The Gifts Customers Give Us

Cynthia Compton - December 16, 2019

We survived a crazily busy Saturday this weekend, with the store filled with customers from opening until past closing time (why do browsers move SLOWER once the “OPEN” sign is turned off, and staff is waiting to begin clean-up?) We saw just a few regulars early in the day, on their way to December birthday parties and picking up paperback nonfiction titles for the 3rd grade “Animal Expert” book exchange* this week. The rest of the day, though, was all-hands-on-deck for my crew, as we assisted those customers who visit us once a year to do their holiday shopping (“Oh, good. You’re still here! So many of these little shops like yours just don’t make it, you know”) and those first-time visitors (“So, how long have you been here? Seventeen years? Shup up! I have never noticed you before”) who need lots and lots of help. In those seventeen years, I have learned a few truths about first-time visitors: no matter how many signs you hang in your store, they won’t be big enough to be seen, and no one will read them anyway, and EVERYONE already has “so many children’s books at my house, really.”

We kept pizza boxes filled in the back for staff to grab a slice or two throughout the day, and made a conscious effort to rotate folks on the floor, for new customers are exhausting. Some rarely visit a bookstore at all, and are accustomed to using online algorithms and “Best of Children’s Books” lists clipped from some magazine to shop, relying on the typically too-broad age recommendations of those articles, and unsure if the books they purchased were ever actually read. Others rely on memories of book series from their youth, and we always sell a lot of Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and the Boxcar Children (bless their homeless little hearts) on these weekends filled with newcomers to our store. There are, of course, only two types of children that are being shopped for at this point in December: those who are incredibly gifted, reading well above grade level (who finished the entire Harry Potter series before they could manage the zipper on their hoodie) and those who dislike ALL types of books, and need a suggestion for the title “that will make them sit down and read.”
I’m not really sure where “just average” children get their books, but it would be an interesting business model to try opening a store for them. We could call it “Books 4 Regular Kids”, specializing in titles shelved just at grade level, for kids who sometimes like to read and sometimes just prefer to watch videos. The graphic novel section could be huge, Harry Potter could actually be shelved in middle grade and young adult instead of in its own section, and there would be none of those awkward questions from skeptical customers as they shuffle through the carefully selected stacks of paperback titles for their 12-year-old daughter who reads adult books but shouldn’t be exposed to “anything inappropriate.” We could forget everything we know about lexile level and A-Z text leveling, and just look blankly at customers who reference Fountas & Pinnell, suggesting that they might be looking for the law firm down the street or that new coffee roaster we’ve been meaning to try.
In the midst of all that rote holiday bookselling, however, two conversations happened Saturday that reminded me just why we’re here, and these two moments might actually be my bookseller Christmas gifts from St. Nicholas. As I ducked into the stock room to slurp a Sprite (my elvish fuel of choice), my cell phone dinged in my apron pocket with the following Facebook message to the store page:  “Cynthia, I’ll be in for story time with the kids on Monday, and can you have these books wrapped for me?” (A list of six titles followed, all bestsellers this season, and easily accomplished by the restock crew.) The following sentence, however, took my breath away:  “Also, special request, could you wrap up two books just for me? One quick read as well as something meatier. I like most genres, sci fi, historical fiction, mystery, romantic comedy. And go ahead and just tell me the price, not what they are. I’m a single mom so this is my way of surprising myself on Christmas morning.”
There’s a lot of things I could say, friends, about how this text makes me feel, but I’m just going to let the words sit here and let you experience all your own emotions. It is enough for me to be part of her Christmas morning, and I invite all of you to imagine which titles you would wrap for this customer, and which titles you will give away this season to those folks in your lives who need a thoughtfully selected holiday surprise of kindness.
The second conversation happened hours later, as I was busily wrapping a stack of baby gifts (why, oh why, do I order oddly-shaped baby toys in the 4th quarter?) A man gently touched my elbow, and I looked sideways to see a regular annual customer — a man in his 60’s, perhaps, wearing a plaid hunter’s jacket and jeans, holding his baseball cap in his hands. “Miss Cynthia — how are you?” he said, and I smiled and reached out to hug him. Mr. Johnson and his wife are once-a-year visitors for good reason. They live some two hours north, and their two grandsons, now aged 3 and 10, live in Florida. Each year, the Johnsons drive to Indianapolis to do their holiday shopping for the kids with me, and Mrs. Johnson is incredibly particular. She wants a toy and book for each child, and spends at least an hour or two in my store, reading through my recommendations, perusing the shelves, and letting her husband tell all his jokes to my staff. I looked around for his wife, but didn’t see her, and as I looked back at Mr. Johnson, I noticed that he looked tired, older, and there were lines around his eyes that I didn’t remember. “I lost Judy this August,” he said softly. “Uterine cancer. She was diagnosed in January, and we lost her seven months later. I need to get the boys something for Christmas, and she always loved coming to visit you.”
I took a deep breath and smiled at him. “We loved having her here, and I’m so glad to see you. Come sit with me for a minute, because I want to hear everything, and then we’ll shop for the boys.”
And in that very moment, in the middle of the holiday mayhem and all the silly things that customers say and do, and all the momentary frustrations of shipping snafus and damages and credit issues and online discounts competing with our ability to make a living, in that very moment, I remembered what we really do in our stores. We sell books, yes, and I sell toys, but we create extended families and real community. We give away our hearts, we wrap wishes and dreams, and they are gifted back to us a thousand times over with every volume that leaves our shelves. Our customers, their trust, and their time and attention are all the presents we will ever need, and usually more than we understand in the moment of each sale.
This season, my bookish friends, I wish for you a few moments of that holiday feeling, too, when what you give away is returned a hundredfold, and you, too, wonder what you ever did to deserve these kinds of gifts of the highest value from your customers and friends. Happy holidays to you and yours, from all of us here who understand and think you are just terrific at what you do, every day.
*our local school’s 3rd grade students undertake their first formal research projects this month, selecting an animal to learn about and present via poster, model, and written paper. As a holiday gift exchange, each student draws another student’s name and animal, and is asked to give them a book to assist their research, with very strict parameters: it must be a title solely devoted to that species, written at a 3rd grade reading level or above, and priced below $7.50. (Go ahead, ask me about Komodo dragon or cheetah books. I am an expert on critters-in-print.)

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About Cynthia Compton

Cynthia is the owner of 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Indiana, a 2600 sq. ft. childrens store founded in 2003. She serves on the board of the American Booksellers Association, is a past president of the Great Lakes Bookseller Association, and is a former member of the American Specialty Toy Retail Association board of directors. 4 Kids was honored with the Pannell Award in 2013 and has received numerous "best of" awards in the Indianapolis area. The opinions expressed in her posts are her own, and sometimes those of her english bulldogs.

2 thoughts on “The Gifts Customers Give Us

  1. VickeyB

    Dear Miss Cynthia–I always look forward to your posts. Today, I went from smiles to actual tears (still coming, BTW) in the space of two paragraphs.
    How can a single mother, who does all the Christmas shopping and wrapping for her household, ever find a surprise for herself under the tree on Christmas morning? I smiled in delight at your customer’s genius idea. And I know you came up with something wonderful, and surprising, for her.
    My heart broke for Mr. Johnson. But I am happy that he came to your store, knowing you and your staff would help him find exactly the kind of gifts for his grandsons that his wife would have wanted to give them. But, of course, he found more than books and toys: he found kindness and welcome in a place he and his wife were always welcomed.
    Merry Christmas–and blessings–to you and your staff.


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