A Cautionary Tale

Josie Leavitt -- August 2nd, 2010

While on vacation this past week, I was reminded anew the importance of customer service, or lack thereof, and its effect on the customer. I was happily browsing and chatting, not loudly or about anything other than books, in the back of this store, when the sole worker approached me and my two friends and said pointedly, “Could you please keep it down.” This was punctuated with a withering look as he went to the store room.

I was stunned. Not only were we not being loud or inappropriate, we were in a bookstore, not the reading room of the Library of Congress.  To be shushed in a store when I was hardly speaking above a whisper really chilled me. So much in fact, I put the book down I was thinking of buying and left, and I never went back the rest of the vacation, and this is a store that I always try to patronize when I’m on the Cape. This experience brought home to me that one bad experience can sour a customer on a store, sometimes forever. As a store owner, I got to thinking about the old adage I always hear about customer service: if someone has a great experience they tell three people about it, if they have a bad experience, they tell nine people. That’s a horrible ratio, which bore out with the shushing experience.

A good bookstore should be many things, but most of all it should be welcoming. Happy customers chatting about books makes the store seem vital and alive. A silent store makes people nervous. I’ve actually said, in a loud whisper, “You don’t have to whisper. It’s a bookstore, not a library, really it’s okay to speak.” Children usually laugh when I say this and parents visibly relax. Being able to have a conversation is HUGE in a bookstore. Bookstore inspire discussion and discussions should not be hushed. One of the things I love best about the Flying Pig is when customers join conversations and complete strangers are talking about why they loved, or hated, a particular book. It’s invigorating and I love to hear what everyone’s got to say.

A bookstore is a tiny community within its town. People come in expecting to be able to browse and to chat, and that’s how it should be.  I can honestly say that in fourteen years of business, I’ve never shushed anyone, and if I ever do, it’s time for me to get a new job.

27 thoughts on “A Cautionary Tale

  1. Kate


    I totally agree with you. A bookstore should be a place you want to hang out and stay for awhile.

    We recently lost our one and only independent bookstore in my community to the bad economy. It was a great place to sit and stay for awhile.

    Now our choices are Amazon or driving out to the big box bookstores at the mall. 🙁

  2. Therese Holland

    in my poky little store I don’t play music because I can’t hear people if I do, I can’t hear that well around corners that well either, I really need eye contact EXCEPT when people are on phones; then I seem to hear every word no matter how much I DON’T want to. I am also wishing my store was filled more often with people talking about books.

    We get paid to put up with rude customers so we just grit our teeth and take their money when we can.

  3. Troy

    I usually find that music is blaring so loud from the overhead speakers in bookstores these days that it would be impossible to carry on a conversation even if I wanted to. Reading a few sample pages to see if I want to buy the book? Forget it. Bookstores are apparently now for drinking lattes and listening to painfully loud opera, showtunes, or jazzy blues. Goodbye, B&N! Goodbye, Borders! Hello, Amazon, which lets me shop in blissful peace! (Although I will grant you that most indie stores still seem to be trying to sell books.)

    1. Josie Leavitt

      Hi Troy,
      Instead of Amazon, you could shop at indiebound.org, same vast selection as Amazon, but you’ll be supporting independent bookstores while you listen to whatever music you like at a volume that works for you.

  4. Babs

    I work in a large bookstore. I have actually been asked by customers to stop talking when I have been working on the sales floor training booksellers or conducting other business. I guess these “customers” did not want to hear any talking when they were reading books they had not paid for.

  5. SusieW

    I am just back from selling at a library event, and it sure was not quiet there! Customer service is such a fine line. I know I have wanted to corral nosy kids and make their parents take control. Unfortunitly, sometimes you can see that the two year old is already smarter than their parent and will be in charge for a long time. Sure I find loud phone conversations rude, but is it any more poliet to quietly text and ignore me when I am trying to answer the question that was just asked? It never hurts to remind our crews to make the extra effort to be pleasing, even or especially when faced with rude, loud, and unhappy customers. We are only a little bit of a tourtist store, so we do not face people on either side who are just plain tired of summer/vacation. On the other hand, I am really losing my tolereance for people who want to tell me how much chearper the books are at Target/Walmart/Krogers, etc. So let us all on both sides take a deep breath and remember why we are in a small book store-if we do not love books and small stores we really are in the wrong place.

  6. CWS

    Last August I went into an indie bookstore in Northern California… I couldn’t remember if the release of Catching Fire was that day or the next, but I wanted to either buy it then or reserve a copy for the next day. The man who was there (the owner’s husband, I believe, who works there frequently) had never heard of it, or, apparently, The Hunger Games. He acted like I was asking for something completely obscure, and made no effort to look up the release date or to help in any way other than a vague offer to “special order” it. I declined. The next day I went to the Borders and purchased the book.

    At an indie, you expect both a level of service and of knowledge of books–and when both are lacking, a customer is not going to return.

  7. Shelftalker Elizabeth

    Don’t worry, Cape bookstore owners we know personally! It’s none of your stores. The really annoying thing was that we were speaking in voices that were aware of other people’s proximity. There was no comedy routine going on in the fiction section, no Josie-and-Elizabeth anecdotal account of last night’s dinner; we were actually recommending a book to another customer to buy. (Behind the Scenes at the Museum, by Kate Atkinson, in case anyone’s curious.) So we made a sale, and got shushed for it.

    I was so tempted to tell the gentleman (who did not seem to care for any of his female customers, actually) that we also own a store and find that we make more sales when people feel comfortable to browse and talk together about the books — but I thought I might get shushed for that, too, and restrained myself. I had complimented his well-chosen children’s section earlier, and got an eyeroll when, trying to help someone find a copy of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, I asked if it was alphabetically organized (“Goodness, NO,” he said, as if the idea of spending any time organizing the children’s section would be ridiculous.)

    It was the only sour note in an otherwise wonderful vacation, and definitely made us aware of the fatal impact one bad experience can have on a customer’s decision to shop at one’s store. There’s a psychological element at play, too. At a chain store, no one associates the whole chain (or even that particular store) with one bad employee; they continue to shop there, and just avoid that person. After all, their money is going somewhere vague and anonymous; the exchange of money is not perceived as a personal exchange. But at smaller stores, the personality of each employee reflects on the store and its management directly, and if a customer has a bad experience, he or she probably doesn’t want to give you his or her hard-earned money.

  8. Carol B. Chittenden

    OK, here we are, a bookstore on the Cape, and if Josie and/or Elizabeth came in and I didn’t know about it, I’d be hurt. Paranoid. Out of my mind.

    But if I found out a staff member had shushed ANYBODY who was short of yelling, — hey, I’d beat ’em bloody (except for Sam, who’s a serious college football player — Go Bates!). Nice? Us? Hah!

  9. Monica

    I’m a librarian, and I even seldom shush unless the noise level is getting toward a yelling level, or if language is inappropriate! In fact, I tend to start laughing when I hear kids talk loud or sing along with the computer when they have headphones on, because they really don’t realize someone can hear them!

  10. john

    It is a very fine line to walk so as not to offend. You must always be polite and tactful. Customer Servce has become the be all end all for most large retailers. Surveys sent in by customers can cost someone their job. So be kind to those that are kind to you…

  11. mike desanto

    Well now, no talking in my bookstore is a silly notion, besides we play music and have an Italian cappuccino machine. No kindles in my bookstore makes good sense. Plus I have had to chase off customers trying to return books they purchased at Barnes&Noble, hahaha.We have a cute little sign that says” unattended children will be given an espresso and a free puppy” as a hint to keep an eye on little ones of all ages. No cell phones is challenging especially if they are calling home to find out if mom has read this book yet. LOL. But I have never met any one who actually thought “their” voice was too loud in a small enclosed space. Let’s loosen up a bit.

  12. Julius Lester

    I think it would be appropriate to send the bookstore a copy of what you wrote here. Perhaps the owner/manager is unaware of the attitude of this employee. I would imagine the bookstore has lost more sales than just yours because of similar incidents. Of course, I am assuming that it was an employee and not the owner/manager who was rude.

  13. Randi

    I’ve worked in retail and have seen both sides of this issue. As a customer service provider, you have to be conscious of everyone’s feelings, which is no easy task. For instance, I once was doing a story time for a bunch of 3- to 5-year-olds. They were quiet, but their parents’ conversations got so loud that the kids couldn’t hear me read (and I’m no mouse when it comes to reading aloud). So I asked very nicely if they could reduce the volume a little. But I’ve had other instances where the store was a lovely melody of excited chatter about books. Basically, everyone who’s in customer service needs to learn tact and good judgment to know the difference between acceptable and unacceptable noise.

  14. Mary Quattlebaum

    Kids pick up on the vibes, too. In DC, the neighborhood kids dubbed one gift/bookstore the “Nice Store” because staff was always friendly and helpful. They wanted to choose their presents for friends’ birthday parties there (our daughter alone was responsible for the gifting of 9 solar-powered Japanese beckoning cats over the years). Another store was dubbed the “Grouchy Store” because staff, who were also owners, were *always* crabby. They radiated bad vibes. No surprise: the former store is still in business, with much repeat business, after 25 years; the latter, despite being in a great location, with much foot traffic and more tourists, closed several years ago.

  15. Linda C.

    I have a different perspective: that of “another” customer. I applaud the store clerk for asking customers to be quieter. Obviously, he could have done it in a more diplomatic way, but as a customer in book stores (and other public places), I am very resentful of apparently “unaware” folks intruding into “my space” with their conversations and phone calls. Bottom line: I don’t want to hear your conversation. If store management does nothing, I will simply leave the store, and, quite likely, not come back.

    1. Becky

      I’m sorry, I find this unrealistic. You don’t want to hear other people’s conversations when you go shopping? Do you expect everyone else in a store to whisper in order to avoid intruding on your space? I don’t see how it is possible to avoid this.

      1. Linda C.

        “Do you expect everyone else in a store to whisper in order to avoid intruding on your space?” No, not whisper, but, quaint as the idea may seem, to modulate one’s voice so that one’s conversation cannot be heard by persons around them who are not party to the conversation. Unfortunately, it would appear that most folks have forgotten (or never learned) that basic etiquette.

    2. ML

      Part of being a human being in the world is interacting with fellow humans, which sometimes means overhearing things that other people say to each other. It is absolutely unreasonable to expect that everyone shut their mouths within a twenty-foot radius of strangers. If a person is this sensitive about their “space” it sounds like a person should stay home!

      Overhearing fights or loud cell phone calls is another matter — and not one described in this post at all. In those cases, store management should clearly step in. But if a simple conversation is enough to make someone leave the store, I’m baffled as to how a person like that would go to a restaurant, the grocery store, the post office, or any other place where people gather!

    3. Kathleen H.

      Linda – I agree that when I go out when I go out for a nice relaxing time, either dinner out or browsing a shop, I don’t want to hear other people’s conversations. As background noise that’s one thing but if I make a point to keep my conversation contained to my area then so should other people. And I say that knowing that I tend to be a loud person. I especially hate it when a group of giggling teens, high on coffee drinks, interupt my browsing. That said, I don’t expect the staff to do anything about it unless it it bothers multiple customers. I would be offended if a staff member told me to ‘hush.’ I just move to another area or leave. If the store has stuff that I really want I’ll make sure to time my visit during a time less busy.

      Overall though, I agree that people could use a reminder that just because you’re in public doesn’t mean that you can use your ‘outside’ voice.

  16. Dave

    This isn’t just a book store problem. I have encountered this attitude in a number of specialty-type stores and it’s very disconcerting. I might just be buying something until Mr. or Ms. Self-important makes me feel like a total schmuck. Then I leave and you get no sale.

  17. CathyB

    Reminds me of a bookstore in DC with a sign outside that said something like “don’t even think about coming in here with a Kindle.” I don’t even have a Kindle and it made me not feel welcome.

  18. Becky

    I certainly hope that someone from that bookstore reads this entry and realizes what happened. Preferably the owner or manager.

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