The Last Word
The bookstore, respite from the Christmas shopping mayhem
Blame it on the Three Wise Men. After all, they were the first gift bearers of the nascent Christmas season. If they'd just shown up with cards, our 21st-century Christmas holiday would certainly be a lot less fraught with the philosophical and moral dilemmas of gift giving. Frenzied by an onrush of pre-season advertising that defines giving as obligatory and big ticket, American consumers stream like lemmings off a cliff in the quest to fulfill expectations as soon as the Hallowe'en decorations go up. Anyone who has ever been elbowed away from a display of the hot item du jour knows that Christmas shopping is a contact sport.
Until you enter a bookstore. Soft classical music gently soothes the savage breast, customers while away hours running forefingers along book spines, trolling through stacks: mystery, literature, women's issues, biography, sci-fi. Remainders! Who has never found the perfect book for great aunt Julie on the remainder table? When I was a new bride, my new grandmother-in-law, a woman of great class and very few means, bought me a remaindered coffee table book about the Kentucky Derby. She knew I liked horses. She knew I'd like this book. She'd been paying attention, and I was touched at her kindness.
One of the problems of bookstore browsing is that the browser is often guided by his or her own interests. It's hard to avoid lingering in the cook book aisle if you're a chef. So, go ahead, get it out of your system. Write down the books you want and have it ready should anyone ask the big question, What do you want for Christmas? Once you've done that, you're free to seek out the perfect book for Bob, Carol, Ted, or Alice. Now you can focus on the recipient(s) and still have time for lunch.
Occasionally, I think that I'm taking the easy way out by buying books for family. I confess that I'm becoming that cousin who always gives a book. Now, is that such a bad thing to be accused of? Books, after all, are my life. If I was a baker, wouldn't I want people to enjoy baked goods, even if not from my own hands, but simply as a treat? Then again, it's not the easy way out when you have to consider every recipient's personal preferences, matching the book to its reader. My husband makes it really easy, he tells me what he wants. I'm not as secure with making reading choices for pre-teens with whom I have little contact. Too young for D.H. Lawrence, too old for Harry Potter, what's hot, what's lame-o? Then I take advice. The bookseller as therapist.
A good bookseller is a lifelong friend, and I don't mean that in the smarmy sense. Frequent the same independent bookshop for years, and a good bookseller will know you and your taste. Amazon is handy if you know exactly what you want, but there's a reason they call it Amazon - it's big, if invisible, and it never says: "Can I wrap it for you?"
When I begin to feel like I'm getting away with having fun while shopping, I remind myself that people don't always buy themselves books, especially hard covers. So, I'm doing everyone a good turn: they get a book to put on the shelf, the bookseller gets a nice sale and the author, and here I have a vested interest, gets closer to earning off the advance.
At the same time, I also don't want to be presumptuous in my choice of books for some people. It would be wrong to think that my unemployed second cousin twice removed would like a how-to book on getting a job. Or that my friend that hates dogs would be converted with a copy of Marley and Me. Ah, but there's a solution for those folks. The golden envelope containing a Gift Certificate. Free choice! Choose your own read. Delve into those shelves yourself. One size fits all.
Close to home, local luminaries make gift giving easy. Nearly every year there's a book out by someone notable on the Island that makes the perfect gift for off-Island relatives with a hankering to be here; the history buff, the art lover, the mystery fan, or the intellectually curious. Thank you Allen, Art and Phyllis, Holly, Phil, Kate, Perry, and Joyce for your efforts in making my shopping a breeze.
One last thing: a book and its giver are forever linked. The Kentucky Derby coffee table book will always remind me of my grandmother-in-law.
Whatever your gift-giving season is called, may it be special. Merry Christmas. Happy Chanukah. Happy Kwanza.
Susan Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist. She lives in Oak Bluffs. Visit her web site at www.susanwilsonwrites.com.