We have a thriving birthday party business at our shop, both to the joy of our bookkeeper and the local bakery that supplies our cupcakes, but sometimes success is just, well, exhausting. We began offering parties when we moved to this location some 10 years ago, using our back room/event space/Lord-where-do-all-these-boxes-go? space. Over the years, this business has grown to a consistent weekend schedule, often hosting up to five frosting-filled celebrations in a weekend (followed by almost as many glasses of wine and a nap for yours truly).
We spend a lot of time on the sales floor handselling in the summer, when kids have more time to read, and less assigned reading by genre to complete for school. Usually, at our store, this is a conversation between three people: the bookseller, the young reader, and the parent or grandparent with a credit card. Often, the adult is the one asking for recommendations, as left to their own devices, most kids are very capable of finding reading material that they think they would enjoy. Adults, too, often have an agenda for their children. They want summer reading to be something healthy like exercise and eating kale, with a vaguely educational tone to the content or the process itself. Sometimes they want the “magic bullet” for a reluctant reader… “I don’t understand it, his brother LOVES to read, and but he’s just not that interested. He’d rather play (fill in the blank with sport, video game, or fidget device). ” Cue sympathetic look from the staffer, who then gives our secret sign* towards the register, alerting another bookseller to engage the kid as quickly as possible, in hopes that we can have a conversation without a hovering parent. Perhaps they want to feed the voracious reader with a new series, preferably one with lots of titles for ease of purchasing subsequent books, or a shiny sticker that exudes quality. Perhaps they want to share books they remember from their own school days, or provide some context for an upcoming family trip (quick, name three middle grade titles that reference Colonial Williamsburg. Ding! Ding! Ding!)
8:06 am: (ring) “4 Kids Books & Toys, this is Cynthia…. Well, we open at nine, but I’m here, so how can I help? Yes, there’s story time today at 10:30. No, you don’t need a reservation. Yes, this rain is neverending, isn’t it? Three kids indoors since Saturday? Absolutely, come over early to play.”
8:15 am: (ring) “4 Kids Books & Toys, this is Cynthia…. an AmEx card? No, we didn’t find one, but give me your name and phone number, and if it turns up, we’ll text you right away. Yes, I remember you were here last night to get a couple of titles for that Accelerated Reading goal for your son that’s due today. Which one did he read? Is he in the car? Tell him I said good luck, and I’m holding his spinner.”
“Do you have any spinners?”
It’s the predictable chant at the end of most phone calls at the shop these days. There are two distinct sets of phone flurries: one at opening time, when adults (usually moms), dispatched by their school age chidren, call the list of local stores who stock fidget toys looking for new shipments. Then there’s the 3:30 pm “just off the school bus” group, who make the same round of calls, hoping for better news. On good days, when we HAVE received a new batch, our affirmative response is often met by a yell. “MOM!!!!! WE HAVE TO GO TO 4 KIDS NOW!!!” We’ve learned to hold the receiver a little further away from our ears.
While on vacation this past week, I was reminded anew the importance of customer service, or lack thereof, and its effect on the customer. I was happily browsing and chatting, not loudly or about anything other than books, in the back of this store, when the sole worker approached me and my two friends and said pointedly, “Could you please keep it down.” This was punctuated with a withering look as he went to the store room.
I was stunned. Not only were we not being loud or inappropriate, we were in a bookstore, not the reading room of the Library of Congress. To be shushed in a store when I was hardly speaking above a whisper really chilled me. So much in fact, I put the book down I was thinking of buying and left, and I never went back the rest of the vacation, and this is a store that I always try to patronize when I’m on the Cape. This experience brought home to me that one bad experience can sour a customer on a store, sometimes forever. As a store owner, I got to thinking about the old adage I always hear about customer service: if someone has a great experience they tell three people about it, if they have a bad experience, they tell nine people. That’s a horrible ratio, which bore out with the shushing experience.
A good bookstore should be many things, but most of all it should be welcoming. Happy customers chatting about books makes the store seem vital and alive. A silent store makes people nervous. I’ve actually said, in a loud whisper, “You don’t have to whisper. It’s a bookstore, not a library, really it’s okay to speak.” Children usually laugh when I say this and parents visibly relax. Being able to have a conversation is HUGE in a bookstore. Bookstore inspire discussion and discussions should not be hushed. One of the things I love best about the Flying Pig is when customers join conversations and complete strangers are talking about why they loved, or hated, a particular book. It’s invigorating and I love to hear what everyone’s got to say.
A bookstore is a tiny community within its town. People come in expecting to be able to browse and to chat, and that’s how it should be. I can honestly say that in fourteen years of business, I’ve never shushed anyone, and if I ever do, it’s time for me to get a new job.
Sadly, the above is true. No, I’m not addicted to drugs or alcohol, or even books. No, I’m addicted to a word game that I play incessantly on my iPhone, with up to 15 games going at the same time. The game, Words with Friends, is just like Scrabble, but you can play it with anyone, anywhere as long as they have a phone that can use apps. Okay, so I love this game, big deal.
Well, it turns out that lots of people — customers, sales reps, heads of trade associations, etc. — are also addicted. I was at a lovely NEIBA (New England Independent Booksellers Assocation) gathering last week and several folks saw me playing before the session started. It turns out they play, too. So, now I’ve added three new people to play against. It’s fun, and there’s no pressure, except from me, to play your word. You can take days if you’re out of town, and the game will still be there.
Customers are now challenging me, and it’s fun to interact with them in a very different way. Word games make sense for booksellers and book lovers to enjoy. Plus, two wonderful things have happened with the game.
The first thing is the chat feature. This allows you to send messages to your opponent. While I’ve yet to sink to trash-chatting, it’s been nice to chat about something other than the bookstore.
The second great thing is an extension of chatting. Now when I see these customers at the supermarket, they’re not asking me if their special order came in. Instead they’re asking me to play my word. For some of these customers, it’s the first time they’ve seen me in another capacity than bookseller, so it’s been wonderful.