I spend most of my time here talking about how great indie bookstores are (and they are great) but I thought it might be interesting for a change to talk about a couple of failures, times when we at Island Books couldn’t seem to find what a customer wanted.
A co-worker of mine, whose customer service ethos was first formed when she worked at Nordstrom’s, legendary for its willingness to go above and beyond, had the following experience a few days ago: A 15-year old boy needing to do a book report came into the store asking for a recommendation. His only parameter was that the book had to be exactly 250 pages long because his teacher requires “at least” 250 pages and he didn’t want to read one page more than that. “Wounds my soul,” she said when she recounted the events, and as someone who has five books lined up for every book he reads, I felt the same way.
The mission, then, was to convert this reluctant reader. He said he liked war stories, so she first tried Tim O’Brien’s brilliant Vietnam novel The Things They Carried. It’s gripping and accessible, a perfect introduction to adult literature for a teen, but in this case, no dice. Turns out to have just 246 pages, and he insisted there was no flexibility on that point.
My colleague offered dramas, adventure books both real and fictional, magical fantasy in the vein of Harry Potter, which he claimed to have loved. She pulled out classics that centered around disenchanted youth—no good. She presented sports memoirs and tales, she pushed surefire page-turners from John Grisham and Dan Brown. ALL KINDS OF NOPE. Everything was either mildly interesting but had too many pages, or he would look at the cover and drop it like it was contaminated. I’d have given up long before she did, I must say. Maybe tell him just to take one of those too-long books and slip him the Cliffs Notes for it on the side. Though she persisted, all her efforts were for naught, and the kid went home empty-handed.
I was there on the field on a different occasion when we dropped another ball a customer was trying to throw our way. A man came into the children’s section looking for a gift for a five-year-old girl’s birthday. When my boss asked if he could help, the guy said, “I don’t think so. I’ve been looking around and you have stuff for two-year-olds and for eight-year-olds, but nothing in between.” My boss tried to steer him in the right direction, and I, thinking myself something of an expert by virtue of having a four-year-old girl of my own, did the same.
Seemed easy enough—we have books galore for five-year-olds, whether they’re already reading on their own or still being read to. Olivia? Madeline? Amelia Bedelia? Ramona? Pippi Longstocking? Heck, the list of powerful princess picture books we ran in our last eNewsletter could by itself cover a year’s worth of kindergarten parties. And aside from books we have a slew of stuffed animals and puppets, Papo figurines, LEGO Friends sets, craft kits, and games such as Hisss and Zingo, all smash hits with the younger set. Nonetheless, the guy walked out right past me, remarking on how ridiculous it was that we didn’t have ANYTHING appropriate. It cast a pall over the whole afternoon.
I suppose I’m being disingenuous when I refer to these incidents as failures, because when looking back on them and talking them over with my colleagues, I feel as if we did our job the best we could. I’m not by any means saying we’re perfect—maybe someday I’ll write a post on all the actual mistakes we make (and they are legion). But in these situations I think we were dealing with people who didn’t want to find what they said they were looking for. The backstory to the book report search was clear–the boredom and disaffection was staged and studied. It was necessary for that kid to convey his disdain at being made to do something he didn’t want to do, and nothing we suggested was going to change his mind. I still have a little bit of teenager in me, so I sympathize. As for the gift-seeking guy, well, I don’t know what his problem was.
I guess I was taken aback by these two encounters for a couple of reasons, first because they really are rare. It’s vastly more common for people on both sides of the counter to leave our store feeling better than they did when they came in. Customers discover books that make them happy, and we get to have a hand in creating that joy. It’s invigorating for me every time it happens, and it happens a hundred times a day.
The other reason is that when I think of bookstores, I think of a phrase coined by playwright Christopher Marlowe: “infinite riches in a little room.” It’s almost impossible for me to walk into a bookshop, ours or anyone’s, without spotting something I’m interested in. I may not find exactly what I’m looking for—or know exactly what I’m looking for—every single time, but I consider that a temporary setback. There’s always another shelf to peruse and another treasure to unearth when my mood changes. Some people (a very few, thankfully) are just looking for disappointment and insist on finding it, even at the end of the rainbow.
James Crossley is a bookseller and blogger at Island Books on Mercer Island. He tries to be nice to even the most difficult customers, which backfired on him once when he was so archly polite and formal that someone thought he was making a joke at her expense and stormed off in a huff.