I should realize it’s a bad sign when I trip hard over the entry to Winslow’s Bookshop.
“Whaaaaa!” I yelp as I give the typically sticky front door my customary push . . . and unexpectedly go flying into the store, the shop’s brass bell announcing my unceremonious entrance.
“Carl finally put a little oil on that door so we don’t have to work so hard to get in here,” Victoria, the owner of Winslow’s, says, looking up at me with a bemused smile. Nothing ruffles her. She’s on her knees, putting a stack of books on a wooden shelf. “Hope you didn’t hurt yourself.”
My eyes dart around. Luckily the only people to witness my epic fall are Victoria, who has the decency not to laugh in my face; a mom preoccupied on her phone while pushing a baby stroller; and Victoria’s basset hound, Fred. He gazes balefully at me, a pair of reindeer antlers perched on his large head.
“Nope, I’m fine.” I take in a deep breath. “Ahhh, my favorite smell: peppermint, pine cones, and new books.” I’d started working at Winslow’s last summer, and despite what my friends who lifeguarded, camp-counseled, and taught dance thought, bookselling was the best summer job ever. I’ve actually been lucky enough to stay on part-time during the school year. Victoria and her husband, Carl, own the bookshop and they are supercool. Everyone who works here loves to read and talk about books. Winslow’s is a popular place in our town for people to come and spend time. It is, as Victoria likes to say, a community.
Victoria is always encouraging us to take books home to read. “Read more, sell more,” she’ll say, handing me copies of the latest romances (my favorite). The store also runs a mystery book club and an award-winner book club, and it has tons of events for kids. There are strands of twinkly lights, comfy chairs filled with pillows, old wooden bookshelves worn smooth from years of use, and a café in the back that sells the most delicious panini and acai bowls and gives us a 20 percent employee discount.
If I could live here, I would.
Victoria stands up, a pair of pink tassel earrings swinging from her ears. “You’re not scheduled to work tonight, are you?” she asks, her brow puckering.
I shake my head. “Wrapping.” I’ve been averaging around ten hours a week at the store this fall, but tonight I am here strictly in a volunteer capacity. Each holiday season, Victoria and Carl invite students from my school, Bedford High, to staff the wrapping station and accept donations. All the money goes to support the arts at our school, and I’d signed up for a weekly shift.
“Ahhh, right.” Victoria clasps her hands together. “Okay, off to special-order The Atlas of Amazing Birds for a young naturalist before I forget. Coffee’s made in the back if you want a cup.” She walks off. “French hazelnut,” she calls over her shoulder before I can ask.
In the staff room in the back, I shrug out of my blue parka and pink scarf and pull out my light-up Christmas bulb necklace from my got books? tote bag.
“Ah, there she is, Miss Bailey Briggs, a cup of Christmas cheer.” My coworker Bill bustles past me, a pencil behind his ear and a coffee mug in his hand, his standard white cotton shirt rumpled as usual. Originally from Ireland, and about the same age as my grandpa, Bill is as much a fixture in the store as the comfy sofas in the Fiction section and Fred at the cash register. And with his heavy Irish brogue, he is one of the most popular readers at Saturday Storytime.
“Hi, Bill,” I greet him. “Did you finish that mystery you were reading last week? The one about a murder in Dublin?”
He chuckles. “I did, I did. Already on to the next in the series. I’m addicted, I am, Bailey. Tana French. You should give her a read.”
I pull on my plush Santa hat and arrange my hair. “Not my thing, Bill. Sorry.”
“I know, I know. You want what all the young girls want. A loooooove story.” He gives me a dismissive wave.
Even though I find his attitude slightly patronizing, I have to admit he’s right--at least when it comes to me. I do want a love story. Specifically, a Christmas one. A sweet one, filled with snuggles under blankets and hot chocolate and text messages filled with red and green hearts and Santa emojis. I’ve watched more than my fair share of Hallmark Christmas movies, and even though I’m not a big-city lawyer who has moved back to my hometown to save the family business or a world-weary writer who falls in love with a recently widowed baker, I still believe in the power of Christmas Magic.
A holiday romance is in my future.
At least a girl can dream.
And it isn’t like I don’t have something to back my dream up. I meet two of the main criteria for a cheesy Christmas romance:
1. I work in a bookshop.
2. I was dumped, although not that recently.
I dated Oliver Moreno for four months before I found out that he wanted to just “be friends” because he had kissed Kate Collins, a sophomore in the marching band. The kiss took place after the winter concert, and apparently it was life-changing.
Whatever. Oliver isn’t that great a kisser, if I’m being honest. Kate can have him.
But see, that isn’t the point. I don’t just want someone to kiss. I want someone to experience Christmas Magic with me. Christmas Magic begins the moment Santa appears at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. That’s when the holiday season always starts--the season of cookie baking and tree trimming, sledding and snowfalls, Secret Santas and eggnog and Christmas songs on every radio station. It really is the most wonderful time of the year.
And what I really want for Christmas is something I probably would never admit to anyone. Not to my friends, and definitely not to my sister. It’s honestly hard to even swallow my pride and admit it to myself.
But here it is: I want to be kissed underneath the mistletoe by someone who really thinks I’m amazing.
That’s it. That’s my Christmas wish.
I don’t think it’s too much to ask for.
But will it ever come true?
“Snowmen or snowflakes?” I smile up at the college-aged guy standing in front of my gift-wrap station.
He doesn’t answer me. Instead, he drops a heap of books on the table with a loud thunk. I pick up the top one. It’s a cookie cookbook. “OMG, this looks delicious,” I say, flipping to a recipe for salted chocolate chunk cookies. “Or should I say . . . doughlicious?”
My wrapping partner, Sam Gorley, laugh-snorts beside me. “It must be time to go home, because I’m actually starting to find your jokes funny.” She yawns. “Or maybe I’m just tired.” Sam is in my grade at school. We aren’t really in the same friend group--she hangs out mostly with the band kids--but since we started volunteering at the gift-wrap station, we’ve become kind of friendly. She spends a lot of time posting on social media and showing me pictures of her cat, Meow.
We’ve been wrapping for three hours now, and we’re starting to get a little silly.
I turn back to the customer, who is staring at the giant rolls of wrapping paper. “So what’ll it be?” I am very into themes, especially when they involve the holidays, and holiday baking is one thing I’m always in favor of. So a guy buying a cookie cookbook as a gift makes me happy. Maybe he’s going to surprise his girlfriend with homemade sugar cookies. Or maybe he has a little brother he wants to teach how to bake in time for Saint Nick. I smile, imagining the heartwarming kitchen scene.
He cuts me off mid-fantasy, frowning. “Uh . . . do you have something a little less . . . Christmas?”
I can’t stop myself. I frown back. Less Christmas? Less Christmas is right up there with No-Egg Easter and Firecrackerless Fourth, obviously a phrase that would never pass my lips, but I try to maintain my professional composure even though I’m wearing a plush red Santa hat and a strand of blinking lights from Five Below around my neck. “Oh, sure,” I say smoothly, reaching under the table and hoisting up a roll of wrapping paper. The rolls are even heavier than they look. “We don’t have room on the table for all our choices. Here’s another Happy Hanukkah . . . and we also have Dogs in Stockings.”
He shakes his head, his shaggy bangs covering his eyes. “Nah. How about something purple?”
I stare at him. “As in red meets blue?”
He nods. “Yeah. Purple.”
I’m about to object when Sam awakes from her nap and whips into action. “Here you go, sir,” she says, grabbing the books and wrapping them in a flurry of white tissue paper. She puts them in a fancy cream-colored winslow’s bag, slaps a gold foil sticker on it, and ties it up with a purple ribbon that she apparently pulled out of thin air. “Happy holidays!”
“Cool. Thanks.” He pushes a couple bucks into the donation jar and heads out the door, the little bells dinging upon his exit.
Sam turns to me and holds up her hand in anticipation of what I’m about to say. “Don’t even start.”
My shoulders rise and fall. “I just don’t understand people,” I say sadly. “Purple? For Christmas?”
Sam’s scrolling rapidly through her texts. “Not everyone’s as into the holidays as you are, Bailey.”
“So I’ve noticed,” I tell her, dejectedly picking at the fuzz on my red wool sweater.
“Anyway, are you going to that party tomorrow night at Joe’s house?” she asks, not looking up from her phone.
I shake my head. “I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
Sam sighs in the overly dramatic manner I’ve come to know well these past few weeks. “Joe Shiffley invited a bunch of people over to hang out. You should come.”
I shrug. “Maybe.” I don’t even know Joe, so the idea of showing up at his house for a party feels very awkward.
No one is coming over to the gift-wrap table. Sam heads to the restroom, and while she’s gone, I decide to rearrange everything. I line up the ribbon spools on the left--green, red, white, blue, silver--and put the tape dispenser next to them, along with a giant pair of scissors, a candle jar we now use to hold pens, and two gigantic rolls of paper. I pick up all the stray bits of cut ribbon from the floor and fluff the money in the donation jar.
When the bell at the shop’s entrance rings, I glance over. And when I see who it is, my eyebrows shoot up. It’s Jacob Marley, this guy from my grade at school. We were in biology together in ninth grade. The main reason I know him is because he had gone out with this girl, Jessica Dolecki, that I dislike. She has thick wavy blond hair, a pushed-up nose, and a high-pitched laugh, and she always wears a Canada Goose jacket. I think Jacob is on the track team--or maybe he’s a wrestler?--but other than that, I don’t really know him. He’s wearing dark track pants, sneakers, a gray sweatshirt, and a Boston Red Sox cap.
He lifts his chin in my direction. “Hey, Bailey.”
“Hey,” I say back, giving him an awkward wave. I’m a little surprised that he knows who I am.
“Nice hat,” he says, smirking. “Goes with the necklace.”
“Why, thank you,” I say, adjusting the white furry rim while ignoring the fact that what he said is most likely not a compliment.
“So, uh, you work here?”
I shrug. “I do, actually. But tonight I’m just here to wrap.”
He laughs, and a dimple in his right cheek makes an appearance. “Never would have guessed you and Drake had something in common.”
“I never would have guessed I’d see you in a bookstore on a Friday night,” I retort before I can stop myself.
He shoves his hands into his pockets. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Oh, um, I don’t know,” I say feebly, feeling my cheeks pinken. Why did I say that? He doesn’t exactly seem like the reading type, but really, I don’t even know Jacob. That sounded a lot meaner than I meant it to.
“So, yeah, I’m doing some shopping. For Christmas.”
Something in my heart gives a little flip. Any boy who comes to a bookstore for Christmas shopping gets bonus points. Now I feel extra bad that I insulted him. Most boys I know give gift cards for presents--if they even give a gift. Oliver and I weren’t together at Christmas, but something tells me he would definitely have been the gift-card type. Or, if I’m being honest, the no-gift type.
“And so you came in here,” I say, stating the obvious.
He nods. “Would you want to help me?” He holds up his phone. “I’ve got a list.”
“Oh,” I say, surprised. “I mean, I’m not technically working now but . . .” Known fact about me here at Winslow’s: giving people book advice is my thing. There’s something about matching the right book with the right reader, putting the right book into a customer’s hands: I love it. And helping a customer like Jacob is extra-satisfying, like watching my parents master a TikTok dance I’ve taught them.
Sam’s back from the restroom. Her thick eyebrows skyrocket above her black framed glasses as she takes a look at Jacob. I’m sure she recognizes him from school and is probably just as surprised as I am to see him inside Winslow’s.
“Um, I’m going to help this customer with his shopping,” I say, taking Jacob by the arm and ushering him swiftly away before Sam starts asking him questions. She’s one of those people who can talk forever--and we only have an hour before the store closes. Standing by the Poetry section, we huddle together over his iPhone as I read the list.
“Hmmm. Okay. Mom. Dad. Little brother. Grandma,” I mumble, making a mental checklist of Jacob’s family and what they might be like. “Very doable.”
He puts his phone in his back pocket, and for a second I think I see a flicker of something--surprise? apprehension?--flash over his face. But then he’s smiling at me before I can comment on it, and then I’m not sure it was even there at all. Boys are weird.
I escort him over to the cookbooks--probably one of the most popular sections in the store during the holidays. “Does your mom watch Face the Nation or Real Housewives?” I ask. “Or is she more of a podcast person?”