Tuesday morning, bright and chipper, feeling refreshed from my four hours of actual sleep following the several hours of tossing and turning that is traditional for retailers in the month of December, I pulled into the store parking lot two hours before opening. I was feeling smug about the bag of muffins on the passenger seat that I had remembered to pick up on Monday afternoon for story time, and the file folder full of completed order forms that a kind school media specialist had dropped off at a library author event the night before. Look at my efficiency! Bravo to my multi-tasking! I was holiday sweatered and sensibly shod for a full day of recommending great books, wrapping adorable gifts, and spreading literary sunshine… well, at least melting some hearts and their icy grip on their wallets.
I unlocked the door, juggling my tote bag and lunch, my folders and bakery sack of muffins, and was met with the unmistakable smell of gas. A horrible, strong smell of gas that made my eyes water as I backed up and hurried back to the car to dial Vectren. The customer service agent reminded me to stay outside (no worries there, I assured her) while she dispatched a technician. While I waited in the parking lot, feeling grateful that I had headed in well before the staff was to arrive, I looked around for something to make a sign for the door to explain our predicament. My daughter’s forgotten math notebook on the floor of the back seat provided some paper, and huzzah! a set of dry erase markers left from last night’s author presentation — there are times when a tidy car might be a bit overrated. The technician arrived with his little device and the confident air of a veteran as he strode into the store without a flinch to look for the problem — and quickly determined that while we definitely could smell gas, it was being pulled into our HVAC from the roof, where the exhaust from the restaurant next door was the source of the odor. He turned off our furnace, suggested I prop open all the doors, and headed next door to deal with the kitchen staff and their stove.
I kept my coat on while I found the doorstops that had been tucked away since September’s warmer evenings, set up the fan by the back door, and spent the next 45 minutes running outside to “cleanse” my nose, so that I could come back in and see if things smelled better. Satisfied that I had dispatched all the evil humors, I was ready to turn on the OPEN sign, count the cash into the drawer, and turn on the computer…
…which refused to cooperate. More accurately, the computer would turn ON, but not do anything else. A quick call to our internet provider (“yes, the account is fully paid and up to date, and we show no outages for your area”) and then a frantic email from my phone to the POS system provider (“Thanks so much for contacting us. We are currently closed, but our normal business hours are….” auto response) were no help. I did all the things that any adult who has served time in customer service purgatory is told to do: turned everything off and waited five minutes to restart, checked all the connections, removing them from their little color-coded portals and plugging them back in securely (my grandmother Caroline Carr was an operator at the phone company in her single days, and I think of her whenever I connect plugs and wires). I turned off power strips, changed outlets, and even walked away for a few minutes like I wasn’t concerned — somehow the adage about watched pots and boiling came to mind…. but to no avail. Early customers were now arriving, and some of them (yikes!) were picking things up and carrying them around, a sure sign of impending purchase. Our part-time employee arrived to handle the morning story and muffins crowd, and reminded me that I had left my laptop on the snack table last night when I brought books back from the event…. Eureka! I had a laptop! I turned it on, perched it on a stack of books by the “real” register, and logged into our Point of Sale program. It would be a morning of emailed receipts and typing in every item (because there was no place to connect the scanner) but we could sell stuff.
We got a phone call from a customer a few minutes later, inquiring which staff was on duty today. “I’m here — this is Cynthia — is there someone particular that you need to speak to?”
“I’m on my way in, to purchase several books. I want to speak to the owner.”
“I’m the owner, and I’ll be here all day. What can I do to help?”
“I shall be in presently. Good bye.”
Her tone seemed a bit formal and disapproving, but I didn’t recognize either her voice or the name on the telephone caller ID. The line of people at the register was a more immediate concern, as was the giant U-Haul truck blocking the stroller access to our front sidewalk, and as I hurried outside to tell the temporary UPS route driver to pull around back to unload, I slid on the newly formed patch of ice in the parking lot. Landing not-so-gracefully on one hand and knee (the tights will be retired after this wearing) I wondered if there was more driveway salt in the back of the stock room, and if we had any band-aids in the bathroom cabinet that don’t feature cartoon characters.
Our triaged temporary point of sale system was beginning to fray, as the staff realized that they couldn’t print price labels for the arriving merchandise, and the volume of purchases (for which we would normally be very grateful) was causing problems as we had no working scanner, and every item needed to be typed into the register by name. I commiserated with them just long enough to suggest someone place a pizza order for lunch (“just pull the credit card from my purse”) and looked up to greet the next customer.
I recognized her immediately. She had shopped with us last Christmas, and had brought a big stack of pages containing printed-out emails from her grown children, suggesting titles for the grandkids as gifts. While she wanted to see all of those books, she ended up not purchasing any of them — rather, we spent several hours together reviewing other “more suitable” options, which she carefully reviewed from a chair in the center of the store. While I take no small amount of satisfaction in our ability to suggest and recommend books, I remembered that this particular customer had been a challenge. She has a very defined set of tastes, and wants several choices for each title she plans to buy, and cares little for popularity or cover blurbs — she wants a full verbal review of each book. I glanced over at my crew, who had all noticed her entry, but were busy with wrapping and carrying items to make piles for other customers. Clearly, I was “up”, and this was the lady who had called earlier — and she wanted to be sure that I had time to spend.
“It’s so nice to see you again!” I began. “May I take your coat, and would you like a chair?” I noticed the familiar sheaf of papers poking out of the top of her bag, and straightened up slightly as I realized that this was going to be another longish afternoon.
“Well, before we begin, I want to tell you something. I make a point of buying books for each of my grandchildren. I don’t like to shop, but I think this is important. Last year, I bought books here. I intended to come back and see you after the holidays, but some personal health problems prevented that, and I was remiss. Every single book that we selected last year was just perfect. The children all read them, and enjoyed them all. I think you are a very good bookstore, and I think you sell quality books, and I wanted to come back and give you my business.”
And suddenly, Tuesday turned into the best day of the week, band-aids and all.