Nashville • When our children were younger and time alone together was harder to arrange, my husband and I would set aside a single day for our Christmas shopping. I hate shopping, but I loved those daylong dates. An entire day, alone with my husband, to choose surprises that would enchant the people we love best in the world!
I can’t remember when we stopped shopping for surprises. It might’ve been during our children’s teenage years, when they began to want clothes — very, very specific sorts of clothes — or companion items for electronic devices we didn’t totally understand. Maybe it happened as our parents grew needier, and the time for browsing disappeared. It’s much more efficient just to ask people what they want and then go out and get it. Like taking an order.
But this is not the year for wish lists. With the supply chain disrupted by pretty much everything — factory slowdowns, shipping-container shortages, ships stuck outside ports, not enough truckers — holiday shopping is shaping up to be a huge mess. If the people you love have their sights set on something specific, God go with you as you make your way into the heart of supply-chain darkness.
I’m remembering those long-ago shopping dates of ours and thinking it’s time to revive the tradition. The supply-chain snarls may be giving us the nudge we need to putter about in our favorite shops again, looking for something that would make a loved one’s eyes light up.
I mention “shops” deliberately. Big-box stores offer the advantage of one-stop shopping, especially if you aren’t picky. But if you’re hoping to find something unexpected and delightful, you’ll need to go to the little local shops that have survived in the age of online shopping by being quirky and brave, and by knowing their customers well enough to say, “I think you would love this.”
I’m thinking of the garden center with the pretty ceramic planters made by a local potter. The zero-waste store with the shampoo bars and the reusable mesh produce bags and the dryer balls made from organic wool. The gift shops at local landmarks and museums, the family-owned toy stores with dusty shelves packed to the very rafters. Most of all I’m thinking of local bookstores, where you can say, “My son is into hiking” or “My husband loves John le Carré,” and a bookseller will start holding up options.
Some of those gift possibilities won’t be books. This time of year, especially, many bookstores carry beautiful calendars and planners, some with a local spin; irreverent socks; bumper stickers; vintage posters; mugs and pencil pouches; board games and jigsaw puzzles and plush toys; T-shirts and totes; literary-themed tea towels and oven mitts. All of it chosen with care by people who know their communities.
The supply-chain crisis has hit bookstores hard, too, and at a particularly devastating time: For many independent bookstores, holiday sales determine whether they will survive another year. So I do my shopping at Parnassus Books, where the people who work there have become my friends. Even if the book I have in mind for a particular friend or family member isn’t available, a knowledgeable bookseller will help me find something even better. That’s true at every bookstore I’ve ever been in. Bookstores are places where supply-chain problems can be easily compensated for.
There are excellent reasons to respond to the supply-chain crisis by buying nothing new at all this holiday season. You could pass along family treasures instead, plan a shared outing, shop at thrift stores, make a donation to a nonprofit dear to your beloved’s heart. That plan would have the beneficial side effect of reducing waste at the same time, and I’m not talking about a modest amount of waste: The United States produces 5.8 million tons more waste in December than in any other month, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
But where we spend our money matters, too, and the current supply-chain disruptions are giving us a taste of what will happen if Amazon manages to drive all the local shops out of business and leaves us at the mercy of a logistics system that was fragile even before the pandemic. If we want these dear local places to survive, we have to spend money there, during the holidays more than ever.
I was in Parnassus last week to buy a copy of a new book by Ann Patchett. Not “These Precious Days,” the book of essays she has coming out later this month, but a tiny book about the history of the store, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary on Nov. 15. “The Shop Dogs of Parnassus” tells the story of how Patchett and Karen Hayes, a former sales rep for Random House, founded the store in 2011.
By then all the independent bookstores in Nashville, not to mention the Borders chain, had gone out of business, killed by the online goliath. But Patchett and Hayes trusted Nashville to support a store that was just the right size — small and cozy, with comfortable chairs, lovingly chosen books and, perhaps most crucially, dogs. Dogs who offer their bellies for rubbing and who will patiently listen to a child read them a story and sometimes even jump through a hula hoop.
“The Shop Dogs of Parnassus” was published in a limited edition to benefit the Parnassus Foundation, which buys books for children who can’t afford them. It’s a charming tale, and I wasn’t the only one in the store that morning to pick up a copy. As I was browsing near the back, I overheard a customer up front reminiscing about Bear, the much-missed mixed breed who wore a diaper and parked himself at the front door, the store’s unofficial greeter.
Sissy Gardner, who is the assistant floor manager at Parnassus, and who belonged to the late Bear, climbed down off the ladder where she was shelving books. “Would you like a pair of Bear earrings?” she asked the customer. “We’ve stopped selling them, but we still give them away to people who loved Bear.”
That’s how it works at any local bookshop. The love goes in all directions — circling back and forth between writers and readers and booksellers and even old dogs wearing diapers. What more could a person want this holiday season than to shop in a place surrounded by love?
Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South” and “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.