The A-Word Conversation

Cynthia Compton -- April 17th, 2019

After 16 years as a shopkeeper, I have not exactly reached Yoda status, but I do consider myself pretty unshockable. I have witnessed countless tantrums (some by children, some not), been surprised by live animals in the store (remind me to tell you about the lady with the pet monkey wearing a little red cape – the monkey, not the lady) and even once, in the early years, was confronted by an attempted holdup. Why anyone thought that a children’s bookstore would have any actual money in the register on a Wednesday morning is a sad commentary on both the criminal mind and the state of our cash flow. When the unsuccessful robber pointed his gun (pistol? revolver? I should read more detective novels) and told me to empty the drawer, I actually laughed. I was told later by the very stern police officer that my response was totally wrong…. but then again, I’d like to see Officer Perfect handle a packed story time of two-year-olds at the end of a seven-day stretch of days too rainy and cold for outside play.

Still, I like to think of myself as pretty unflappable at work, and able to respond to most problems with a deep breath, a swallow of coffee, and just the right tone for the situation. I have listened to other booksellers present titles or answer queries in ways that I find useful, and I like to collect phrases on index cards that I think are particularly apt in describing an author or series, in order to pull them out like a literary magpie from a nest of shiny words and sentences, just to admire and try out on the sales floor. I have calmed screaming toddlers with made-up songs, brokered peace between both squabbling siblings and testy sales staff with knock-knock jokes and chocolate tucked into my apron pockets, and turned grumpy patrons into gushing fans with a little flattery and attention, effusive in their praise for our book selection and gift wrapping skill and speed.

No matter how many times I rehearse, however, I continue to be flustered and tongue-tied by one situation: the customer who asks for a book recommendation for their child, and when presented with several titles (carefully chosen after asking good questions, and summarized succinctly by a bookseller who has clearly READ the material) hands the books to their child to make a choice, but leaves without purchasing. Overheard, as they depart the store, those sinister words:  “We’ll get that on Amazon.”

Other adult customers will come in to browse in pairs, perhaps before having lunch at the restaurant next door. As they wander around the store and exclaim delightedly over a display or new item, they chat openly about books they have ordered online, what items are currently in their “cart,” and will even examine an item and then pull up the online customer reviews from Amazon on their smart phone. Last week, a customer stood at my register with a gift in hand, waiting for her turn to have the item gift wrapped (for free) for a birthday party. “Has the new Mr. Lemoncello book come out yet?”  “No, that’s still a few weeks out, but I can pre-order one for you, and have it ready!”  “That’s OK, it’s on my wishlist online.” 

Here’s where the careful verbal dance begins, and so many, many possible phrases and rejoinders are so very easy to type, and yet so difficult to say out loud:

“Gosh, I would love to hold one for you. I know how much you value shopping locally.”

“Oh, please support us instead. That way we’ll still be here when your school auction comes around next year and wants us to donate.”

“You know, we could just add it to your sale now, and you wouldn’t have to keep track of it. We’ll text you the day before release as a reminder.”

“WOULD YOU LIKE US TO SHIP IT TO YOU?”

“Please, please don’t tell me if you buy books online. It’s like when your friend has a birthday party and doesn’t invite you…. you’d just rather not know.”

“Friends don’t let friends buy online…. here, just let me add your name to the reserve copy list.”

Inside, I’m shouting “YOUR KID TOOK HIS FIRST STEPS IN MY STORE!  I HAVE HAND- SELECTED DOZENS OF TITLES FOR YOUR FAMILY! HOW COULD YOU CHEAT ON ME LIKE THAT?” which is not only making me feel worse, but my grip on the scissors is turning my knuckles white, and I’m sure this is not good example for the high school staffer who can sense my seething and is already emotionally exhausted from her AP Bio test today. I pause and look pointedly at the sign on the wall above the schedule of free events we’re hosting this month: SEE IT HERE, BUY IT HERE, KEEP US HERE, and slide the stack of flyers listing “Here’s What You Just Did By Buying Local” just a little further forward on the counter. I raise my eyebrows and turn my mouth into just a slight pout… no real emotional blackmail intended, but if she feels just the tiniest bit guilty, well, then, GOOD. A dozen more salient points bubble up from my soul, but none of them sound quite right, and all of them seem confrontational. My goal is always to be their favorite place and bookperson. I want to make shopping here so easy, so much fun, and so much better than any of the alternatives that we are simply not considered in the same category as an online purchase, and that type of relationship is not fed by haranguing and lectures. Very few long-term behaviors are changed by negative reinforcement, and most coaches learn that while you can throw chairs in fury* upon occasion, long-term success happens when your team feels like family.

So I smile, wrap the gift, offer once again to place the pre-order, and jot the customer’s name on a post it note, so that I can double check later that she’s on our current email list, and will get the next newsletter. And I wonder, again, just what the perfect words could be. Any suggestions?

*here in Indiana, all tantrums are measured against the legendary Bobby Knight. In case you weren’t alive then, here’s the standard:

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About Cynthia Compton

Cynthia is the mom of 4 kids, a rescuer of English Bulldogs, and the owner of 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Indiana. The 2600 sq. ft. childrens store was founded in 2003, and hosts daily story times and events, birthday parties, book clubs and a large summer reading program. She just completed her term on the board of the American Specialty Toy Retailers Assn, is a past president of the Great Lakes Bookseller Association, and her store was honored with the Pannell Award in 2013.

2 thoughts on “The A-Word Conversation

  1. Donna Gephart

    Love this post. It’s hard to educate some people on the immeasurable value of their local indie bookstore. And I’m sure it’s beyond frustrating when customers thoughtlessly use the “A” word. We word-weavers sure do appreciate you indie booksellers. And personally, we’re so grateful to have moved to a town with a great indie bookstore in walking distance that we’re frequent customers . . . and also buy armfuls of books at other indie bookstores we come across during our travels.

  2. Vickie

    I think I spend most of my time thinking about this. And I simply don’t know. The worst is people who ask “why is it $15 cheaper on Am*zon?” It ruins my whole day.

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