If you’re having a hard day at the office, you might be able to shut your door for a little privacy, or take a long lunch, or hide out in the bathroom for five minutes. In a small retail store, if you’re the lone clerk on a shift, your headache or heartache has to wait. Or not.
At the end of the day the other week, I was alone at the store. It was about eight minutes after closing time, but I’d had customers right up until the last minute and hadn’t had a chance to grab our “Open” flag from its outside standard and lock the door behind the last person. I was at low ebb, exhausted from a couple of weeks of my dad being in the midst of a medical crisis. (He’s fine and back home now — yay! — or I wouldn’t be writing this post.) That and another medical scare in the family had left me pretty spent. On top of it all, we were four staff members short, with two folks on vacation and another two recently having retired from bookselling.
As we’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog, running a bookstore isn’t a job involving a whole lot of peace and quiet. It’s more like constant triage in a E.R., though happily without the life-or-death consequences. It’s still a busy day, full of chasing down details, answering innumerable questions (few of them predictable), dealing with any number of personalities (some of them challenging), and putting out small fires. The variety makes bookstore life fun and interesting, but you do need energy to carry it off.
So there I was, heading to the front of the store to lock up, when the front door bell jingled and a woman and young boy walked in. My body responded before my brain did, sending traitorous tears springing to the backs of my eyes. I almost never mind staying late for customers, but I just didn’t have it in me that evening to deal with one more question, one more need, one more anything. “I’m sorry,” I called up the aisle, “but we’re closed.” I’m fairly sure my desperation and crabbiness were thickly evident in my throat. Then I looked up and recognized Cheryl, a lovely customer. “I know we’re late,” she said apologetically, “but we wanted to say goodbye to our favorite bookstore people before we move to Colorado next week. I’m not sure we’ll have time to come back in before we go. We’re also really hoping to get a few thank-you gift cards for our friends.”
Here is where I need to share another truth about retail: if you’re having a bad day and let it show, you will let it show at the worst possible time, or to the worst possible person (i.e., the person you least wish to dismay in any manner). So of course my grumpy self met, not a jerk or insensitive yahoo I could have at least felt less guilty about, but one of the kindest, most thoughtful people on the planet. She made space in her crazy-busy last week in Vermont to come to the store and say goodbye. And she spent $150 — a significant sale at any retail shop, but especially welcome at a small independent. And she gave me a big hug.
There’s a lesson in all that, of course. I think it has something to do with opening one’s heart and being welcoming despite one’s petty moods, etcetera. I’m not always in the mood for those lessons. Sometimes I feel the universe spends a little too much time doling out these kinds of game changers that make you feel like a heel, or an idiot, when it could be expending that energy on world peace. Oh, wait. On second thought, maybe that’s exactly what it was doing, in a very small, very indie way.