It is, unmistakably, a book. Not a toaster oven or a bottle of perfume or a puppy. Rectangular, it fits to the hand as a book does, this thick brick of paper. No amount of gaudy wrapping, glittery red and green with an ornate golden bow, can camouflage that I have chosen, on this occasion, to give Dear Friend yet another book.
“It’s a tennis racket,” I say, our long-running joke (well, at least my long-running joke). I slide it across the bar between our cocktails.
Dear Friend is delighted. Who wouldn’t be? It’s a new book! They begin to open the wrapping at one end, carefully.
Then a little panic creeps up on me: Oh, no, it’s a book!
What if Dear Friend can’t hide the disappointed expression that says, this is not at all for me. Maybe it’s a book they’ve read about and rejected, or had already tried to read and returned. Maybe there’s something about the cover art that implies I don’t understand Dear Friend as well as I’d thought, or worse, they suspect I purchased it in haste.
But Dear Friend is gracious, as ever. “It looks wonderful,” they say, stroking the cover, riffling the first pages, then turning it over and reading the back jacket copy. They stroke the book’s cover once again. “I can’t wait.”
But they’ll have to wait, of course, and this is the real difficulty of such transactions: Books take time. Dear Friend tells me there’s quite a tall to-be-read pile at home, but they will get to this one soon. It might be weeks, perhaps months, possibly never, before I know if this book, a favorite of mine that changed how I see the world, has hit its mark.
But they’ll have to wait, of course, and this is the real difficulty of such transactions: Books take time.
It’s the thought that counts, we say of gifts, and with books, well, there’s a whole lot of thought—six hours? twelve?—required to truly appreciate one. If it was a sweater, Dear Friend could immediately try it on to check the size, then later wear it once in my presence, good and settled. Even if the sweater was all wrong, in style or material, I wouldn’t object to its being exchanged. It’s a nice sweater, but it never changed my life.
With the book, I’m giving Dear Friend, I hope, much more than a gift.
But this is no ordinary exchange, no birthday or congratulation or whim. It’s the holiday season—hence the ritual cocktails—so an already difficult exchange is made more fraught with peril. There’s a public pressure that comes with holiday gifts. Gift-giving is everywhere, on our screens, at work gatherings, in our homes; we’re surrounded by gifts and all the calculations that come with the season. Will they like it, will they read it, and most dauntingly, will it make the holiday season magical?
Nowhere else are these holiday pressures more evident than in a bookstore on Christmas Eve. Bookstores are happily open that day, though may close a bit earlier, six-ish, so the staff can sip the mulled wine or champagne that often celebrate the selling-season’s end.
Nowhere else are these holiday pressures more evident than in a bookstore on Christmas Eve.
The bookstore is a perfect place for last-minute holiday purchases. There’s something for everyone, whether the recipient is a pickleball fanatic, or a long-practicing Buddhist, or a burgeoning financial wizard, or a three-year-old who loves ducks. No need to race around town: One-stop shopping.
And books are relatively small; you can fill a sturdy bag with twenty gifts, rather than renting a U-Haul to cart away rugs or televisions or stepladders. Even if the bookshop doesn’t offer gift wrapping—almost all do; wrapping books is a fun, precise meditation—books are incredibly easy to wrap at home, much more so than that tennis rackets.
From the moment the doors open on Christmas Eve, the bookshop is frantic, because this is the last minute. Most early shoppers that day have a list, and find helpful clerks to assist them in fulfilling it. The real distress comes when a book on that list is out of stock, and the knowledge that “we can get it for you by next Friday” only makes the lack more troubling.
There are other customers, who, just as eager, are far less prepared. “She likes… they’re interested in… what would a 12-year-old girl…” Please, give me something, and please, make it right. And please, may I have a gift-receipt, just in case. These shoppers arrive late and tend to be more frazzled. The bookstore clerk could pawn off any old book, some title still piled high on the feature table, but they don’t. The great joy of bookselling is putting the right book into the right hands.
Finally, the very last minutes do arrive, and accordingly, desperate measures are taken: gift cards! I don’t know any book-luster who does not welcome a gift card, but there seems a certain shame for the gift card’s buyer: I ran out of time. It’s okay, the bookshop says, it’s all good, books will be purchased, and the right ones.
My favorite moment of Christmas Eve desperation came the year actress Shirley MacLaine’s Out on a Limb was published. It was a huge book that season, the kind that can help push a bookstore to profit for the year. I was working at Printers Inc. in Palo Alto, CA, and we’d already sold hundreds. The shop had just closed, and the staff were in the backroom, sipping, yes, mulled wine, and exchanging gifts. These gifts were almost always books, as if we would never suspect where they came from.
There was a loud knocking on the glass front door.
I went to politely shoo away the tardy customer, but found an 11-year-old boy, practically shaking and clearly about to cry. He clutched a handful of crumpled bills. “Please, please,” he begged, “it’s for my mom and I have to get it and I know exactly where it is. Please.”
One cannot Scrooge on Christmas Eve, so of course I let him in. He had exact change, but would wrap it at home, thanks.
Dear Friend slides a book across the table to me. This is a holiday ritual, too, but part of a longer habit; we exchange book-gifts all the time. Over the years, we’ve each given the other books we loved immediately, some we loved later, and some, well, we never got around to. We ignore those silences.
I tear off the wrapping and find a book that’s gorgeous, weighty and promising. When I get home, I put it on my nightstand pile, but it’s too large for that position, so I slide it near the bottom, with a private vow that I’ll get to it right away.
Months pass, and over that time, when I catch sight of the book, I feel guilty, but for some reason or other, do not pick it up. There are all these other books.
Until, having spent a restless 24 hours between books—I’ve just finished a truly great book and can’t yet see what comes next—I retrieve Dear Friend’s gift, settle into the reading chair, and crack it open with a mixture of shame and hope.
An hour later, I’m enthralled, the only proper word. It’s a wonderful book, but an even better gift. Dear Friend has given me a book that, yes, is changing how I see the world, but most importantly, they’ve given me a part of themselves.
I can only hope I’ve done the same.