‘Tis the season for sending out abundant and sincere gratitude to everybody who’s making an effort to shop local during the holidays. December is hugely important for the bottom line in the retail world, a fact that’s well known by owners and employees of independent bookstores.
But there’s a Catch-22 (a great gift book for any occasion, FYI) in play right now. Two crucial factors of successful commerce—browsing and buying—can collide head-on when a business gets crowded. It’s all about math and physics; several customers cannot occupy the same space at the same time, and it doesn’t take a massive number of visitors to make the limited space of a small bookstore feel like an enlarged sardine can.
I’ve been in the middle of these jam-ups many times. A stack of gift books is wonderful to see at the register, but any large purchase takes time to ring up. As customer traffic increases, lines begin to form. As the lines lengthen, people waiting with their selections may get in the way of people who are trying to explore the shelves. This is not a joyful experience for anyone. Toss in extra stress caused by nasty weather plus parking frustrations and you get what I call a Tale of Two Cities shopping scenario—the best and worst of times all mashed together (BTW, anything by Charles Dickens would be appropriate under the tree).
I’d never call myself an expert in crowd management. Each occurrence has its own unique circumstances. I do know that when tempers are running short there’s always a temptation to try and lighten the mood. My inclination is to avoid jokes and comedy. Yes, I’m a humorist, but I understand what it feels like to be stuck in a line and watch the minutes tick away, disrupting my schedule for the rest of the day, and it’s no laughing matter.
My best tactic for diffusing tension was to bring some order to the lines at each register so nobody would get into a dispute about who was going next. As part of that process, I would also tell everyone within range of my normal speaking voice how much we appreciated their ongoing loyalty and support.
The point I emphasized over and over was, “We’re all in this together, and thank you for being patient when things get so busy.” Sometimes a customer would make an immediate reply and most of those comments had two common themes: A) I shop here because I want the store to stay here and B) It’s nice to see so many others who feel the same way.
Anyone who follows my suggestions should not expect the tension to dissipate and be replaced with an atmosphere of jolly good cheer. That kind of result only happens in movies or TV shows. In the real world I went back behind the counter and hoped nothing would happen to make the situation even more stressful, like a power outage.
Each buying rush was hard to predict but, time after time, staff and customers worked through them, and these kinds of shared experiences are the ties that help bind a community together.
So to everyone who’s made the commitment to shop local and support small businesses, even when you have to endure crowded aisles, long waits, and other complications, I salute you. Wish I could do it face-to-face, up close and personal, but since that isn’t possible (physics and math again—too many people to meet and not enough time) please accept this text version.
With your continued assistance and goodwill, the story of independent bookstores in America can keep being written. The arc of the narrative will be compelling, inspiring, and rewarding. And there will never be a final page that says “The End.”
Jeffrey Shaffer is a writer who also worked for several years as a bookseller 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. His most recent collection of commentaries is entitled Who Am I Today? He still puts in an occasional shift behind the counter at Annie Bloom’s and blogs about American culture for The Huffington Post.