I know people go rushing out to the malls at 6 a.m. on Black Friday to buy the latest electronic gadgets and computer games at steep discounts, but we usually don't see that type of crazed enthusiasm in the book business. Black Friday usually starts out fairly quietly and works up to a mild fever pitch at about two or three in the afternoon. Even at the height of our frenzy, things are quite sedate. There is nobody fighting over the last copy of the Stephen Colbert book, or nudging other customers aside to get that cherished Richard Russo novel. No, it's usually just families standing around the store, kids tearing apart the children's room, and out-of-town relatives comparing notes on their favorite novels. A few people are furtively moving about the store clutching their long lists and carrying baskets of books, cards and calendars, but they --bless their souls -- are the exception.
So you can imagine my surprise when I retrieved my voice mail before we opened on Friday and had a desperate message from a customer. Her plaintive plea came after about a dozen missives from various sales reps and hopeful self-published authors. My messages had built up because I'd spent five days in New Mexico visiting the Taos Pueblo, Georgia O'Keefe's Ghost Ranch, and almost stepping on a tarantula (no kidding). The customer's message was the last one on my phone, and I was astounded to realize that it was left at 1:30 in the morning.
What could be so urgent to require attention in the middle of the night on Thanksgiving? Well, she wanted to pick up three fairly common titles on Friday. I guess she wanted to make sure she got them before we sold out during the madness of Black Friday. I almost chuckled about the absurdity of it, until she mentioned at the end of the call that she was a "friend" of David Bolduc, the owner of the store. Now, David's friends are legion in Boulder. You can't walk down the street with him without bumping into a dozen people he knows. What if we didn't have the books? I'd have to explain to David as well as this customer that we were out of the titles.
As I pondered the message from David's friend, I couldn't help but think about an incident that happened about 15 years ago, right after I began managing the store. A "friend" of David's was in the store and he was very upset about the level of customer service he had received. I apologized to him profusely, offered to give him a big discount on the book he wanted and told him I'd speak to David about the matter. He refused the discount but was very keen on my talking to David. In all sincerity, he told me that his friendship with David went back to the opening of the store, but that they hadn't been in touch lately.
Later in the day, when I tracked down David and nervously told him about his "friend" dropping by, he almost hit the ceiling. "Friend!" David spit out the word. "When we first opened the store, he was shoplifting from us every day. I finally wrestled him to the floor and had him arrested." Once David told me that, I understood why the guy turned down my offer of a discount on the book. After all, it was a generous discount, but it wasn't free.
The rest of Black Friday went as expected. The store started hopping after the Colorado-Nebraska football game ended. People were in good spirits after the Buffaloes come-from-behind victory over the hated Cornhuskers.
The one thing that we almost sold out of was Our Dumb World: The Onion's Atlas of the Planet Earth, 73rd Edition. I was beginning to think the joke was getting old, but the Onion staff has outdone themselves this year. Instead of releasing all of the previous year's newspaper editions in a single book, like they have for the past several years, they have rewritten world history and geography in their mocking style. It's a hilarious book filled with informative misinformation. The book on tape, which we've played in our shipping and receiving department several times, usually gets a laugh-out-loud reaction. Their annual decline in sales has been reversed, and it looks like the Onion will get the last laugh once again this year.
Today, it's back for round two of the holiday shopping season. I'll be running around the store trying to find the elusive perfect book for our customers and trying to make sure that all of our "friends," except for the bad guys, have a great Thanksgiving weekend.
Notes from the front on Saturday:
The day got off to a rousing start when I read the front page article in The New York Times about how dismal Black Friday was around the country. The fear-mongering article related that people were eschewing Macy's and Nordstrom for the discounts of Big Lots because of increased payments on their adjustable-rate mortgages. (Sounds like usury to me: the adjustments only go in one direction -- nobody's mortgage ever adjusts downward.) The Times' article was mirrored in other media outlets, all telling shoppers how the economy was so bad that they probably couldn't afford to buy much this holiday season.
Great. It's always hard to tell if the overall economy will really trickle down into the world of independent bookstores. After all, books are a much cheaper product than iPods, plasma televisions or other electronic gadgetry. But screaming about the coming recession and advocating locking yourself indoors as the best course of action is probably going to hurt our foot traffic.
Luckily, our customers didn't seem to get the message. The store was packed on Saturday and customers were bringing stacks of books, cards and calendars to the registers. There didn't seem to be much of a pattern to what people were buying, and only a few titles seemed to make it to the register more than once. I was actually quite surprised by the number of used books we were selling. That told me that people were shopping more for themselves than others.
Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine, a rather dour look at how the Bush administration has used every disaster to forward its economic and political agenda, was selling fairly briskly. Klein, who is making an appearance in Boulder on behalf of the public radio station, really gives it to the Bushies for what they've done in New Orleans. They've used the rebuilding effort following hurricane Katrina as a way to turn the city into a test case for their ideas on charter schools and to hire on every contractor friend they have. We all know how well the contractors have worked in Iraq.
The 4-Hour Work Week is proving surprisingly popular in Boulder. If you walk around Boulder on any week day, you'd swear that most people already seem to have a 4-hour work week. What could they have to learn from Timothy Ferriss' tract on how not to work? The coffee shops are mobbed with people surfing on their laptops. One sandwich shop is so tied up with these laptop lunatics, sipping coffee, that I usually can't find a place to sit and eat lunch. They lose my business at least once a week to cater to these non-working types, who siphon off their electricity.
Ferriss' book teaches you "how to outsource your life to overseas virtual assistants for $5 per hour and do whatever you want." I think that's called exploitation, and frankly, I find it frightening that it resonates in our liberal burg. Anyway, what's so wrong with working? If you're in a grueling blue-collar job, I can see the desire to limit your week to four hours. But the customers that I've spoken to who are buying Ferriss' book are not the blue-collar types. As far as I can tell, most people already have too much free time on their hands. Really, how many hours a week do people need to spend playing with their Xboxes, inhaling DVDs and partaking in America's number one hobby -- looking at Internet porn?
One pattern that I did see over the weekend was that movies are really driving demand for books in a more profound way than we usually see. We are basically sold out of The Kite Runner (which should make a better movie than book if you ask me), No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, Phillip Pullman's Golden Compass and Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, which is also benefiting from its Oprah selection.
I'm guessing that I'd better stock up on Ian McEwan's amazing novel Atonement, before that movie, starring the always lovely Keira Knightley, takes off in December. I only wish there were a book for American Gangster, the riveting crime film set in 1970s New York starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. Now that's a story: the military smuggling tons of pure heroin into New York City. Of course, I've always believed that the best movies didn't come from books and that the best books were too complex to make great movies. It seems that the customers, much to my delight, do not agree with me.
Well, it's a short break tonight and then back to the grindstone tomorrow. We are going to catch the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men tonight. It was my wife's least favorite McCarthy novel, but she thinks it should make for a great film. Who knows, maybe next year Christopher Guest will make a movie version of McCarthy's The Road and add a little post-apocalyptic delight to the holidays.