Most weekend shifts at the shop simply fly by — there are presents to be wrapped, regulars dropping by to pick up “stuff we brought over from the warehouse” (because we NEVER say “Special Orders” at the Bookstore), and new customers drawn in by parties, costumed characters or author events. Last year, we added a Saturday story-and-art session to the mix for parents who can’t attend events with their kids during the work week, and in the summer we extend our Saturday evening hours to accommodate the patio diners at the restaurant next door, who linger in the pleasant Midwestern evenings with another glass of wine and an indulgent attitude for the kids who want “just a little something” next door at my shop. We staff accordingly for all of this activity, and typically have the most members of our team on the floor on the weekend than any other time.
This weekend was a bit soggy, though, with torrential rainstorms on Saturday, and our friends just to the south of us in Indiana faced tornadoes, damaging lightning and high winds. As we mopped up that evening, and I wrung out the loads of wet towels that we had used to soak up the rain driven under all our door frames, I told the crew to just relax and enjoy their Father’s Day at home with their families. The weather would still be iffy, we had no events scheduled, and I wasn’t expecting much traffic in the store on a day meant to celebrate Dads, not kids. I would be happy to staff the register solo, and I could always call for reinforcements if things picked up. Giddy with an unexpected free day, my staff grinned and high-fived, and I vowed to myself that no matter what happened, I would just handle it myself.
I wish that sentence was a transition to “….oh, I was SOOOOO wrong” and I could tell you an amusing little tale about the crazy bookselling day that was simply too busy for words, but we’re going to stay truthful here. It was painfully, horribly slow all day. There were hours that the door didn’t jingle AT ALL with opening and closing, and I checked the switch on the lighted OPEN sign not just once, but twice (OK, it was three times). I drank all my coffee in the first hour, raided the snack box for the good candy twice, and dusted all the fixtures. I pulled four different ARCs from the back room, but just couldn’t settle into anything, and after spot-checking three sections realized that today was finally the day that my entire store was completely alphabetized…. so I wrote notes to the staff praising their diligence, and it was still only 1:30 p.m. I went to the car to get my laptop, intending to pay some invoices and update the staff schedule for July…. only to realize that I had left it at home, and my family was at the movies, so there was no one to beg for a mercy delivery of a keyboard and maybe a slice of pizza. I was well and truly stuck, and the next few hours could be spent in quiet self reflection…. or, I could mop the party room and clean out the junk drawer. I decided, instead, to jot down a little list of “rules” about slow days in retail, so that we could commiserate together. Here’s my hard-and-fast list for hard-and-slow days:
- You WILL have a few customers on very slow days, but they will all arrive and leave in the same 10 minute period. They will bustle into the shop, fire several questions at you at once, and generally fool you into thinking that it’s going to be a crazy, busy day. Then will all leave together, (with or without buying an item or two) and you will spend the rest of the day thinking of BETTER ANSWERS to their requests, and titles whose names and authors completely escaped you in the moment will jump from the shelves and beg to be recommended, next time.
- Out-of-town shopkeeping colleagues, who are traveling through your town on the way home from vacation or trade shows will only visit on incredibly slow days. They will text and message, wanting to just “stop in for a minute, because we KNOW how busy you are,” and drop by to see your lovely shop — only to witness empty aisles, and you forlornly straightening the plush rack, which is already perfect.
- Your first transactions on slow days will typically be returns, which you will handle cheerfully and efficiently, assuring the customer that it’s no problem at all” to return the gift that her son didn’t take to his classmate’s birthday party because they were halfway there and realized they had forgotten the present so they just grabbed a gift card at Target… and after she leaves you’ll cut the ribbon and untape your own wrapping paper and print another price label and take it back to the shelf, where you’ll notice that the shrink wrap on the box is ripped underneath. You’ll be so certain that the negative balance will be covered in the next few minutes that you won’t even check the register totals until several hours later, when you realize that you’re still not back to your starting point, cash-wise.
- Re-reading Yelp reviews, Google ratings, and social media comments praising your exceptional selection and customer service will help you feel better for a few minutes, as will several of those little miniature KitKat bars in the staff snack box. Beware, however, of obsessing about the less-than-glowing reviews, and no matter how sarcastic and funny and accurate your carefully composed responses to the online trolls might be, DON’T SEND THEM TODAY. You are operating from a weakened position, and the online predators can sense vulnerability. Do not get drawn into online battles over reputation and accuracy of customer feedback — just go dust something, instead. At least then you’ll be able to see the results, even if they only last a day or so, unlike online comments which are permanently etched into your soul.
- Your mother will call, bless her heart, and want to know why “you’re always working.”
There will, of course, be relief on those painfully slow days, but it will arrive late. Just as you finish carrying out the trash (only one bag, and it wasn’t even full) and close the bathroom door after admiring the gleaming sink and the freshly mopped floor, and straighten the front table for the final time, a boisterous, large, extended family with six kids, two sets of parents, and a set of grandparents will arrive after their early dinner next door. Mayhem will ensue at the play tables as the preschoolers scatter toys and trains, the older kids will grab titles from the book spinners as Grandma wants to see what they’re reading “just to get birthday ideas, you know,” and dads will race the remote control cars around the party room. The moms will chat, oblivious to their kids’ multiple entreaties “MOM! This is that thing…. that thing that Trevor got for his birthday that you said I could have if I saved my allowance and I have enough money but it’s at home and can you buy it and I’ll pay you back…. MOM!” and spend the next 15 minutes (10 of these will be AFTER your closing time) extending their family celebration. Then they will leave. They will comment, kindly, “what a nice place you have,” as the kids argue over who gets to ride home with Grandma and Grandpa, and someone has a meltdown because they “never get anything” and Dad decides that it’s just time to go home RIGHT NOW as he hefts a tired wailing toddler over his shoulder and heads to the Suburban in the parking lot.
You’ll survey the mess, lock the front doors, leave a note for the opening staff that you’re “sorry about the clutter… it was a bit crazy today,” and go home. Some days require more than a KitKat, and we can all start another list tomorrow.