Thursday, December 01, 2005

Comment: New York Neighborhoods and Rush Relativity

The independent bookstore where I now work is primarily an academic bookstore. We serve a large Ivy League university, and we were founded to compete with the university's own official bookstore, which is run by Barnes and Noble. Many professors prefer giving their coursebook orders to an independent, and we do a very good job of supplying the books to their students. Even outside the coursebook season, our events tend to focus on scholarly texts and debates, and our customers are primarily students and professors.

But we are also located in a fairly well-off New York neighborhood, so we are a general bookstore as well. While we don't bother with cookbooks, kid's books, or some of the fluffier of the new hot titles, we do carry a large and thoughtful selection of new literature, poetry, memoir, pop nonfiction, etc. This tends to be my area of expertise, as I come from a general bookstore background and can be counted on to geek out about the next big thing, or the next undiscovered great thing. We have a coursbook buyer in addition to our regular buyer, and everyone works together to make sure we have what's selling. It's a good system.

The strange part about working in an academic bookstore in December is this: we don't really have a Christmas rush. When we talk about Rush, we're talking about early September and early January -- the beginnings of each semester, when we're mobbed with students, hire extra staff, and rearrange the store to accomodate the influx of coursebooks. Most of our year is spent planning for those two two-week periods.

During December, our primary customer base (students and professors) is on academic vacation, and the neighborhood empties out. And those that are left, in my opinion, don't think of us much as a gift-buying location. We're the go-to store when you want to know the current state of the debate on urban planning, Derrida, or American imperialism; we're not the place you go with a list of relatives and hopes for recommendations.

We do have a well-publicized sale in mid-December, and those three days or so do get quite busy. The difficulty of the sale is that since so many of our books come from university presses with small print runs and short discounts (10-20% off the retail price), we can't afford to discount a large segment of our stock without losing money. But the boss has been doing this for a while, and has figured out how to create a sale attractive enough to bring in customers while still actually turning a profit. However, many of the exciting holiday promos that might work in other stores, or in other businesses, are hard to enact with what is often a very thin profit margin.

So, rather than being the season of bustling staff, carols on the stereo and frantic shoppers, December at my indie is the season of preparing for January. It's my first year here, and I have to admit it's a little disappointing for me; as a certified nerd, I love Christmas and all its trimmings, and I've always enjoyed the extra bustle it brings, with the promise of prosperity for the store that infuses all interactions with joy. But this is the way my store has adapted to its neighborhood and its markets, and it's a very wise way of doing business in this particular sector of the book industry. This year I've had some influence over getting in some big "gift" books -- the ANNOTATED SHERLOCK HOLMES, the beautiful collection WOMEN'S LETTERS, and some pretty journals, and we'll have nice wrapping paper and gift seals for the first time. I hope they do well. But in most ways, this is the season where the store lies dormant, preparing to burst into action as the students return for the spring.

Incidentally, I will be getting my Christmas rush fix anyway this year: I'll be moonlighting with some evening and weekend shifts at my former place of employment, a small literary general bookstore with a loyal neighborhood following. That place gets bustling, and with a staff that's like family, customers bringing Christmas treats, and lots of handselling, it gets joyful. Working two stores will make for a long day, but it's a way for me to make a couple of extra bucks during an expensive season, and hopefully help out the overworked staff.

You may be able to guess which store is closer to the model on which I'm planning my own future bookstore. But as both have learned what's needed by their neighborhoods, their customers, their markets, I have a heck of a lot to learn from both.