Saturday, December 08, 2012

The Last Noel

I took this just over an hour ago, as I was leaving work. It looks quite idyllic, but that's because you can't see the mud or experience the smell of rotting hay. I've never been anywhere so filthy. Spring seems a long way away.

But whenever I start to feel demoralised by the biting cold winds and short days, I remind myself that at least I'm no longer working in a bookshop at Christmas.

All retailers experience seasonal fluctuations, but few are more dependent on the Christmas period than the book trade, with 50% of the annual turnover packed into the last two months of the year. The frenetic pace is a far cry from the quiet, civilised image of bookselling.

When I worked at Ottakar's, a good Christmas meant pay rises, new shops and a managers' meeting abroad. A bad one resulted in a pay freeze, no shops and a meeting in Birmingham.

At Ottakar's, Christmas always began in March, when the lead titles for the autumn were revealed at the annual managers' conference, in a migraine-inducing Powerpoint presentation of book covers and loud music. Sometimes it felt as if we were watching a repeat of the previous year: Jamie Oliver, Nigella, Terry Pratchett, token sportsperson, token rock star, Wilbur Smith, quirky humour title, lavish history hardback, beautiful pop-up children's title, reckless attempt at in-house publishing, celebrity memoir, 'lyrical' literary novel and the obligatory amusing travelogue.

At some point in the presentation, the managing director would address the 120-odd managers and try to persuade them that this was the most crucial Christmas ever. Even more crucial than last year's most crucial Christmas ever. How much of this actually registered with the managers was debatable, as many of them were busy concentrating on trying not to be sick or fall over, after enjoying the previous evening's free bar.

After March, we would forget about Christmas for two months. Then, one day in June, the publishers' reps would begin arriving with larger folders containing the 'blad' for the autumn titles. The festive season had begun.

Once, managers were responsible for ordering everything for their shop, but after the collapse of the Net Book Agreement, chain bookstores began buying the lead titles centrally. Commercially it made sense. Instead of 100 shops ordering small quantities of titles, a buyer at head office level would place one huge order for the whole chain, gaining an extra 9 to 10% discount from the publisher, which could then be used to provide a 'money off' offer to the customer.


Once the stock had arrived, it was the manager's job to ensure that they identified the bestselling titles and reordered enough stock to last them until Christmas eve.

This wasn't always as easy as it sounded. A book that had sold 11 copies a week in October might conceivably sell 200 a week in December, but if it didn't, you would be left with boxes of unsold stock and incur the wrath of your superiors.

The obvious answer was to only order enough stock to get you through the next two weeks. Unfortunately, this was a risky strategy, as some books regularly went into reprint (particularly if the author had just appeared on Jonathan Ross) and being out of stock of a Sunday Times Top 10 bestseller was even worse having too many copies of a dud celebrity memoir (the most notorious of which was Anthea Turner's autobiography, which reached No.457 in the bestseller charts).

But even if you managed to get your stock levels exactly right, the shop could still grind to a halt if you'd forgotten to order enough bags or failed to increase your change float. As for staffing, I've lost count of the number of times my perfect rota would be sabotaged by someone phoning in to say that they had "a bit of a cold".

Getting the staff levels right was always a challenge. Instead of opening from 9.00am to 5.30pm, the working day increased each week until, a few days before Christmas, it lasted for 13 hours. As a manager, I had to plan two or three staggered shifts, ensure that the tills were covered during lunch breaks and also provide enough muscle to deal with the deliveries, which were at least four times their normal volume. As for the customers, sometimes the shop felt like the Storming of the Bastille:


During the final week before Christmas, I would invariably end up working for 13-hour days, dividing my time between placing last-minute hotline orders, unpacking deliveries, replenishing the tables and helping on the tills. By Christmas Eve, I had reached a point of exhaustion where I felt as if I had flu and, sadly, was rarely in the mood for a family celebration the following day.

Indeed, two months of grumpy customers, long opening hours, semi-hysterical emails from Head Office and a loop tape of carols did tend to kill off any latent Christmas spirit and when the 25th finally arrived, I had to pretend to be full of festive cheer. But at least I now had a break.

15 years ago, we used to enjoy a three-day holiday (returning on the 28th for a delightful day of people returning unwanted presents). This gave booksellers whose families lived hundreds of miles away enough time to travel home for Christmas (particularly as I would always close the shop early on the 24th).

But gradually this changed. As high street sales began to be affected by internet and supermarket competition, the pressure to open longer and close for fewer days increased each year. When I left bookselling, Christmas Eve was no longer a comparatively relaxed half day, but a frantic operation in which the shop was prepared for the sales. Also, the three-day break had now contracted to just the 25th.

In spite of everything, I used to get a buzz from bookselling at Christmas. Ottakar's was a good company to work for. But by the time HMV had bought the chain, it was no longer any fun. I did not appreciate receiving the 'planograms' that told me where to put my books, or the boorish senior manager whose sole mission seemed to be to find fault with everything he saw (a stark contrast to the Ottakar's managing director, who could have restored morale on the sinking Titanic).

One day, almost exactly five years ago, I drove to work on a frosty Saturday morning and parked my car a few hundred yards away from the shop I managed. As I walked through the deserted town centre, I asked myself what could worse than losing my job and the answer suddenly became very clear: keeping it. I left that evening and never returned.

Five years on, for the first time since the 1980s, I have managed to listen to 'Carols From Kings' without breaking out into a cold sweat (although I still feel like punching someone when I hear 'Let It Snow'). Perhaps some vestige of the Christmas spirit remains!

I'm sure that there are some bookshops out there where the Christmases are still enjoyable, but even if you're an independent or work for an enlightened employer, it must be very demoralising to have to compete with Amazon and the supermarkets. I think I'm better off with the mud and cows.


Roger said...

Gosh you certainly are well out of this! A different world.

Conrad Blacks's new autobiography has sold 137 copies after high profile TV interviews. And when you described titles as "lavish" I assume that meant suitable for the smallest room.

Martin said...

Yes, Steerforth, mud and cows are always preferable to putting up with corporate bull.

Steerforth said...

Roger - In the early days of Ottakar's, I enjoyed the Christmas rush (when things were going well). It was very satisfying to get things right, estimating how many books you'd need, along with spotting a few dark horses that other managers hadn't picked up on. But after the Net Book Agreement collapsed, I think the industry became increasingly obsessed with courting the mass market - a "never mind the quality, feel the width" approach.

The obsession with discounting became a war of attrition and ultimately, bookshop chains couldn't compete with Amazon and Tesco.

I don't know what the answer is. Even if we'd kept the NBA, once the internet appeared, people would have simply bought their books from an offshore supplier.

Martin - The saddest thing was seeing people I liked starting to embrace the 'corporate bull'. I suppose they thought that it was better to embrace change than fight it, but in the long run, it has been the 'old school' booksellers who have survived the huge sea change that has taken place in the industry.

The 18 months I spent working for the HMV-owned Waterstone's was the most demoralising experience of my career. It was like watching a car crash in slow motion and it's only thanks to a Russian billionaire that the chain is still around today.

Lucy R. Fisher said...

Oh no the lyrical novel and the amusing travelogue! You must be happy among bound volumes of the Girl's Own Paper. Actually, if you get any in...

Brett said...

Working at Bookstop in the '80's, I witnessed the prototype of the big-box chain of discount bookselling, with central buying. Bookstop would be bought out and replicated by Barnes & Noble.

I have only to recall a little of George Winston's album, "December", to conjure up Christmas at Bookstop. My memories are mostly positive. I was young, and there was a good company spirit.

What has surprised me, as I have caught up with my former co-workers on Facebook, is that I am the only one who, as a librarian, still works with books. For everyone else, it was just a job.

Steerforth said...

Richmonde - I must confess that it's bliss not having to deal directly with the public any more. Over 95% of my customers were fine, but the minority who weren't made the whole business a bit of an ordeal.

I love the fact that I now sell a completely different and unpredictable selection of books every day.

Brett - I never ceased to be amazed at the way some of my former colleagues effortlessly slid into high-powered jobs in television, publishing and the arts, while I slowly ascended in bookselling like an antique elevator, stopping for ages at each level.

I suppose I lacked that hunger to have a career, as I found all workplaces alien and strange. I stuck to bookselling as it was relatively free of the corporate nonsense that ruined so many other jobs. But that didn't last.

Levi Stahl said...

I was lucky enough in my brief bookselling career to only work one holiday rush: the store I worked at here in the States was a scholarly store, so Christmas was actually quiet, as the faculty and students of the nearby university left town.

But the one I did work, at Books, Etc.'s Whiteley's branch . . . good god. I was just a clerk, and was a spry 22, but wow, did it take it out of me. Just nonstop from open to close. I happened to have Christmas Eve off, but I was told later that the manager had to essentially push people out the door at 10 PM so she could close.

Kristin said...

Really great post - glad you're enjoying the holidays more now!

I'm in textbooks, so the holidays aren't much different than any other time of year, and for that, I'm infinitely grateful. Things feel very steady for us year-round (with some ebbs and flows, of course), and that makes it easier for me to keep course.

Steerforth said...

Levi - I bet Whiteley's was a nightmare! I worked in Richmond which, I imagined, had a similar type of customer - people who wouldn't take no for an answer and couldn't accept that we'd sold out of the book they wanted. You had to give as good as you got.

When I started selling books outside London, I couldn't believe how polite the customers were. You could even shut the shop early on Christmas Eve without having a shouting match with someone.

Christmas Eve was a big bone of contention with me. I felt that my staff had worked incredibly hard and should be allowed to start their Christmas early, rather than work to the last minute for the sake of a few hundred pounds.

But some idiot would always do a few sums and say "Do you know, if every branch closed at 5.30 on Christmas Eve, the business would have made £22,500..."

Kristin - I worked with in a museum bookshop one year and couldn't get over the fact that there was no Christmas rush. However, I thought that textbooks had their own version of Christmas at the beginning of the autumn.

I was reading the other day that academic sales are increasingly migrating to ebooks - I'm not surprsied, but I still find paper books easier to flick through for quick reference.

Canadian Chickadee said...

As always, a wonderful essay and a fascinating glimpse to the world on the other side of the counter. As a reader and book buyer, I haven't had to deal with the madness of the customer, though I have stood aside and watched really arrogant customers in action. They remind me of the man I once saw at the airport whose luggage had gone astray, screaming at the poor clerk, "I demand two bags immediately!" as if she was supposed to conjure them out of thin air for him. She finally called security and mentally, I applauded her.

I do hope you'll have a wonderful and peaceful Christmas this year. Personally, I rather like cows. And sheep ... of the four-legged kind ...

Donna said...

I worked as a buyer and bookseller at an independent bookstore for 11 years. Along with everything you said, it didn't help that the owners of the store were, um, how do you say...nuts. Somehow I managed to enjoy the lead-in to Christmas…mostly. The gin helped. You are an eloquent and funny writer. If you had a book, I'd gleefully annoy a bookseller on Christmas Eve just to get a copy.

Steerforth said...

Carol - A wonderful Christmas to you and yours. Your airport anecdote reminds me of those customers who think they're being assertive, but actually sound increasingly like toddlers, stamping their feet when they can't have their own way.

Donna - Thank you for the lovely compliment!

Like you, I also worked in an independent and actually found it much more frustrating than a chain store, for similar reasons. The owner of my shop was a charming, but very mercurial Irishman, whose chaotic approach to running a business was very frustrating. When we ran out of a bestselling book, he'd say "Don't worry, if people can't find what they want, they'll just buy something else instead".

At least in a large company, you're not at the mercy of one or two nutty owners and their eccentricities.

The other problem with being in an independent is that unless the owner is very old and has left the shop to you in their will, you have got much to look forward to in terms of career progression.

lucy joy said...

Retail and hospitality, with the exception of maybe the NHS, are among the worst places to be working leading up to Christmas. The 'buzz' is just what any stress/adrenaline trigger produces and a mere coping mechanism, I think.
I do not miss working full stop this time of year. In restaurants and pubs there were the customers who either never usually go out and therefore do not know how to behave themselves, or regulars who eat and drink far too much and apportion blame for the ill-effects and reduced bank balance to the staff who serve them.
In schools, the lack of routine with concert practice, visits to garden centres and extra sugar-laden grub made the children with behavioural problems even more difficult to manage.
Shop work was the worst, I am not cut out for customer service at all.
I always think of my aunt though - she manages a nursing home. The staff draw straws over who works the afternoon shift on Christmas day. Apparently, it's the worst shift because the residents often spend the day with family eating all sorts of crap. Afternoons are spent clearing up pools of vomit and diarrhoea. There's always someone worse off!

Steerforth said...

Lucy - I agree about the buzz up to a point, but I'd also say that sometimes I got it from following my gut instinct and being right. When I sold more copies of X than any other shop, or was one of a tiny handful of shops that still had the surprise Christmas bestseller in stock, I felt exhilarated that I'd done my job well.

But you're right, the 'buzz' was often the product of surviving a stressful situation. I didn't mind the stress when I had some degree of control, but when that was taken away, it was like being in the stocks.

My worst experience was during the launch of the last Harry Potter novel. Waterstone's gave me no say in choosing the number of copies I could have and didn't order enough copies for my shop. I spent a whole day being shouted at by people over something I wasn't responsible for. That was the last nail in the coffin, as far as I was concerned.

zmkc said...

If it's of any comfort, however dirty a farm may be, the dirt is what my mother refers to as 'good, clean dirt'. I do know what she means - sort of.