Lots of Books. Comfy Chairs.
by John Hall
Staff's favorite bookstores

The holiday gift season has hit everyone with the force of a heart attack. We shop in spasms that are more and more painful with each outting (perhaps to the pocketbook, but most definitely to our mental stability), and the shopping does not end until we collapse torn and exhausted, praying for a merciful end.
One of the best ways I have found for escaping the department store brawls amidst the sales item jungles is to sneak into the only safe haven I know - the nearest bookstore. Not that customers in bookstores are more civilized, mind you. They'll fight over the last copy of The Pelican Brief as willingly as those department store veterans will fight over the last pair of Fruit of the Loom's on sale. It's just that getting smacked with the complete works of Shakespeare is a little more daunting than having a pair of underwear thrown at you, so that fights don't often occur, and when they do, they are over quickly. In any case, all of this really depends on the bookstore you're in at the time, and so I've arrived at several conclusions as to what makes up a good (and safe) bookstore this season.
First of all, the store should have plenty of chairs for the use of their patrons. The chairs should be well-cushioned so that they are comfortable to sit in for long periods of time, and they should also be placed appropriately for convenient use. During saner times, this means that you should be able to relax, glance through a book peacefully, and in case you get caught up in it, still be able to walk when you stand. However, during this most dangerous of seasons, a chair is also a good refuge from a fight and a great barrier behind which you can safely hide from an opponent if the current brawl is going badly for you.
A polite staff is also a must when you are looking for a good bookstore. Polite, in this case, does not merely mean courteous, but also a lack of "hover-itis". There is nothing more frustrating than a salesperson who constantly hovers around you, watching your every move. Besides, most salespeople get this odd, nervous, almost hunted, look about them this time of year, and that makes me more than just a little nervous myself. You never know when some wild-eyed cashier will grab the nearest copies of Dianetics and start whipping them madly into the crowd until mall security drags him away.
I find that music is a very important part of the bookstore experience as well. Under no circumstances should any music intrude on your thoughts more than the equivalent of mentally tapping you on the shoulder to let you know of its existance. Classical, baroque, or jazz are usually good choices that calm your nerves and clear your mind. Beware of the bookstore that blasts one of Souza's marching pieces or any type of military music! Of course, also watch out for those that play such soothing music that you find yourself snoozing on your feet. Either of these bookstores would be dangerous for the holiday shopper for obvious reasons.
Every now and then you may be lucky enough to run into a bookstore that has a cafe or some sort of food service in one section of the store. Under normal, peacetime, conditions, such cafes can be charming and nice places to just chat over coffee. Of course, the cafe should not be the main emphasis of the store (ie, you want a bookstore with a cafe, not a cafe with a bookstore), else you may find that the book selection is rather poor. Also, noise from the cafe must be limited to a dull roar when heard from the bookstore proper so that the entire shopping experience can be pleasant. During the holiday season, a good cafe inside the bookstore can enable you to hide literally for days from the hustle and bustle of the outside world, so if you can find a bookstore with a well-managed cafe, consider yourself lucky. Another fringe benefit of such a cafe is that the "cool, must-be-seen" crowd are attracted to such spots like flies, making them easy targets, or accidental victims, during any nearby brawl.
Finally, and most important, not only must the bookstore have lots of books on as many topics as possible, but the layout of the store must enable you to find the books you want easily, as well as browse the shelves without undue inconvenience. Bottom shelves flush with the floor loaded with books are bad, as are shelves too high to be reached. Aisles between parallel bookshelves should be wide enough for two people to pass one another (you never know when some book may catch your attention and you must stop in the middle of the aisle to glance through it). Bookstores with wide aisles also permit you to quickly escape the ugly scene of a holiday tiff, while the conveniently placed books permit you to browse the bookstore's selection without putting yourself in a vulnerable position.
When all is said and done, most of us are secretly glad when the holiday shopping season has passed. However, a good bookstore can be a comfort during the hectic weeks around Christmas and all year round, so long as careful thought is given to choosing one that is not only good at selling their wares, but also good at creating a comfortable, pleasant, and safe environment.

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