06 December 2010

Why You Under No Circumstances Should Buy Books As Christmas Presents

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Christmas is drawing near. I’ve noticed. How could I not. As some of you know, I work part time in a bookstore. Since I finished my thesis (which explains my recent absence, and my even recenter return), the “part time” has become full time. Or rather, all time, at least until all Christmas presents are neatly tucked away under plastic and pine trees all across the country. You see, until I start “real” work in Tokyo, Japan, early 2011, I am trying to save up money so that I won’t have to live on nothing but rice and ramen noodles during my stay in Japan. Consequently, I work a lot.

Now, why am I telling you this today, on a Reading Monday? Well, the key word in the previous paragraph was “bookstore”. As Christmas is nearing, people are climbing out from every hidey-hole to purchase Christmas presents. Books make excellent Christmas presents. As an employee in a bookstore, I am obliged to say so. But in reality, I secretly wish people wouldn’t listen. You see, pre-Christmas in a bookstore (in fact, in most retail businesses, I would imagine) is CRAZY. Bonkers, absolutely nuts. And not the good kind that requires a nutcracker. Gone are such trifle things as courtesy, politeness and common sense. (If you don’t believe me, you should read what a very wise person wrote on this very subject almost exactly a year ago. She even wrote about it more than once!)

Now, I don’t have a problem with people buying books, in general. It’s people buying books as gifts. You see, this constitutes a problem because a)this often means they ask for recommendations beyond the stage “if you liked X, you will like Y” (in fact, many want me to tell them what to buy for people they know next to nothing about, and they expect me to come up with brilliant suggestions); b)this almost always means they want the books gift wrapped.

I don’t know how common this is other places in the world, but in Norway, at least, most bookstores offer gift wrapping as part of the service. Usually this is something I don’t mind, as I actually enjoy it, and books are easy to wrap anyway. The problem is that during December we usually have several times as many customers as usual, and they each buy more books per head than normal. And most of those books are gifts.
Let’s do some math (because, as a historian, that is what I most capable of...). The previous Saturday was the third to last Saturday before Christmas. This, in all likelihood, makes it the third most busy day this year. We were open from 10 am to 7 pm, 9 hours total. Judging by the total amounts of earnings that day, and a broad guess of the approximate average total spending per customer, I think it is fair to assume that we had about 400 customers in the store that day. When it’s a busy day like that, I spend between 30 seconds and 1 minute per customer, if the exchange consists of nothing else than the normal polite phrases, paying for the purchase and putting it in a bag. That even includes writing a gift receipt and giving out a pre-rolled roll of wrapping paper.

Now, after having worked in the business for some eight years, I am a speedy wrapper. However, even at my pace, it’ll still take 30 seconds to 1 minute extra per book per customer if they insist on gift wrapping. That means that the time spent per customer is at least doubled, possibly tripled (and so on, depending on the amount of books they purchase).

If we assume that we had 400 customers (and remember I am only counting paying customers. Thus, anyone [and this is a considerable number too] asking a question but not actually buying anything, is not accounted for in this example) this Saturday. That means that the total amount of time spent on customers without gift wrapping is 400 x 1 minute = 400 minutes = 6 hours and 40 minutes. If you add one gift per customer, that doubles the time, hence we’re up in 13 hours and 20 minutes. Of course, I’m not alone in the store, so our 9 opening hours are multiplied by the number of employees. On Saturday we were five (but none of us work the entire shift – so in total we had about 35 hours of total employed time). You might say that out of 35 hours, a little over 13 hours in handling customers is not so much. True, but remember that this does not account for the non-sale exchanges with customers. We all easily spend between two and three hours answering questions, recommending books and giving directions to the exact location of books. This means another 15 hours. In addition we spend time on unpacking things we’ve ordered, contacting customers that have ordered books and tidying up the store (Christmas shoppers are also messy!).

Our hours simply don’t cover it all. All through December there are things left undone, and as a consequence, we try to limit the activities we can save time on. Like gift wrapping. We ask, politely, if each customer kindly would accept a complimentary roll of wrapping paper, which will save us some time, and limit the waiting line. Most people understand this, as most people know how annoying it is to wait in line. However, some people just don’t accept these terms. “I don’t have the time to do it” (Really? I’ve just told you, it literally takes a minute – perhaps two since you don’t have my training); “It looks prettier when you do it” (Perhaps, but honestly, how much of a difference does it make when I give you the same paper, and I am also willing to give you the same ribbon I would have used?); and my personal favourite: “I don’t know how.” Seriously. You don’t know how to gift wrap a book? It is flat, rectangular, and it doesn’t move around. If you don’t have the physiology to put wrapping paper around a book, I highly doubt you are capable of functioning in the modern society. You can navigate an iPhone, but you can’t wrap a book? Right...

I try not to argue too much with the customers who insist on gift wrapping even if it does mean longer waiting lines for everyone. Not because the customer is always right (that is a truth of moderation, if you ask me), but because it takes longer (approx. 2-4 minutes) arguing with a riled-up Christmas shopper than it does to wrap the darned book. But I sometimes make a point of picking a ribbon that doesn’t go with the paper. It’s just my way of spitting in their food.

Anyway, since I’m tired of having this argument, I thought it was time to settle it once and for all. Thus, here is a quick tutorial for how to wrap a book (feel free to go “duh” any moment now...):

Step 1: place book on an appropriately size of wrapping paper (the piece in the picture is slightly big, because I was too lazy to cut it properly). Warning! Beware of paper cuts! 

Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa is incidentally an excellent choice if you do insist on buying books for Christmas this year. Or for any other occasion for that matter. 

Step 2: Fold the paper around the book.

Step 3: Fold the other end in, and then around the book. Secure with tape.

Step 4: Fold and tuck in the right edge, secure with tape. Repeat on left side.

Step 5: Turn around. Voila! Wrapped book! If you want ribbon on the book, proceed to step 6.

Step 6: Pull ribbon around the book. Secure with knot. 

Step 7: Curl edges with sharp object, such as scissors. Warning! Don't cut yourself!  

Step 8: Curl up curled ribbon ends into ball. Tuck it under the knot. And you're done. Finito. It's that simple. I swear. You can do it! 

I may have bored you with my numbers and my mock tutorial, but the message is clear: please, please, continue buying books. BUT do you have to buy them as presents? And even if you do, reconsider asking the store personnel to gift wrap it, at least this close to Christmas... 


Hannah said...

I lurve wrapping books! I worked in a bookstore for 11 years and it was my most favorite thing. Something about seeing one of my most treasured items in shiny paper.

Anuradha Shankar said...

I love wrapping gifts too, and i would probably be your ideal kind of customer, who never asks for books to be wrapped, or even asks for wrapping paper.. have masses of them and ribbons at home, and love to do it myself! but reading your experience was wonderful!

James C. Wallace II said...

Sadly though, the days of free gift wrapping are over, at least in our part of the country.
We used to go to the mall when our shopping was done, carrying handfuls of gifts and having the volunteers wraps our presents for us. With 5 kids, there was just never enough time for this and the free service was a bonus from Santa.
Alas... no more.

LTM said...

I'm wondering if there's some way I can send you all my presents to wrap... sigh.

I like to give bookstore gift cards for Christmas gifts... Yes? (and then hope they don't buy pens or lip gloss w/it... :o) <3

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

You lost me when you got to the ribbon part!
I'd take the free roll of wrapping paper! It wouldn't be pretty, but I AM capable of wrapping my own gifts.

Hart Johnson said...

I've totally missed your posts, Mari. I LOVE the mismatched ribbon to punish them *snort*

And you are very coordinated if you can wrap and take pictures of yourself wrapping at the same time... and your nails are nicely manicured...

Golden Eagle said...

I wrap everything I give to people myself, since I love doing it, and it just feels . . . more personal. I love that feeling of imagining what the person(s) will think when I give it to them while wrapping.

Thanks for the mock tutorial. :)

CA Heaven said...

Let me tell you one thing, Cruella: I don't listen to you. I'm gonna buy all my Christmas presents in the bookstore. And maybe I come to YOUR STORE ... MUHAHAHAAAA ... but I know how to wrap the gifts myself though >:)

Cold As Heaven

Sue said...

Thinking thinking. A significant proportion of books you sell are paperbacks? Do what some retailers here have done. Get paper bags in roughly the right size, printed in Christmasy patterns, and fling the book in, then whack a pretty sticker on the folded over part. No fuss, no stressed Cruella. Happyish customers.

Christmas isn't Christmas without books. Love them!

Er, I hope the new job is going to pay you well? Your frenetic work-pace makes that sound doubtful.

Cruella Collett said...

Hannah - it's nice, isn't it, when you have the time for it? That's when I love it too :)

Anu - excellent! You can come to my store anytime! :)

James - really? Perhaps we should charge; that certainly would limit the number of people asking for wrapped books!

Leigh - tee hee - there is. It's called the postal service. The only problem is that you won't get them back before Christmas and it'll cost you a house and a half. But aside from that - go right ahead! ;)

Alex - pfft, I'm sure you'd be great at it, it only takes a little practice! (I'll teach you the ribbon-trick some other time)

Tami - well, people tend to get cranky if I actually spit on their books... (And no - my nails are only painted to cover up the fact that they are slicing up. Another "benefit" of working in a dry bookshop in a cold climate...)

TGE - I'd like you as a customer, then! And I agree - much more personal to do it yourself (I love wrapping my own presents too)

CAH - nooooooo! Don't they have bookstores in Trøndelag? You should torture them instead... Nah, kidding - if you actually do visit my store, I'll wrap your presents. It's a promise!

Sue - that's not a bad idea, and some stores do that. The problem is that different stores have different policies, and the one I work in doesn't do "practical". Or "pretty" (which is actually a good thing, because a lot of people don't want us to wrap their gifts because they think our paper is ugly...).

Natasha said...

I am pretty sure I would not be able to replicate the bow, but I do think it is easy enough to wrap a book. The only reason I get the store to wrap up my books (and in India, it is the security guard who does it) is because I am too lazy to go out and buy customised paper. If you give me the paper, I will gladly do it myself.

But, I think people come to you for gift wrapping because of the ribbon.

Ketutar said...

In my bookstore they have arranged a table with wrapping paper, scissors, tape and ribbon so that customers may wrap their own books. :-D
They don't gift wrap books... now I'm starting to understand why :-D

Also, you might want to print little brochures with book suggestions ;-)
"If you can't come up with a book to buy, you can always buy a present card and a bookmark" :-)

Cruella Collett said...

Natasha - that's too bad, since the ribbon is the one thing we often leave out in a hurry...

Ketutar - that is an excellent idea! I also want tee-shirts that say "Don't speak to me when I am carrying more than 10 books - it means I am busy"