The holiday season was busy at Annie Bloom’s Books. A steady stream of customers flowed in, which was good. What’s not so good is when too many people are ready to make their purchases at the same time. The traffic of commerce starts backing up and shoppers are forced to stand in line.
Line formation is a fascinating process. All it takes is four or five patrons moving toward the checkout counter simultaneously, and suddenly it seems like a dynamic new life form has materialized in our midst, an aggressive entity that expands with alarming speed. It can also spread confusion as shoppers wonder, “Is there a line here or just a group of people browsing? Am I cutting in front of someone without realizing it?”
Some form of guidance is needed in this situation. There isn’t enough room for us to set up velvet ropes like they do at fancy nightclubs. My ongoing priority during the approach to December 25th was to manage line growth spontaneously on a case-by-case basis. But getting everyone arranged in a single column that sometimes stretched halfway to the back of the store was only a semi-satisfactory solution. It did ease crowding and confusion around the front display tables. But a line means waiting, and waiting can have a very negative effect on customer satisfaction.
Modern society places huge importance on speed and efficiency. I call it “on-demand” culture. Many web-based businesses promote home delivery service by promising, “no waiting in line, ever!” Waiting in line — what could be more primitive, so last-century?
However, I’m pleased to report that holiday visitors I talked with maintained a “Stay Calm and Carry On” attitude as the lines ebbed and surged. And here’s a confession: I’m never happy waiting in a checkout line. I just want it to be over with. Soothing music doesn’t help relieve my angst. Even if Zamfir walked by playing his pan flute I wouldn’t get happy. I know other people probably feel the same way, and that’s why I’m careful not to project excessive cheerfulness or false enthusiasm during my stints of line management. And it’s good that I never learned to play the pan flute, or any instrument for that matter.
Hardly anyone I met was testy or annoyed about the delays. Many of them said it was nice to see the store so busy and they felt good about being part of a supportive community. One comment I’ll always remember came from a guy who said, “Hey, if you have to wait in line, a bookstore is the best place to do it!”
And then the lines went away. It’s always interesting when they come for a visit, but when they depart I’m not sad. No more sluggish, bloated feeling at the front counter. The checking out process is swift and agile once again. We have shed the holiday wait. Bring on the New Year.
Jeffrey Shaffer is a bookseller and booklover at Annie Bloom’s Books in the historic Multnomah Village district of southwest Portland. His relationship with Annie Bloom’s began in the 1990′s when the store’s booksellers enthusiastically sold his two humor collections I’m Right Here, Fish-Cake and It Came With the House. He continues to blog about politics and popular culture for Huffington Post and also contributes to the ‘Modern Parent’ blog at the Christian Science Monitor.