I was away from the shop for a week, and re-entry to the early-morning-opening, no-room-service, shoes-wearing world of retail this Monday was tough. There was a TOWERING stack of mail on my desk, a line of post-it notes in every shade of neon requesting return phone calls right away, and a shopping basket full of damaged merchandise on the chair. My charming, hardworking staff held a clearance sale in my absence (see The Great Escape Sale) and there is a stack of boxes filled with the remainders that need to be dealt with. (Paging: the Island of Lost Toys, and bring that Abominable guy along, would you, to deal with some of these shipping damages?)
I had an ominous number of unanswered emails, a chorus of voicemail messages from sales reps and vendors announcing “the end, the VERY END, of all product promotions if my order was not entered immediately!” and we were out of toilet paper. And packing tape. And no one actually knows what happened in the microwave in the break room, but there is telltale popcorn-scented yellow coconut oil “product” on all the surrounding cartons, and that button you push to get 30 more seconds to rewarm your coffee is no longer a viable choice.
I felt a bit disoriented as I scanned the shelves for different displays (oh, WOW, the world map puzzles look GREAT there!) and new releases on face-out display (whew, I have read those!) and scrambled to plan a Monday morning Paint-a-Story for 35 kids and parents to begin at 10:30…. at 9:30. (Hint: start with what art supplies you already have, and work backwards into the newly-released picture book and project.) As I filled the last paint cup and water jar, I tuned back into the chatter on the sales floor, and suddenly realized that while everything might feel a bit strange, nothing had really changed. For in the next few hours, I heard all the Top Ten Things Customers Say (and the things I think when they say them):
- “I was here a few weeks/months/years ago, and you recommended the perfect book for my 8 year old daughter, but we didn’t buy it. She’s very bright, and reads at the (insert middle school/junior high grade) level, and I want to buy it for her trip to Cheer Nationals/Soccer All-Star tournament/choir camp.) Dear customer, I don’t have the foggiest idea what we showed you. That’s ok. Let’s start again. She’s eight. I can almost guarantee that we have things she hasn’t yet read, especially given her demanding schedule of tumbling/goal tending/voice lessons.
- My kid is an awful reader. He hates to read. Really, he’s just too busy. He loves video games, though. What do you have that will really make him a GOOD reader? Losing the charging cord might be a start. After that, perhaps we could lose the term “awful reader”? And not for nothin’, dear customer, but what’s the last book that your child heard YOU read aloud, or saw you enjoying in your free time?
- Oh, I could never bring my kids in here. They’d go nuts! This is one of those left-handed compliments that I’m never sure how to respond to. Is the appropriate reaction to shrug and agree (therefore endorsing both their lack of parenting skill AND my overwhelming selection of products?) or to ruefully shake my head in penance for having a children’s store that might actually get kids excited to be there? Or do I say something insincere like “I’m sure they’d be perfectly well behaved” which might be true, but seems a bit argumentative? I typically just chuckle and ask how I can help – “What fun to be out shopping all by yourself! What can we get accomplished for you today?” while thinking that I really, really miss the kids that were left at home.
- Is this the price? Yes, that price that is printed, in ink, on the book jacket is the price. Is that your money?
- My grandson has read Harry Potter. Really? In which languages? (I credit Dave Richardson of Blue Marble Bookstore in Ft Thomas, Kentucky, with this perfect response. Not only is Dave a brilliant bookseller, but hearing his confident tone in my mind as I raise my eyebrows toward the aforementioned grandparent OF A SIX YEAR OLD just makes me feel better.)
- Is this appropriate for my 12 year old? Oy vey. Is this appropriate reading for a 12 year old, given that the subject matter deals with issues they are facing daily in middle school, and that their friends are texting/tweeting/posting and positing about… probably without any actual exposure to other viewpoints or differing opinions? Yes, it is. Is it appropriate for the mythical, idealized, innocent 12 year old that you imagine lives in your house, and is protected from difficult issues and hard truths? No. Here’s where selling books to parents meets reality TV, and shopkeeper becomes gentle therapist. “Let’s try reading this one together, and talking as we go. How does that sound?”
- Do you have this in board? My kids are really rough on real books. Your kids are four and five. Books are…. well, as disposable as any other plaything. Will they get dog-eared, and perhaps a bit torn, and will the pages get dirty? Yes, if you use them correctly, they will. Isn’t that great?
- What’s the AR Level of these? This question is not offensive in itself, but it typically asked by a parent as a child carries an enthusiastically selected stack of books toward the register….having been told that they can pick out “whatever they want” to read on vacation or after school. Parents who wish to “score-keep” the reading level of their children’s free reading choices (so that all of that literary joy can be turned into points on some test) should be, in my opinion, banished to an endodontist’s office waiting room and required to read only Proust with a background soundtrack of various dental drills.
- There’s no sex in this, right? (See item #6.) No, in this middle grade book the parents are killed, the kid is kidnapped by an evil uncle, sent off to a sinister boarding school complete with bullies and creepy ghosts, and fights his way to freedom using lethal magical powers against criminals until their violent death…. but no, no sex at all. Not even any kissing. It’s fine.
- I just want you to know that the book you told us about is his new favorite. Really, he read it in a weekend – he’s never done that before! I told all my friends about your store. Can you find something else he might like? I am so grateful that we have you guys here. I hope you never leave. And there it is. The “welcome back,” daily fuel, and annual bonus of every bookseller. Those precious words that keep us returning to our shops and our shelves, and making every single day worthwhile. (Although a little room service would not be a bad idea, either.)