It was the middle of a busy Saturday afternoon at the shop, with lots of moms and dads and kids filling the aisles, selecting birthday gifts and next-in-the-series books to read, and I looked up from the register (where I was quickly searching for an armadillo puppet from Folkmanis for a customer that Ingram NEEDS TO STOCK) to meet the gaze of a new customer at the front counter.
“Are you qualified to ummmm….. recommend books for my child, or do you just work here?”
Both the interruption and the question took me so totally by surprise, I took a second to inhale, and in that instant, two regular customers, who were close to the register, began to laugh. Bless their hearts, they both just spontaneously laughed, and in that extra second and tacit endorsement, I gathered both my composure and my pride and replied “Well, I’ll try. What are we looking for today?”
Off we went to the picture book shelves. Her three-year-old son, happily playing at the train table with his dad supervising (OK, his dad was actually playing with the Modarri cars, but whatever) was obviously their first and only child. Her question was innocent enough — she wanted someone to help her identify bedtime read-alouds that would be appropriate for her little boy, and not “miss” both the new-and-blogged-about titles and the tried-and-true classics of childhood. She wanted a bookseller, and as a first-time visitor at my shop, I’m not really sure if that’s even what she knew she needed. She may never have had a relationship with an indie bookseller or librarian, or maybe has never had a local bookstore since she became a parent. Either one of those possibilities makes me mentally tear up a bit, and certainly rephrase her original question and skeptical tone in my mind as I seek to make a new friend and customer, somewhere between Virginia Lee Burton’s Mike Mulligan and Sherri Dusky Rinker’s Kid McGear.
For that customer didn’t mean to be rude, and I don’t need to stand on my bookselling laurels in that moment — every bit of our contribution to our communities is not measured in our “Best Of” awards and plaques, but rather in every single customer interaction, and every next book we hand-sell. Her approach may have been off-putting, and as I swirled and pivoted and tossed titles over my shoulder in that casual crazy-busy Saturday mode that I adopt to make my way through the mayhem, I was caught short by her question. This is MY STORE. This is WHAT WE DO. We have awards on the walls, and legions of loyal customers, and a zillion hard-won school district contracts, and big ole events to our credit…. and yet, all these years in… we are only as good as the next customer’s experience.
It’s helpful, sometimes, to see ourselves through others’ eyes. After she left (with a full shopping bag, a husband who happily handed over the credit card, and a store event calendar in her purse, as she consoled a grumpy preschooler with promises of a return visit), I kept thinking about our exchange all afternoon. I reflected on the reality of indie bookselling — as much as we pride ourselves on knowing what our customers need, and see ourselves as local tastemakers and guides to the world of publishing and literature…. we are only as good as each individual customer interaction.
Many of our customers have not grown up in local bookstores. For those new (and not-so-new) parents who came of age in the era of Kindles and online ordering with Prime delivery, we are the strange and unfamiliar place to buy books. We are not the “if you bought this” algorithm that appears benignly at the bottom of the screen… we are real people, standing right there, requiring actual attention and conversation. Many of us are older than our customers, and our very appearance (and comfort with conversation) is a barrier for our customers weaned on point-and-click shopping carts that can be assembled and returned to later with the anonymity of a credit card number late at night in pajamas without actual human interaction, and the delayed gratification of a Prime box on the doorstep.., tomorrow (or maybe today).
I thought, too, of all the authors we host both in our store and at community events. How many times do they listen to people who approach their signing table, saying “I haven’t read any of your books…. but this looks interesting” and need to respond in a kind and inviting way? “Well, this is about….” and then those blessed authors, who have sweated and bled and cried into those finished manuscripts, have to summarize their worth into the next 10-or-so words to achieve a $17.99 sale? For to each of those readers, that interaction IS the summary of that author’s worth — and probably, the worth of that indie bookstore experience, as well. It’s a lot of responsibility, leveled a hundred-or-so times at each appearance, for several months, until they are banished back to their desks or laptops to begin again. Weighing your value in each interaction is a roller coaster of emotional cost, and it’s surely not easy to stay balanced and feeling wholly human from just these types of conversations.
Two thing about this Saturday’s conversation with our new (and hopefully returning) customer give me hope, however.
First, she asked for help. Her choice of words was a bit impolite, but they were real: “Are you qualifed?” gives me a chance to be just that. I can be a bookseller. I can share what I know, I can ask questions and learn from her experience as a parent, and I can listen to and learn from her feedback. Online behemoths and big box stores can’t do any of those things, and those are our very best skills.
Second, she was here. She and her family found their way to my shop, just up the road from Target and Walmart and all the big box bookstores. They made the effort, and I can make it worth their time. I can be their guide to books for this child and all the children that follow. I can be there for first lost teeth, first Communions, and first grade. I can be the bookseller who has read graphic novels and early chapter books and biographies and Harry Potter. I can be the resource for her turns as classroom guest reader, and know just what title to put into his duffel bag for sleep-away camp. I can research titles for his report on deep sea creatures, and be there when his favorite author visits his school, and he gets to do the introduction to his classmates (and I’ll act all cool, and just high-five in the hallway.) I can build this bridge — for very soon, she will guide others over it, too.