One fact of life for a neighborhood bookseller is that we can’t satisfy all the needs of every single customer every day. Statistically it’s impossible, and most of the shoppers at Annie Bloom’s understand and accept this reality.
I’ve only been insulted once by an unsatisfied shopper. The person came up to me and asked, “Do you have an art section?” We do, and it’s minimal, as are many of the specialty sections because of space limitations. The customer’s response upon seeing the display was a look of surprised disdain and two words: “That’s PATHETIC!”
When someone has a negative attitude all you can do is shift into damage control so the situation doesn’t deteriorate further. I said we’re often able to special order items that aren’t in stock, but that suggestion wasn’t well received and the visitor swiftly exited. Another customer who saw the encounter shook his head and said, “Wow, that was awkward.”
In defense of the unhappy shopper I think inexperience may have been partly to blame. People who don’t visit independent bookstores on a regular basis may have unrealistic ideas about the size and scope of product availability.
Simply put, Annie Bloom’s is not a warehouse. I think it’s more appropriate to look at a small bookstore as if it were a painting. The large splashes of color in the foreground depict stacks of current popular titles including new releases, staff favorites, and award winners. These items are steady sellers that need ongoing re-supply. The front of the store is generally a high-satisfaction area.
The shelves farther into the store are, like the background of a picture, more nuanced and require a deft touch to complete each detail. The background shelves are where space constraints collide with consumer preferences. In order to maximize variety, a lot of titles are limited to just one copy. Keeping books in stock that sell occasionally, but regularly, creates enormous customer loyalty. A compliment I’ve heard several times is, “The store isn’t huge, but you always have what I like.”
I’m constantly awed by the ability of our buyers to assess the reading interests of our clientele along with the ebb and flow of market trends. I think it takes a combination of accumulated wisdom, institutional memory, gut feelings, and perhaps a few good hunches to create a successful inventory.
The success is evident every time a customer requests a book and we have a single copy in stock. That happened recently when I saw a guy holding a copy of War and Peace. He liked Tolstoy but he was going on a trip and wanted something shorter if possible. I asked him if he also liked Dostoyevsky. He said yes, so we checked Fyodor’s titles and he immediately grabbed the one remaining volume of Notes From The Underground. “I’ve been meaning to read this someday,” he said. It’s also half as thick as The Brothers Karamazov, so he was doubly happy.
The next day a teenager was at the counter with his mom in the middle of a transaction when he suddenly said, “Wait, I just remembered—do you have Lone Survivor? I’ll take it if you’ve got it.” We had one. Now he has it.
Sometimes I want to ask, “What made you want that book at this particular moment?” I had another chance after Lone Survivor when a woman came to the register with our only copy of The Milagro Beanfield War. But for now I’m going to refrain from such questions. I think it’s better to let the whole process remain a pleasant mystery and enjoy the consequences.
An independent bookstore that knows how to match up customers with books they’d like to read is more than just a collection of titles loaded onto shelves and piled on tables.
It’s a work of art.
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.