warm in the basement, and it was next to the record counter. In those days it wasn’t all Christmas music but the latest chart hits, and the titles Boots were hoping to shift as presents (quite a lot of ‘easy listening’ like James Last). I don’t think I could bear such a job these days; it’s bad enough being a customer and having the Christmas music assaulting our ears.

Chris Matarazzo said...

I used to manage a cookie store. We'd make nearly 50% of our yearly profit on Valentine's Day. We sold giant, heart-shaped cookies and we had to work overnight to decorate them all with variations of "I love you, Poopsie." Nothing compared to your Christmas ordeal, but it was pretty crumby. (Sorry. How could I resist?) Call me a cad, but I would have felt much better if we'd had Nigella Lawson cookies...

Canadian Chickadee said...

Went to a bookstore only yesterday. My husband had finished his most recent acquisition and needed more books to hold him through the holidays. He found three paperbacks. I came out of the store with three hardbacks (a mystery which came out a couple of years ago by an author I particularly like and somehow had missed, a book by the National Geographic that was 75% off cover price, and a calendar of New Yorker cartoons for my son-in-law). Bookstores have always been one of my favourite places, and over the years, much has changed -- but not that wonderful triumphant feeling of finding a book you didn't know existed or that you wanted until you held it in your hand.

A very happy Christmas to you and yours, Steerforth.

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