Not All Booksellers Are Congenial

Staying overnight in a motel in a strange town, one of my first moves is to look up “bookstores” in the Yellow Pages. Let’s say I find one to visit. What would make me want to visit again? Why would I suggest—or not suggest—to friends that they visit this particular bookstore on their travels?

As far as I’m concerned, the store can be small and neat or sprawling and chaotic, contain all new books or all old, high end first editions or mostly paperbacks. What makes or breaks it with me is the bookseller. The bookseller must be (1) knowledgeable—about his or her stock in particular and about books in general; and (2) welcoming. Not simply one or the other! Both!

Most of the bookstores I visited this winter passed my test with flying colors. One failed miserably on part (2) and left a very bad taste in my mouth.

Cranky BooksellerPeople in sales talk about how important it is to establish rapport when trying to gain a customer. Research indicates that people like people based on perceived similarities, ways in which the other is like the self; thus the message you want to give is, “Me, too! We’re in this together!” You do not want to make someone in your shop feel stupid or wrong or unwelcome. I know, you’d think that would go without saying, but we booksellers are a strange breed!

In someone else’s shop, I always identify myself up front as someone with a shop of my own, rather than sneaking around furtively like a spy and then springing my sales tax number at the counter with a “Gotcha!” One of my reasons is that, even as the customer rather than the seller, I want to establish commonality and, I hope, rapport at the outset. I don’t expect bookstore owners in other states to recognize my face or remember my name when it’s been a year or more since we’ve met. I do expect a certain degree of congeniality. I usually buy books on these visits, after all!

Well, on this particular, ill-starred visit, every question or comment out of my mouth was dismissed or corrected or ignored by an unwelcoming bookseller. Rather than seeking commonality, he went out of his way to impress upon me that he was smarter and more experienced and more professional and better organized—you name it. And though I asked three times for books on Benjamin Franklin, in the end I had to find the books myself. He was too busy one-upping me to provide any help.

When I told my husband how it had gone inside, he was surprised I’d bought anything. Well, I found a few books I wanted. I won’t go back, though, and I won’t send friends.

If you’re so cranky that you can’t provide a welcoming atmosphere, you might as well close up your bookstore and go home. You’ll be doing your business a favor.

Pamela Grath
Dog Ears Books
106 Waukazoo Street
P.O. Box 272
Northport, MI 49670
(231) 386-7209

[a sidebar from the editor of The Bookshop Blog:  I had a very similar experience with a lady on Sherbrooke street in Montreal. I’ll spare the details but she was rude and unprofessional, I never returned after that first visit. A few months ago I strolled past her vacant shop. Now I’m never happy when the city looses a bookstore but I must admit I wasn’t sad either.]

** On a positive note, If you know of a bookseller that is the opposite of the one described above why don’t you tell us about them in a comment just below – don’t be shy about sharing their location!

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  • Cheever Books on Broadway in San Antonio. Nice people, amazing selection, been in the business a long time. I’ve been visiting their store for many years. Always find a bargain too.

  • We have made three or four visits to A Novel Experience in Zebulon, Georgia, while traveling between Michigan and Florida. The three bookselling partners there have done a beautiful job creating a welcoming space, and their personalities reinforce the welcome. I recommend a visit.

  • Good posting Pamela. I understand how some days a person (even booksellers) might not be feeling up to snuff or have woken up on the wrong side of the bed so to speak but when running a business those days one must still greet customers in a friendly manner. I think I have said before in a comment on this blog how 2 blocks from here is a hamburger stand that I went to once. That would have been in the 1970’s I think. The rude treatment from one woman set in my mind that there is not the place to go.

    The same thing goes for online sales. Answer emails/questions in a friendly, courteous, informative manner and the customer will be more likely to come back. With Amazon, AbeBooks, Alibris, or your own website sales send a quick (even canned) message that the order is received and the book is still in the same condition as listed. If you have a set ship date tell them. Later when they see you have a book against a dozen others in they will be more apt to purchase from you but only if you have left them with a good taste in their mouths.

    • That’s a good point. Telephone and e-mail exchanges need to be warm and congenial as well as giving accurate information. Every contact is an opportunity to establish or build on a good relationship.

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