I popped by the Flying Pig recently to pick up my book order. I found myself in the strange world of pandemic shopping. The store, normally staffed by two or three people, was helmed by just one person. In this case it was Elizabeth. When I first heard about how they were staffing and running the store, part of me thought, “Oh, you get to be by yourself and work, there are no customers browsing, most of the orders are online, how hard can this be?”
Turns out it, it’s actually very hard. Elizabeth let me in so I could use the bathroom. First we had the new normal of being in the same room. She greeted me in a mask and gloves, which is still so strange to me. My mask was on as well. I was very lucky that Kate Sullivan of Random House made me a Dr. Seuss mask. And we never once took them off in the hour I was at the store. We maintained social distance as we chatted and got caught up briefly. I realized that it’s been a long time since I got a hug from Elizabeth, and I noted how much I missed them and wondered how long it would before we could share that simple greeting. Then I turned my attention to the books.
I noticed the two cases by the pick-up window were not just full, they were bursting with orders that had not been picked up. So many books. I thought again how easy this all looked. Then I noticed the phone was ringing off the hook. I disinfected a phone and helped out, from the back room, six feet away from Elizabeth.
Phone calls to a bookstore in a time of pandemic are not speedy. They’re laborious. It’s like watching someone browse while you’re on the phone. Minds wander as customers remember more books they’d like to find out about, which is great, but it’s hard. Rather than being able to just look something up and hand a book to someone, I had to look up the real title (even in the hour I was there, many people still identified books by their color), search our inventory, and place my hands on the book. If we didn’t have the book then I would have to remember the title (not easy at 55) and look it up at our distributor, check availability and ask if they wanted it shipped directly to them or they wanted to pick it up at the store. My first phone call wanted one book shipped and one to pick up at the store. As I was gathering the myriad address information, the other phone was ringing and someone was knocking at the pick-up window an hour before it officially opened.
Adding to this stress is the anxiety of getting someone’s credit card number right. I try to just input the number into the Square reader so I don’t have it written down anywhere. This is a great idea but often flawed in execution. I was ready to ring up a customer. I told her what her total was and she said, “Oh wait, let me get my purse downstairs.” As she did that my machine timed out and I had to start over. I was in the middle of getting it all back when she started giving her card number. I asked politely if she could give me a second and all the while I’m aware that the phone is still ringing off the hook, Elizabeth is working with a customer on the phone, and someone is at the window.
Then I asked for the credit card number. I need to add at this point that I’m audially dyslexic, so hearing numbers is extremely hard for me. I need them slow and in a predictable rhythm. What I got was the following: two four two seven (so far so good) eighty six hundred (not so good) three zero zero two (back to good) and ended with three thousand nine hundred and five. I’m fairly certain there are still parts of my exploded brain on the keyboard. Of course I entered the number wrong and had to start all over again.
What I realized about this was it was everything about bookselling that I didn’t like. It was all the things that require many multiple steps and none of the fun customer interaction that happens when folks are face to face. This kind of selling is stressful. There are so many more steps to be done to just get one book in a customer’s hand, it’s tiring. I left after an hour with a headache and great new respect for Elizabeth and the staffers who work alone (by choice) to keep the store running and providing books for customers who are, without question, thrilled to be supporting the store.
Josie, thank you for taking the time to outline EXACTLY how I’ve been feeling these past weeks since we opened to curbside pickup. At the end of the day, we look at register numbers and think, “Wow, that much work for that little income.” And not only is the balance off, but also the emotional energy required for mere transactional moments. I miss using my brain on handselling instead of logistics.
Dear Josie, thank you so much for sharing this story. It is so true. I’ve read it twice now and am laughing OUT LOUD while reading the credit card processing. This is exactly how it goes, especially while trying to balance and old cordless phone on your shoulder while your head is tilted sideways. All for the love of books. Amen. Also, LOVE the Dr. Seuss mask. Lucky you!
But we get to speak to wonderful, grateful people every day and even though it’s exhausting, and I wish daily to have the energy I had in my 30’s, at least we, as booksellers, have found ways to continue. We are tenacious.