by Pat Holt
Friday, December 22, 2000
THE BOOK CRITIC AS BOOKSELLER - DAY 3: A CUSTOMER MOMENT
I'm learning to use the cash register on Day #3 of training at Book Passage in Corte Madera, Calif., when a man steps up to the counter to ask if we carry William Styron's "Darkness Visible."
The computer shows we have one copy in Biography of this book, a memoir of Styron's painful bout with depression. I walk over to the Biography section with him, but no soap - it's not there.
Sometimes single copies have been placed on Hold, I tell the customer, or misshelved (in which case they won't emerge for another century).
"So it could be someplace else in the store?" he asks. It's possible, I say -- isn't it essay-size? "Yes!" he answers, "it's only 84 pages long."
Well, let's look in Essays, I say hopefully, just on the chance .... but no luck. Quickly we try Psychology (nope), Health (nope) and Social Issues (no, no, no).
By this time the customer has told me that a friend of his experienced a very bad case of depression and that's why he wants to read the Styron book.
There's a slim chance it could be in "The Writer's Craft," I say, although that section is in our Annex behind the main store. Usually the staff here directs people to the Annex, where another team of booksellers await. But by this time I figure the customer and I are partners in this journey, so off we go, Annex bound.
On the way over, the man mentions that his friend's wife suggested Styron's book to him. "She said it helps a lot," he explains.
I remember learning a lot about depression from it, I say. Styron shows how quickly and deeply a sense of hopelessness can set in, making "depression" a very tame word for the personal catastrophe that can leave a person emotionally and physically paralyzed. Of course, Styron writes so beautifully that even the painful parts are comforting, I add.
"Well, it's too late for my friend," the customer says. "He committed suicide because of what they called 'depression.' I'm hoping the book will help me understand what happened, as it did his wife."
Whoa. I turn to the man and realize from his expression that his friend died very recently. Styron was suicidal, too, I say. He says the depression just kind of wafted away - it left him, not the other way around. Button it up, I say to myself. It's the book he wants, not my version of Cliff's Notes.
But no luck again in the Writer's section, and while I offer to order it for him, I know he'll decline. It occurs to me that Kay Redfield Jamison's "Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide" might be even more informative, and that the store's Death and Dying section has a number of candidates that could be extremely helpful.
But it's the Styron title the customer wants, and he wants it now. Because we don't have it, he's got to leave, and fast. I will kick myself later for not thinking to call other stores for him, as other members of the staff so often do.
Now, watching him disappear into the parking lot, I find myself hoping even more fervently that he finds the Styron, and I don't care whether the store is an independent, a chain, an online outlet or a Costco. Such blasphemy, but who cares: Just let him find it.
For the rest of my time at Book Passage, I think about this customer. Of course, such disclosures occur very rarely, and it's not as though booksellers want to know that much about a customer's private affairs.
It's rather that when something like this comes up, one gets a glimpse of how life-altering a single book can be in a person's life.
I used to get letters at the Chronicle Book Review from people who told me how much this book or that book meant to them at times of crisis very much like this customer's. But seeing it in his eyes and feeling his sense of urgency as we walked through the selling floor was a different matter entirely.
The experience reminds me that everyone working with books is allied whether we know it - and whether we like it - or not, even in this shattered and chaotic industry.
Indeed, it's something of a comfort to remember that no matter what happens as publishers and booksellers face more upheavals in 2001, literature is permanent, necessary and vital, and readers will always be there.
A HOLIDAY APOLOGY TO THOSE LYING THIEVING CHAINS
Taking readers' comments to heart that chain bookstores can't be all that bad (see LETTERS, below), I conducted a quick test to see what kind of service staff members provide at chains during the holidays.
Since I wrote in #205 about shelving books by and about the Persian mystic Rumi at an independent store, I decided to ask about Rumi books as I walked into a big Barnes & Noble store where crowds of customers were just beginning to collect.
For several minutes I noticed that no staff members could be seen except those at the long line of cash registers near the front of the store.
Then a Barnes & Noble staff member appeared whom I'll call Sarah. She wore a photo-ID card around her neck so that she was easily identifiable to customers. She turned toward me with a smile when I asked if she could help.
"Rumi!" she exclaimed upon hearing my request. "How wonderful! I love his poems!" And off we went to a computer where she looked up a respectable list - not as long as Book Passage's but surprisingly varied for a chain, I felt - of titles by and about Rumi.
"Are there any titles here you're looking for?" she asked. I picked out a popular book by Deepak Chopra and waited for her to point me in the direction of the store's Poetry section.
Not a chance. "First, let's go to Islamic and investigate some books on Sufi as well," she said. I was kind of floored. "Rumi's considered the founder of Sufism so you'll find a wealth of options here."
What a terrific and helpful and encouraging bookseller Sarah turned out to be! It was the most horrible experience of my life.
We swept into Islamic as though we had lived there since birth and found two books that seemed to fit my request perfectly..
"It just happens that I'm a great fan of Rumi," she said as we walked halfway across the store in the other direction to Poetry. "In fact, I read most of his work in Farsi so I can tell you, you're in for quite a treat."
Five copies of the Chopra book were exactly where she said they would be. "Take a look at these," she said, pulling the Chopra and a few others out for me to peruse. She began to depart so that I could examine them in private, with no pressure to buy.
"I'll have to think about it," I said.
"No problem! Thanks for coming in," said Sarah as a man came up to ask about "Angela's Something." Sarah paused: "Oh yes, I know, the author is Mc . . . Mc . . . " and off she went with the customer to a floor computer.
Well, that was telling, I thought: Of course, of all the sales floor workers in all the chain bookstores in the world, I happened on a lifelong Rumi devotee.
But even when she didn't know the answer to other questions from customers, Sarah had enthusiasm, authority, a love of books and a way of making customers feel respected and welcome.
Oh, I noticed that she was the ONLY staff member on the sales floor and that customers had to wait to get their questions answered, and that people at the cash registers couldn't leave their stations.
But as a customer I was not only satisfied by the help I got from this staff member - hell, I wanted to marry her.
On, then, to a big Border's store some miles away. Here, I thought, the crowds standing around Customer Service and Information counters would surely be sent away in the direction of the books they wanted, without accompaniment or individual help from personnel.
But no: Every single customer was escorted by a clerk who happily made certain the right book or at least something close to it was found and placed in the customer's hands.
Even when I asked about Rumi, the nice man who took me to the Religion section not only showed me a small but choice selection of titles, he scrambled up a nearby ladder to retrieve a missing book from the overstock above.
"Can't you read it in Farsi?" I wanted to say, but he had already departed, once assured I had the books I requested, to get back to other customers.
Conclusion: It could be that my sources have given me old information about chain bookstores and the strict self-serve model that used to be a standard in at least some of them; OR the holiday season has forced even the chains to provide real customer service; OR despite what appears to be a storewide policy, many bookstores in each chain vary widely in actual practice.
I think it's the first option, though: I think former Borders bookseller Lori Kozey in the LETTERS section below is right - the chains may be lying and thieving (not her words) in other ways, but it's unfair to malign them as something akin to pump-it-yourself-or-die gas stations.
So that's it for my holiday apology. You thought I was gonna go overboard when the date for Borders and Barnes & Noble to answer antitrust charges from the American Booksellers Association is only months away? Bah humbug.
THANK YOU, MOLLY IVINS
Thanks to Molly Ivins for cutting to the core of the issue just this week by encouraging readers to "solve all our Christmas shopping problems at the best one-stop shop in town, the bookstore - preferably a local bookstore.
"I firmly believe," she added, "that it is well worth going out of one's way to shop at an independent bookstore. The importance of independent bookstores to a healthy culture is not to be overestimated . . . "
There! That's what I meant to say all along.
SEE YOU IN 2001
We're off until the New Year to rebuild our technology, spiff up the website, and return with vunderbar goodies for the New Year. Have a happy holiday and see you then.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Your stint at Book Passage and subsequent stories have warmed my heart. I've also had the unfortunate situation where I've been short-staffed and have been hiring people way too late in the Xmas season. My new staffers are amazed at life's daily offerings as a bookseller! They are getting a crash course in human relations, and the reason why I ever got into bookselling in the first place: it's so wonderfully interesting. Yes, the books are interesting, but what's more interesting is the customers who want these books.
Alas, the holiday season brings out the best and the worst of customers. I usually hit December 20 or so, when yes, even the owner has had it up to "here" with extravagant requests. A woman called and asked for a book on manners, etc. for her teen-aged granddaughter. I pulled out "How Rude: The Teenager's Guide to Good Manners, Proper Behavior, and Not Grossing People Out" published by Free Spirit Publishing. Her question: Do you have anything else? After a deep breath, I said, "this book is right on the money . . . What exactly did you have in mind?" I felt rude just saying that!
After some reflection, she agreed that maybe I was right, and she came in and purchased it.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Your writing about the man looking for books on the yeast disease candida and then heading to B&N when the Book Passage selection seemed lacking reminded me of one of my favorite (and true) book store stories. A man went into an independent bookstore, perused the Gardening section, then approached the store owner. "I'm looking for a book on orchids for my mother-in-law,"the man said, "and I would like to support your store. But I went to the chain store and found an entire shelf of orchid books. I come here and find only six books on orchids." "That's true," replied the bookseller. "But we have the right six."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Re your statement in #205 that people shelving books at Borders and Barnes & Noble "are not allowed in many cases" to leave their stations and answer customer questions, and that beyond information counters the chain-store environment "is strictly self-serve, like a gas station or Toys R Us."
This is just plain wrong. Borders employees have it drilled into their heads that the customer standing in front of them always comes first. All full-time booksellers (and managers, for that matter) have responsibility for shelving a section in addition to revolving through the different information stations, registers, and sorting. Even when we're on section time, we have responsibility for answering customer questions and answering the phones.
Lori A. Kozey
Holt responds: I'm glad to hear from you because I've been told by several Borders people that they are not allowed to leave their stations and take the customer to a different section where they may spend time to help the customer find the desired book. If this is not true, I'd very much like to get it straight. When you say, for example, "we have responsibility for answering customer questions," what exactly does that entail?
Lori A. Kozey replies: First, a little background. I started working for Borders in 1990 as a Christmas temp in one of the first handful of stores to open outside of Ann Arbor. I worked for them as a Christmas temp again for three of the five following years. When I decided to move to Hawaii, I was offered a position as a full-time bookseller, and later was promoted to backup office coordinator (three out of five working days spent doing office stuff, as opposed to direct customer service). My Significant Other worked for Borders full-time for nine years, first as a bookseller, then as trainer, then as assistant manager and sometimes regional coordinator (trainer for new store openings). (SO and I have both since moved on to other jobs.) I know what I'm talking about, although, of course, I don't officially speak for the company.
Rule number one of Borders customer service is to walk the customer to the section and physically put the book in his hands if at all possible. It has been that way since the beginning, and has remained that way, at least at the Honolulu store, to this day. We were trained to never just point, but we were also trained to assess how much hand-holding (my phrase, not theirs) the customer needs during busy times. If a customer asks where the cookbook section is and tells you that they're not looking for anything in particular but just want to browse, most won't get lost if you tell them the cookbooks are on the left at the top of the stairs; others need you to take them there.
We were also trained that the customer in front of us always comes first. This means that if I was knee-deep in shelving test prep and a customer asked me where to find the art books (which are downstairs at the other end of the store), I had to stop what I was doing and take her there. I would *occasionally* pass the customer off to someone else (as in "Mark, would you please show this customer where the Agatha Christie mysteries are?" rather than saying just "Can you help this guy?"), if I was in the middle of shifting an entire section and another unoccupied bookseller happened to walk by, or if I saw the bookseller at the adjacent information desk had no customers. But that was rare. And if I heard the phone ringing off the hook when I was shelving or sorting, I was expected to pitch in and answer it.
I am very surprised to hear that some Borders employees are saying that they can't leave their stations. There are only two situations in which I can imagine that happening. The first is at the register, which you can't leave unattended for security reasons. If a customer asked me a question when I was at the register, I would do the best I could to help her without leaving the register (unless there were three or more of us stationed at the registers and no one in line -- but that's unlikely). If she asked me where Alice Hoffman's newest book is, I'd tell her that it's in the second alcove from the left against the back wall under "H" and on the new fiction table at the front of the store, and tell her that if she has trouble finding it, she should ask for help at the information desk. If she asked me if we have a certain book on Judaism, though, I'd have to send her to the information desk. The second would be in one of the multi-level stores, like San Francisco, if the customer asked on the first floor for something that is kept on the third floor. I don't think it would be unreasonable in that situation to simply direct the customer to the third floor and ask them to seek further assistance there.
Not leaving the info desk to take a customer to a section has never been corporate policy, and in fact flies in the face of Borders's customer service philosophy. Perhaps this is a misguided local manager's attempt to deal with understaffing, which is a big problem in all retail establishments these days. If so, I'm very sorry to hear it.
Many things have changed at Borders over the years that I've been associated with them, and I don't agree with all of them. But I feel compelled to stand up for them when they are made out to be worse than they really are.
Some of the bad service people may be experiencing in all kinds of stores, not just chain bookstores, is a result of a smaller applicant pool of generally less-qualified people. Our booming economy has allowed many of the better-educated employees with above-average smarts to find "real" jobs in their fields of expertise. These are the people who used to flock to bookstore jobs as a way to pay the bills and keep the brain engaged while biding their time. At the same time, people in general have more money available for discretionary spending -- resulting in many more retail service positions to fill from the diminishing applicant pool. You can't put a book-lover who knows his stuff into every bookseller position, because there just aren't enough of them who are willing to work retail hours for retail wages to go around anymore, especially in a good economy.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I feel sure you will enjoy this arresting paragraph that caught my eye on page 54 of the Grove Press Winter paperback catalog:
"Grove Press inaugurates a new series that brings back into print classic biographies on the lives of fascinating people by imminent authors."
What are these authors waiting for? Eminence?
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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