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An Elegy Sung by a Mourner Riding the Bookstore Viking Ship, Already Set Ablaze

filed under , 29 December 2011, 12:40 by

I’ll save you ten minutes: In this post I vigorously defend the customer service commitment of corporate booksellers, mostly by pointing out just how hard of a job it is.

I might also have a few [mildly] insulting things to say about my customers, which is what readers will key in on, and will raise their umbrage to the point they’ll pack the comments to this post with scathing missives about how I shouldn’t be allowed to breathe, let alone be put into situations where I’m allowed to interact with other people.

Look deep into the mirror, and see if you actually are one of my “customers”. If you are, feel shame; if not, then please laugh and cry with me, for I have a thankless job and have abuse piled on to me besides.


The occasion of this post is three unrelated complaints that seem to all have dropped into my lap at the same time, this past Monday:

And these quips, which I saw via @nprbooks on twitter

These complaints, and the responses to them, and other similar barbs casually tossed at booksellers, (and a case of beer) all had me worked up into a fine fit. I had to respond, because someone on the internet was *wrong* [op. cit.]

(I took a few days to cool off, but I’m still going forward with the [drunken] rant.)

I’m going to argue this five different ways. In fact, I have to argue it five different ways; you, the reading public, are conflating:

The big box bookstore vs Amazon

The big box vs Independents

The big box vs the Internet

The big box vs its own employees …and

The big box vs readers


The big box bookstore vs. Amazon.

So, let’s take that lovely KINDLE BOARD post and parse it:

First: it was posted to a kindle user board.

I know that when I have a customer complaint the first thing *I* do is immediately post on a fan-forum for users of a competitor’s device.

Setting that to one side, though:

- Amazon has no store fronts, so there is no way to visit one on Dec. 24th.
– Amazon does not offer opportunities for non-profits to earn donations through volunteer gift-wrapping in stores.
– Amazon would also not make change for a $5 bill. Indeed, Amazon doesn’t deal with cash at all.

I personally love how the second sentence in the post is, “I paid full cover price,” like this is equivalent to purchasing a First Class airline ticket, or somehow is pertinent to the rest of the events that follow.

Thank you for visiting a bookstore, Geemont, and thank you for buying books. (It’s what we do.) I’m sorry that the ‘full cover price’ is something so outside your regular experience that you felt it was worthy of note. Alas, the only way bookstores can stay open — indeed, to be open on the holiday of Christmas Eve — is to charge the actual price of a book, the one physically printed on the book itself.

Other than noting that your visit was precipitated by the need for a “last moment extra gift”, Geemont, you don’t make mention of the time. Was this in the last ten minutes before we closed the store, or during the mid-afternoon rush with a dozen customers behind you at the counter, or first thing in the morning when the store wasn’t really busy (yet)? December 24th was the second-busiest day of the year for my store, I can only assume it was the same for other bookstores: your incidental request for change while cashiers were busy attempting to ring up other customers during our highest volume of the year can seem trivial to you, but might in fact require a manager to step in.

Past complaining to the “district manager” on your way out [and how did you identify her as such? and why-slash-How did you skip over two layers of management before making the complaint?] — did you allow the bookseller to use established procedures to help you? Or were you just in too much of a hurry to wait an extra minute?

quote from the source:
“But here is the rub: Barnes & Noble is fighting for its life and one of its big advantages is their store fronts. Yet a petty (accounting?) policy of not making change made shopping there an unpleasant experience. In the long run, it isn’t the extra two bucks to charity, but the narrowed minded adherence to bureaucratic polices that ticked me off. What if I only had a twenty? Should I have just stiffed the wrappers? If Barnes & Noble wants remain in the book business they should do whatever to make their retail shops a place where customers want to buy books, especially at full cover price.”

I’ll note again:

- Amazon does not offer opportunities for non-profits to earn donations through volunteer gift-wrapping in stores.
– not least of which because: Amazon has no storefronts. Or booksellers. (would this be an example of Amazon’s ‘narrow-minded adherence to bureaucratic policies’?)
– and Amazon doesn’t make change for $5 either.

I personally would like to invite Geemont to escalate this as far as he can with Barnes & Noble: Rattle the rafters, make the chairman himself respond.

And then, sir, please do the same at Amazon, and demand that they open a nationwide chain of storefronts open at all hours and also up to the very last minute on holidays, so you can rely on them for last minute gifts and never have to shop at Barnes & Noble or other big-box booksellers ever again.

Especially at full cover price.


The big box bookstore vs Independents

“My local bakery is so much better than the bread I can buy at the supermarket”

And duh. Local & artisan is better than corporate & national: Which is why Sears and Wal-Mart both went out of business in the 70s when faced with competition on every geographical front by small, engaged local retailers.

Customers say a lot about their expectations and preferences, but they vote with their dollars.

As ‘the enemy’ (a big box bookseller) I get some heat from customers, and some perhaps-deserved insults from Righteous-Independent-Booksellers. Big-Box-Books doesn’t react, doesn’t respond, just isn’t as good as a good local.

Duh. Yes.

But I have to serve the larger community, not just you.

Someone is looking for the works of Spinoza or Gracian – these might not even be in a local branch library, but we have a copy for sale at big-box-books. Someone has to have reference guides on Ford V-8s, Benz Deisels, and Dodge Hemis – and your local library may have ‘em but mine doesn’t, and folks call the store daily. Someone has to stock books on history, ethnography, sociology, architecture, psychology, and how each and any of these might impact urban planning or business retail – and yet, not only is there nowhere else to find the books, no one else is willing to do the searches to find the books.

Your local indy is better at recommending fiction: they not only stock the Booker & Pulitzer Prize winners, they often anticipate them. Your Local is better – for what they do.

But I have know & be able to recommend it all, and then some. You tell me where your local excels, & I’ll come back with the basic knowledge I’ve had to acquire in five other categories that your local doesn’t even stock. There is a big difference between 40,000 books and 100,000 – and I’m being very generous in assuming your local indy stocks that many. Also, as a chain, the first follow-up question from any customer is, “Well, does one of your other locations have it?” — so in addition to my own inventory, I have to deal with what may-or-may-not be in stock at a dozen other locations – many duplicate titles but easily over 1 million books total.

One can maintain that local indie booksellers are better at customer service – & they might be – but smaller indies also enjoy a much lower volume of business & requests.

If I only had to entertain 100 customer inquires in store and 200 or so phone calls per day, I’d seem like an effing customer-service wizard, too. As it is, I’m busy, and frazzled, and there are two more people behind you in line.


The big box bookstore vs the Internets

Since you’re reading this on my blog, I can only assume you are at least passably acquainted with the internet. As such, my next point may in fact be lost on you.

No one looks up anything on the internet.

Oh sure, you do. YOU already know how the internet works. Does your mom know? Does your boss? Let’s say your parents are Nobel Laureates and you work for an internet search company — are you saying everyone you know is computer literate? How many of your friends pick up the phone to ask you a computer or tech question, because hey, you’re knowledgeable and you’re a friend and a phone call is easy, right? The answer is on Google, of course, a few clicks away: but that just isn’t the same as asking a friend.

At the bookstore, apparently, I’m everyone’s friend. No One Looks Up Anything on the Internet. If they did, my phone wouldn’t be ringing off the hook all day long. The calls start hours before we open and no doubt continue even after I go home at midnight. It’s not just stuff that a Google search would easily provide, or wikipedia, or say, an author’s or publisher’s website would have; sometimes it’s not even for a book —

My favorite was the call from a mother in New Jersey, who wanted me to recommend a local bakery so she could send her son a cake. In looking up a number to call in Atlanta, it never occurred to her to look up the number for a bakery – she called the bookstore so I could recommend a place. And then I got to use the yellow pages [the actual book] to look up bakeries and give this “customer”[sic] the information over the phone. There is another customer who, having established in her own mind that I was “the answer guy”, would call the bookstore, ask for me personally, and then proceed with whatever query happened to occur to her. Like, how to convert from Celsius to Fahrenheit. Or how to get out of a speeding ticket. Or the song title and artist based on a half-remembered lyric.

Folks walk into the store with truly excellent questions, too. One man wanted a book on ostrich farming. Amazingly, I happened to stock a book on ostrich farming (I was shocked too). I handed the rather slim volume to this customer, who turned it over, read the back, half-heartedly flipped through it, then asked, “But do you have any books on organic ostrich farming?”

More recently a customer asked me for a how-to guide on writing e-books. So I begin recommending several books on fiction writing, and a few on how to write book proposals for non-fiction titles, and a couple on writing memoirs—since I’m not sure what kind of book—and this guy says, “Well, these are OK I guess, but they’re all about writing books: I want a book on how to write e-books, you know?” I changed tracks, and started to recommend books on self-publishing, and mentioned a few websites I know that help authors get ebooks online and onto sales sites, and he says, “No, I don’t think you understand, I know how to get the ebooks online, I need a book on how to write an ebook, see?”

Sadly, I don’t; more disheartening is that this man could even formulate that thought.


As an internet-savvy, well-read bibliophile with at least average computer skills, it would never occur to you to call someone for answers. There is a gap, though: part educational, part generational — and a whole lot of folks not being able (or not wanting) to bother. I invite you to work for a bookstore, part-time, just for a couple of weeks, so you’ll know that even when the whole of human knowledge is made available to anyone on the internet, with very minimal effort required, there are still going to be folks who can’t be bothered to make that minimal effort — so long as there is someone they can annoy.

And many of these “customers” get pissy when I can’t seem to find a book that has “The Answer” in it. Or, when such a book improbably exists, they are shocked, *shocked*, that it isn’t in stock, for sale today. Because, after I’ve spent 10 minutes asking questions, guiding the search, resorting to all the resources at my disposal to find a book, “Well if you don’t have it I’ll just order it from Amazon.”

So sad, that customers can not use Google or Wikipedia on their own, but everyone knows how to use Amazon.


The big box bookstore vs it’s own employees

Man, I can’t believe I have to defend this crap online — it’s not like I enjoy working for a large corporate beast, But: I need to eat, and the employee discount on books is really much too fine to walk away from.

Let’s assume that a “neighborhood bookstore” exists as a platonic ideal separate from the business and social models that enable it. The bookstore would then be there no matter who runs it.

While this is certainly nice to assume, there is no imperative that insists a bookstore has to exist. Outside of corporate influence and engagement, bookstores are rare and endangered things. Even those of us who love books & bookstores, and who give up other employent opportunities to work at bookstores, and give our all while on the job – no matter how much we sacrifice we cannot maintain the status quo or guarantee bookstores will stay open — as has recently been proven by the Borders bankruptcy.

Corporate bookstores often cut costs by hiring part-time staff. Some of these ‘booksellers’ work for less than 3 months. You can certainly complain about the ‘booksellers’ you have to deal with over the holidays (if that is the only time of year you engage us) as we’re just hiring kids to make do. Even our “permanent” staff consists of folks who, on average, have been with the company less than 3 years. Some are college students, working nights & over the breaks — they were accepted to college so presumably aren’t stupid (…you can argue the point, but this isn’t the essay for that). I have retirees on payroll, and teachers; former librarians and folks who have worked for publishers; staff with graduate degrees, staff currently working on their doctoral theses; writers and artists and creatives of all stripes.

For many, the bookstore is just a stepping stone and a paycheck, an experience that will one day be a source of funny anecdotes for cocktail parties, college lectures, or corporate presentations. Corporate does not pay enough to retain talent. You could argue that Corporate doesn’t pay them enough to care.

Minimum wage does not buy one a whole lot of “buy in”.

It is a rare beast indeed that loves books, loves knowledge and trivia, is willing to work for less money than her skills might otherwise demand, is good with customers, is totally conversant with the rapid changes in the industry, and who can put up with corporate bullshit for more than a couple of years.

Instead, you get me. I’m undiagnosed Asperger’s/autism-spectrum and not only am I bad with people, I drink too much and respond to what-some-call-reasonable-objections to bookstore customer service with drunken invective and wounded pride. I take this personally. I have a passion for the job.

And the next time you need change for a five, you better hope I’m the bitter, pissed-off, overworked bookseller on a register because I am the manager and I am empowered by bullshit-corporate to make the life-or-death-decision to reopen the cash till, and I’ll get you your pesky change, without comment and likely without even making eye contact.


The big box bookstore vs. Our Readers

I’m not sure where this perception of hostility comes from. We have opened hundreds of stores all across the country [with outposts in each of the 50 states] and we stock 100,000 titles minimum at each, with magazines, CDs, DVDs, greeting cards, stationary, calendars, journals, and stuffed animals. WE WANT YOUR MONEY. We’ve made the stores as inviting as possible, and don’t even require you to buy anything, a loophole many many people take advantage of daily. We’re somehow a replacement for the library [an assumption that does a disservice to your local libraries] as well as a community center and learning annex.

We Try So Very Hard. …and often succeed — and still get push back from our customers, most often on price. If YOU, OUR CUSTOMERS want to push us out of the business, we’re going to go out of business — but all that “free” that you enjoy does not pay for itself.

“…there is no imperative that insists a bookstore has to exist. Outside of corporate influence and engagement, bookstores are rare and endangered things.”

Treasure what you have. If all you have is a corporate chain outpost – it is your choice whether that bookstore is your “local” or just another soon-to-be-empty storefront. And maybe you could buy something from us once a year – or twice a year, if your ‘once’ is only Dec. 24th


Summing up:

At the bookstore, our customers’ expectations are set too high; it would be like having a master chef or food scientist on staff at the grocery store, or top designers and fashion magazine columnists at Wal-Mart, or geologists and civil engineers to sell you fill dirt and gravel. Books are a commodity good (as is perhaps best proven by the price sensitivity of customers) but books are the only commodity that requires expertise & a high level of personal knowledge to sell — and sadly, there are only so many Jeopardy champions to go around.

There are at least six million books out there, in stock at somebody’s warehouse and available to sell. That is out of perhaps nine to twelve million books total (considering books that are out of print but still available used) and maybe as many as 15 million different books, if we consider new e-books and available scans of older books — and that is just the commoditized bookspace and doesn’t include library collections or all the books ever printed, in all their varied formats. My world gets more complex by the day — and yet I have to navigate these uncharted waters every day, in a way that is both prompt and seemless to the customer.

…and on top of that I have to do it in a way that doesn’t make the customer look or feel stupid — especially when the customer is acting (or is actually) stupid.

That’s my 2 cents. I’ll have to owe you the other $4.98.


  1. “But do you have any books on organic ostrich farming?”

    You’re killing this set ~ absolutely killing it. I had to include that in the retweet of the piece.

    Comment by BruceMcF — 29 December 2011, 17:56 #

  2. I’m an indie owner, but I LOVE you! Your observations are right on. We bricks and mortars are all in this together. Keep on writing; you help keep me sane. Happy New Year!

    Comment by NancyC — 30 December 2011, 20:05 #

Commenting is closed for this article.



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