My heart goes out to publishers this time of year. Here it is, January — bookstore inventory time,  heading-into-the-lean-retail-season time, time to return excess inventory and pay our bills. If we booksellers dread seeing customers return books to the store, I can only imagine how publishers feel, waiting to see how many copies of which titles will come pouring unsold back to their care and keeping.

Our staffer Laura (our returns czar) called a publisher yesterday to get some returns approved and found herself transferred to their warehouse. The voice at the other end said wearily, “And how many pallets will you be delivering?” Laura laughed and said, “It’s just one box.” It made us think how grateful we are that customers, while they might bring back a book or two, never show up at the door with hundreds of returns for us.

Sadly, returns are rarely books you’re happy to have extra copies of, like Pachinko or Prairie Fires or Lincoln in the Bardo — all books that were scarce at one point or another this December. Instead, into the store straggle odd birds, a nonreturnable middle grade book no one had looked at in years that you thought had *finally* found a good home, or a curiously specific nonfiction title a customer had you special order, and then changed his mind five days later. Once, many years ago, a man had us order an expensive university press hardcover called The History of the Penis, which he planned to give to his adult son as a present, and then he returned it a few days later because “it wasn’t what he thought it would be.” I’m not sure there’s ever been a title that more clearly trumpeted its contents, but we were young booksellers and hadn’t yet carved out the parameters of our bridge too far.

This week, we’re closed to prepare for inventory, which is a surprisingly daunting task. We have more than 35,000 items in the store, and we have to get every book into its proper section, so we are dismantling multiple themed displays, bestseller shelves, and endcaps in order to move books into their permanent sections. We’re fixing negative numbers, resolving incomplete purchase orders,  special orders, returns, and missing category information. We’re making sure section divisions are clear on the shelves, and that anything not being inventoried is labeled. We’re checking each section to make sure no wanderers from, say, Sports have wandered into Action/Adventure. We’re rescuing a surprising amount of YA from the middle grade section, and teen fantasy from adult fiction.

And yes, we are pulling returns to publishers so we can get them out the door before the RGIS folks arrive with their scanners on Sunday to do the count. But we can promise that we won’t come close to returning even one pallet’s worth of books. Laura doesn’t like me nearby when she’s processing returns, because I pull books out of the stacks to rescue them. She patiently reminds me that, while I have great affection for that picture book with the fabulous art, it hasn’t sold in three years and its chance may have fairly passed.

At the moment, our sweet store currently looks a stark contrast from its chock-full holiday cheer, not only because we’ve pulled some returns, but because we’ve undone all of the face-outs on the shelves to make the scanning process easier. That means an empty foot or two on each shelf. There are two empty bestseller bookcases — all of their contents temporarily reshelved into their various mystery, fiction, history, nature, and memoir sections. The tabletops are clear. We’ve discovered books that had been needles in a haystack, and had to make decisions about unusual books we’d added to displays partly because categorizing them was a challenge. There’s a restful quality, and a sense of orderliness as we herd everything into its rightful place.

We have miles to go before inventory is done, but after the great rush of December, it’s a luxury to have a chunk of time to lavish some much-needed attention on the store, and to think about what new themes and displays and books we can’t wait to set up. I’m not sure “many happy returns” is an appropriate greeting at this time of year in our field, but I hope all of my fellow booksellers and publishers have exactly as many as are needed, no more and no less.

Happy New Year!