An Essential Component of a Bookshop

Liking your customers. OK, if not entirely in love, then at least tolerating their reading habits and purchases, and doing it while seeming to like the customers.

Why is this simple thing so essential, and for some, so hard to accomplish? It’s essential for economic reasons. You buy books for the store. You need to sell those books to people. No sales, no money, no store. It really is as basic as that. Snarky or snotty or downright unpleasant attitudes toward customers won’t result in instant bookshop death, but given time, it will do it in. If you’re  the only bookshop in town or for miles around, then the customers have to put up with a lousy atmosphere-or do they? Not since amazon and B&N online etc. Let’s face it-that face you present determines repeat purchases. No one enjoys entering an environment of elitism.

Recently my husband and I traveled a couple of hours to go to a miniature store. I had large rather crudely cut and painted pieces of wood for a dollhouse project I’m working on from plans found in a popular woodworking magazine back in the 1940s. I needed help in choosing pieces to work with it-windows, roof, wallpaper. I approached one of the owners with my wood, and he threw what I can only describe as a hissy fit. He thought my project was hilarious. Impossible. Most dollhouses are carefully made from kits that can cost up to 800.00. I tend to wing my project, using found objects, but also professional miniatures. By the time he had stopped ridiculing my work in progress, I was ready to walk out. I was angry, but also hurt that a person in his profession and someone whom I would think wants to stay in business, would react this way. If my husband who is less sensitive as I hadn’t insisted, I would have left. Luckily for the one owner, the other was particularly friendly and almost made up for the reception.

But the next time I need things for a dollhouse project, I’ll think long and hard whether it is worth my time and energy to visit again .

It’s no different if the stock are teeny bricks, or new releases. A customer enters with the expectation of  at the very least politeness, but hopes for warmth and friendliness in their search for reading material.

One bookstore I worked in was notorious for unfriendly personnel. The person downstairs would grunt or say nothing when a customer inquired about a title. I remember pre-working there, entering and asking the man about one book verses another,  he gave me a stare  conveying his attitude that both stunk. Some thick skinned people would come back, and eventually the worker thawed and became a pal. A store cannot depend on this continually occurring. Happenstance was, the bookshop was in a tourist district, so many of the purchases were one time deals. And, it was located within office buildings–most customers would browse during lunch, not needing a helpful clerk. Plus paperbacks were not the principal money maker. Hardcovers were, and located upstairs where I worked. During the week. On Saturdays, look out! The owner reined in the chair behind a huge looming desk. When an individual arrived–he ‘d  bark–demanding to know what they wanted.
Either you knew this was how it worked upstairs and you went about your business of purchasing, or you didn’t and skittered away in fright, exactly what the owner wanted. Potential customers were not welcome. No browsing. No questions he wasn’t interested in answering. He was there to sell the used and rare books, and if you were looking for a new release, or you wanted to buy a used book but unaware of the dangers, you’d be metaphorically shot down.

The bookstore was notorious among people in the know. What saved it for most returning customers were the managers working daily. Myself, and others before and after were hardworking, friendly, helpful, booksellers who did their darndest to close the civility gap. And, mail order. If not for the catalog and orders, who knows?

Another store I was employed in did not intimidate in the same manner. They spoke ‘down’ to patrons. Patronized, rolled their eyes, had a cold shoulder attitude. And no wonder. Their owner was exactly the same, if not more so. He disliked the genre he was selling! Thought it beneath literature. How could anyone think a place would continue to succeed in a world such as this when the people in charge don’t think highly of their own stock? I was the odd person out. For me, the customer always came first, before phone calls, or shelving, unpacking, etc. I took very seriously the condition of newly released first edtions, I understood those who collected them. I was ridiculed by the owner for this.

My point–friendliness, respect, warmth go a long long way in creating a customer base. All modesty aside, I established a very strong customer following, so when I moved from one store to another, many if not most moved with me, or at least went to both stores instead of only the one I’d left.

My work strategy? Enthusiasm. Enjoyment in the job at hand. Welcoming to all customers, including those who were down right sociopaths. If someone were to mention an author I thought terrible, I’d discuss it with the them, as I went to the book in question. I’d ask, if you like this writer–have you ever read so and so–a writer I considered far better than the one at hand. Oftimes I would succeed in convincing the customer to take my recommended choice as well as the awful author chosen. Best case, the customer left without the trash and bought the superior book. No rolled eyes, or snickers, or gasping in a horrified manner, “you want that??” As the relationship between myself and the customer progressed, I would loosen up, joke around, dissuade them from wanting things I thought beneath their level. But always with respect. Maybe I’d even say in a mock horrified voice “you want that??” and laugh showing it’s not a choice I’d want them to make, but I’m kidding you along to find a the right match. My strategy worked. I not only sold many books, but found myself becoming real friends with many customers. Maybe it worked, because I honestly didn’t think of it as a strategy–I saw it as what a bookseller is *supposed* to be like and do.

It’s all well and good to have goals for helping people improve their taste and literacy levels. It’s a great idea. Putting it into practice is difficult. If a bookseller openly offends the customer on their choice of the written word, it is unlikely that person will buy what it is you want them to, then, or ever. And at the same time, you’ve lost a sale that meant money in which to fund your efforts in reaching the goals you’ve laid out.

What is the cliche? You draw more bees with honey than, uh, insect spray? Something along those lines. A friendly atmosphere greeting a  patron as they pull the knob and enters, gives the bookseller a large advantage over chain stores with zero atmosphere, and other indies where the customer is almost treated like the enemy. I’ve seen the latter close their doors, more often than not.

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  • re: “I saw it (good manners and building relationships by my read…) as what a bookseller is *supposed* to be like and do.”

    This is true in any business.

    I worked at a print shop that had one boss that was hard of hearing. A stranger would come in the back door, greet him and get no response. Regular customers knew to speak very loudly especially if machines were running. But the stranger would think him rude until I gave a tapping my ear signal that he was hard of hearing and would jump in to help.

    More than once I had people tell me that they felt offended and were about to walk out as a result of their perception of a bad attitude and after they learned the trick of speaking up and towards my boss they found they could easily become his friend.

    Good manners and building relationships should be a way of life for everyone but unfortunately some prefer to not join in. Those that do practice both will be the winners in the long run. Even if the customer is a sociopath.

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  • Of course the term ‘sociopath’ was a slight exaggeration. Most were only psychopaths.

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  • There is one locally owned bookstore in my town and a lot of people I know won’t shop there because of how cold the staff are. People just don’t appreciate the seeming snooty staff. Sometimes I myself feel that I’m bothering staff when I need to even check out!

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