We have a lovely family in our community who have been great supporters of our store. Their two sons, Drew and Sean, both have autism. They manifest this diagnosis in different ways, but neither boy likes loud noises, crowded places, or unexpected events. We met them for the first time several years ago, when the boys were still in strollers, out for a Sunday morning walk in our empty shopping center. I was inside, assembling a train table for delivery that afternoon, and when I saw the parents peeking in the windows of our closed store, I unlocked the door and offered to let them come in to play. Unfortunately, the door “dinged” as I opened it (do you have those bells on your doors, too?) and little Drew took offense to the sound. Dad and I exchanged apologetic looks, and I suggested that they walk up and down the sidewalk again, and in the meantime, I’d disconnect the doorbell. Then they could just come in quietly, and I’d go back to my Phillips head screwdrivers and directions-in-translation. They quickly agreed, and a friendship was born over a tantrum and lack of overhead store lights (we just kept the store dark, and let the sunshine do the work) for their almost weekly visits. Now, when they are headed over, Sandra calls on her cell phone first, and one of the staff jumps up on the stepstool to disconnect the offending dinger, and turns off the stereo. Their visits are no longer limited to off hours, as other customers are very accommodating to our quick “lights out” drill, and will even kindly lower their voices if told of the boys’ preferences.
One of our local group homes for developmentally disabled adults uses the dentist next door for their residents, and about once a month, their van pulls up outside as they attend appointments. A visit to our shop is either a reward for good behavior or an alternative to a crowded waiting room — either way, we’re the “treat” for this group of big kids, and a break for their caregivers. One of the regular guests, Paul, likes to greet everyone in the shop with a handshake, and then tell us all about himself. We are, after multiple visits, pretty intimately acquainted with his favorite TV shows, foods, and most of the songs he knows (his Whitney Houston is memorable). His smile is equally familiar, as Paul rarely seems to have a sad day, and expects everyone else to be just as upbeat.
Another customer, Tabitha, recently shared her daughter’s diagnosis of some rather significant learning disabilities. Her daughter, a serious little girl with a near constant head tilt and a quizzical look, is a regular at story times. She doesn’t join in much with the activities, but her mom says that she looks forward to coming, and I can count on her to be at my right knee when we sit on the big rug, silently observing both me and the other children. After stories are over, she is drawn to the same corner of the shop each week, where we once showed her that a little plush mouse sits on the shelf behind some middle grade chapter books. The mouse doesn’t belong there — we’re sure that some small person tucked it quickly when told to “put those things away, we’re leaving” but she likes finding it there every week, so I suppose that is where the mouse DOES belong, and that is where it will stay.
Our oldest customer, we’re sure, is Mrs. Amato, who comes in only about twice a year. She is brought from the nursing home by her middle-aged granddaughter, and the two of them enjoy a bit of early dinner at the restaurant next door before they drop by. Mrs. Amato uses a walker now, or sometimes a wheelchair if her foot is hurting or swollen. She doesn’t come in to shop, really, as she can’t quite remember how many great grandchildren she has, or which ones of them have had babies. She has a hard time seeing much, too, but she’s a great judge of quality, and we like to ask her to compare the plush from new vendors with other brands we carry. “Do you think this is well made? Should we go ahead and order from this company?” are the triggers to her long ago memories as a buyer for an upscale department store chain, and she smiles as she strokes the pile with her now arthritic hands and nods or gently shakes her head. Five or six stuffed animals later, she’s tired, but her consulting work is accomplished, and we carefully place the preferred choices on the front of the display.
It’s easy, when running a business, to look at monthly sales totals and attendance at events and growth percentages as a measurement of success, or to feel miserable over road construction or CAM charge increases or staff turnover. So, too, as booksellers, we can spend hours each day handwringing over the political sturm und drang, and its potential impact on education and policy, or the online behemoth and its continued march into every corner of our customers’ psyche. All of these are important, but not worth our souls. Our greatest contribution to the society that we want to do business in is to treat our businesses the way we want our world to be, where everyone is worth a little extra time, a little extra attention, and a feeling that “special” is not a label, but a birthright.