Tuesday, November 01, 2005

A Shocking Incident, or Why I hate November.

Yesterday something happened that I had never experienced before. No, it was not that those Smart Bitches and Kate Rothwell took the Harlequin game and ran with it although that was extremely wonderful, thanks ladies. It happened at work.

You see, yesterday I had a customer come in and apologize for her behavior.

I’m still coming to terms with it, really. In all my years of bookselling I’ve never once had a customer come back and say they were sorry after acting like an ass, and I’ve had a lot of customers who felt it was their God-given right to be all that they can be in the asshole department. Yet here was this woman, a regular customer, who had the guts to come back in a couple of days later and admit she was wrong. Sure she waited until the Boss and I had our hands full trying to string together paper doves for the window display (don’t ask), but given that we have a whole arsenal of weapons behind the counter (box cutters, scissors, staplers, and rubber bands), I’d be cautious too.

“I’m so sorry about the other day,” she told the Boss, her face red with embarrassment. “I shouldn’t have acted that way. Of course you weren’t hiding the book, it was advertised on your website—that’s how I found out about it—and you wouldn’t advertise something you’re against.”

“It’s okay,” the Boss replied as they both got a bit teary, “it was just an oversight on the part of our warehouse that we didn’t have more. They’re displayed on the front table now.”

“I saw, but I just really wanted to apologize. I was having a bad day, and feeling a little,” she lowered her voice, “hormonal, and then when you didn’t have it out immediately I just jumped to conclusions. I shop here all the time. You’ve always treated me well. You didn’t deserve that.”
We all stood there looking uncomfortable for a moment.

“Well, we’re glad that you’ll keep shopping here,” the Boss finally said. “And don’t worry. It’s happened before.”

“And I’m sure it’s only going to get worse because it’s November. At least it’s not next year.”

Perhaps I should backtrack a bit because without context this conversation doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. You see, last week (around Wednesday, I believe) this customer strode into our store looking for the new book, Do as I say (Not as I do), by Peter Schweizer. When she didn’t see the book on the front New Release table or on the Rolling Display Fixture next to the new Al Franken book, The Truth (with jokes), she became incensed.

Suddenly we weren’t giving equal time to both sides. We were Pinko Commie Hippie Bastards. Here was proof that bookstores everywhere were biased against the Right.

The Boss was running everywhere trying to find this book (the computer said we had one copy), finally pulling it from the “To Be Shelved” Bin in the back. Triumphant, she brought the book to the customer only to be told, “I was right, you were burying it.”

She bought the book and stormed out, and my Boss immediately got on the phone with her boss and our local distributor. We were not going to have this happen to us again.

And by again, I mean this happens to us a lot, which is why I hate November.

As months go outside the book business, November is pretty great. It has Thanksgiving which is a license to eat, drink and be merry. It’s the downswing of school. As part of the book business it wouldn’t even be that bad if all we had to deal with was Black Friday (the name given to the Friday after Thanksgiving, or the biggest shopping day of the year. Black Friday brings out a special kind of mad-crazy bargain hunter, the likes of which won’t be glimpsed again until the New Year’s sales), I like making money and I like making people happy. Unfortunately November also brings out the “persecuted customer” because it’s election month.

There are two things that I will never discuss in a bookstore: religion and politics. Neither matter when I’m selling you a book. My opinion does not affect my ability to sell, merchandise, or select a product. My job is to make sure the book that you want is available and get it for you if possible. It is NOT to defend myself against ridiculous attacks and moral judgments when I don’t have what you want in stock. There is no hidden agenda because it would stand in the way of our obvious one: to take your money, and I can’t take your money if I don’t have your book in stock.

And yet, I’ve been saved twice and yelled at multiple times. The “saving” is not really the focus here, and something I can’t really get pissed about because I find the process amusing (having a little Ukrainian grandma grab your hand in front of the bibles and start praying makes for a good story at parties, having a Chinese grandma do it and then ask you why you stock the devil’s books—New Age—and who you sell them to makes a better one), but the yelling, the yelling by people who have no clue what they are saying! That I’m not okay with.

The first time, and perhaps the worst time I experienced this, was last year when the anti-Kerry book, Unfit for Command, came out. My town as a whole votes democrat, but my store is located in a central business district, and the majority of our customers are business people who commute into town to work. Their own politics are much more varied. Many republicans seemed on edge because our store had so many “lefty titles” (yes, that is a direct quote) up in the front. This, I explained time and again, was because that’s what had been released. Franken and Moore’s publisher had been smart and released their books in paperback earlier than usual (it usually take eight to twelve months for a book to go from hardcover to paperback. Note: this rule does not apply if the author’s name is J.K. Rowling). Plus democrats had four years to come up with books about how they felt about Bush, Jr., and their canny publishers and marketers knew that they’d be snapped up during an election year.

That’s not a conspiracy, that’s good marketing.

What’s more, they (the publisher) then shelled out the bucks to be put at the front of the store as part of a co-op advertising plan so their books would sell.

And that selling is a little something we like to call capitalism.

This argument didn’t fly with some of my republican customers and so daily I had to listen to snide comments about the my store’s “politics,” and spend my time turning the democratic covers face front again after someone (doing their best impression of a five year old) turned them backwards.

Fine, show that you have the emotional maturity of a kindergartener. I don’t care. We made sure to stick Michael Moore is a Big Fat Idiot up front when it came out, and for awhile they seemed appeased, but then came Unfit for Command and all hell broke loose.

No one had it as you may recall. We never even got an original shipment. Apparently the publisher did a small initial printing, and the buyers didn’t think it would do that well. Not because it was anti-Kerry, but because the publisher had only one semi-hit before this: an Oliver North book.

Oh, but that excuse didn’t fly with the customers. Oooh, no. We were pinko commie hippie bastards. We were hiding the book in the back. We were deliberately destroying them or sending them back. We were sitting on product that we refused to sell. We were the Devil and they weren’t going to stand it anymore.

It didn’t matter that we were taking reservations for when we did get the book in stock, or that we’d put in an order with three different distributors. Who cares that I personally would have loved to take their money and give them what they wanted, if only to get them out of my store. Nope, it was a conspiracy, Kids. And they weren’t going to stand it.

The outrageous demand for the book that no one had drove the title to number one on our bestsellers list (the list is composed not only on the numbers actually sold, but on the number believed that will sell, the demand, if you will).

Apparently, some radio personalities felt that we were The Evil too, and started telling their listeners to march into our stores and demand the book. Show us that they weren’t going to take it anymore.

And they did.

A man (I refuse to call him a gentleman) walked up to my counter in a nice suit and tie and asked me, “Do you have Unfit for Command.”

Just the night before I had a customer come in and say that he hadn’t been able to find the book anywhere, and he’d just driven up from Colorado (stopping at any town with a bookstore in between), so I was reasonably sure that everyone was out. “No sir, I’m sorry. We do have a reservations list.”

He stared at me for a moment, nodded his head like this was what he had expected, and said, “Liberal bookstores.”

“Excuse me?” I said (at this point I didn’t know that some radio personality had declared a war on bookstores). “I have a reservations list going, if you would like to make a reservation I would be happy to put your name down, you’ll get a copy as soon as we get our shipment.”

The man didn’t even bother responding, just walked away. As he passed another customer who’d been standing at the Bestsellers A-frame, they made eye contact and the next thing I know that man is coming up to the counter with his South Beach Diet. “Do you have Unfit for Command?”

“No sir, we’re out at the moment, but I can put your name on the reservations list.” I learned a long time ago if you open your eyes real wide it helps you smile, even if you don’t want to. “Would you like me to add your name?”

“Liberal bookstores, huh?” he said as if he hadn’t expected any less because, Hello, pinko commie hippie standing right in front of him.

I almost matched him snide for snide by going, “South Beach Diet, huh?” and staring at his beer belly, but I had more restraint, instead I said, “No sir, politics have nothing to do with it. The publisher did not print enough copies, so we are waiting for the stock. It’s number one on the bestsellers list! Now, would you like to make a reservation?”

“I’ll just take this,” he said and paid for his book.

The two stooges, however, were not happy enough to have pissed off one bookseller, they had to raise others to their cause. After I rang up Man #2, he joined Man #1 at the New Release table where they commenced talking to a third man who—surprise, surprise—was looking at Michael Moore is a Big Fat Idiot.

“I’ve never heard of a number one bestseller being sold out before,” one remarked loudly.

(Um, let's see. Harry Potter III and IV come to mind immediately.)

“It’s not like we don’t know the truth,” another said.

And on it went to the point where I had to leave the store because if I didn’t I was going to use a staple gun to hang them from the ceiling by their ties.

I had hoped that it would end with the election, but the behavior seemed to have become more acceptable to some people, an excuse to fly off the handle like our female customer did the other day. When Michael Savage’s last book came out, he told his radio constituency to march into the store and demand his book. Make sure it was on the front table because his publisher had paid for that marketing spot.

And in they marched, in two by twos practically, harassing us daily when the book wasn’t where they thought it would be. Sometimes they didn’t even bother looking.

“Where’s the Michael Savage book. It’s supposed to be on the front table!”

“It is on the front table, sir.”

“Well I don’t see it!”

“It’s on the non-fiction side, sir. Right here.”

No apology ever, and they rarely looked sheepish at their behavior, and God forbid we sell down on the book.

“Where’s the Michael Savage book, it’s not on your table!”

“We sold down, sir. We only have one left.”

“Well why isn’t that on the table?”

“Because company policy dictates that we must have one copy in section so people know where to find it.”

Twice, sometimes three times a day, my coworkers and I would have to deal with these people. I had one guy go off for almost twenty minutes in praise because we did have the book on the table unlike those liberal bookstores where he couldn’t find it anywhere.

Hey, weren’t we supposed to be one of those liberal bookstores?

He then segued from that topic into how evil Starbucks was as I stood there sipping my Starbucks mocha.

Can’t you feel the love?

Even my coworker, who is a card-carrying republican and proud of it (thank you very much), was pissed off. “I’m so tempted to call up Savage’s show and tell him so. He’s making me so mad! I'm a republican and I don't even want to sell his book!”

The truth is that every denomination and political persuasion works for my company because we all share one unifying love: the love of books. We’re also smart enough to realize that our opinion—political, religious, or whatever—should not get in the way of our job: selling those books to people who will also love them. What amazes me is that completely normal, sane human beings forget that come November and start flipping out like our female customer did. I’m sure being a republican in a mostly democratic town must be hard, and maybe a democrat would feel the same in a mostly republican area, but that is no excuse for anyone to act like a child.

We are not the enemy. We’re not even that scary. We sell books! How much more nerdish can you get?

It’s not that hard to restrain yourself and think a moment before you explode all over the next kid who can’t find what you are looking for or read your mind. Maybe, just maybe, there is no political agenda, or devious conspiracy. Maybe, just maybe, all is what it seems: that this is just some poor slob trying to do his/her job. Think about that before you open your mouth. Think about it before you yell because they can’t find the book, or don’t have it, or can’t find it in the computer because the brain-trust that entered it in chose some new and unique way to abbreviate. Consider all of this because later it would be horrible to have hindsight tell you how wrong you are.

And it takes a lot more courage, gumption, and intelligence to come back in apologize.

So Bravo, Customer Lady. Bravo. This pinko commie hippie salutes you.


Candy said...

This is just a symptom of a larger disease known colloquially as "The Media Is Out To Get Us!"

To the ones on the right, the media has a liberal bias. I mean, obviously! Look at all the Jews and faggots in showbusiness!

To the ones on the left, the media has an obvious conservative business. Hey, well over 90% of the nation's mass media are owned only by FIVE companies--big companies that tend to lean Republican.

The truth, of course, is a lot more complicated. Yes, the media outlets are owned by a select few corporations, and yes, that SHOULD make you nervous, but one shouldn't underestimate the power of the consumer, too.

So I'm not surprised to see this contempt and paranoia spilling over onto bookstores. People like Michael Savage who whip this sort of sentiment into a frenzy deserve to be soundly slapped across the face with a big, fat cock. Do these people even REALIZE what assholes they're being?

But hooray for the customer lady apologizing and realizing she had acted like a dickhead.

Bookseller Chick said...

The media itself has become all about shock and sensationalization, whether a person views it as inherently left or right depends, as you say, on their own views. Many of the Republican publishing houses (those that bill themselves as Republican) are owned by the same company that also has publishing houses represented on the other side. We are getting our world funneled through a very narrow view, but books these days are rarely published if the house doesn't think their is a demand. Obviously there is a demand for Savage, just as there is a demand for Franken and Moore. If the public didn't want to read them they wouldn't be getting advances.

Public demand is a powerful thing, even though Wal*Mart refused to carry the Daily Show's book, America, in its stores, it did sell it on its website. This wishy-washy stance is a direct result of Wal*Mart realizing that it couldn't cut its consumers off completely without them going elsewhere.

Sadly, it is the whole culture of supply and demand combined with our insistance on lower and lower pricing (no matter what), which will be the downfall of the traditional bookstore. While we might be able to supply the book, or the backlist of an author, we cannot compete with the Wal*Marts and Costcos of the world when it comes to pricing. Recently, my company has taken to discounted new bestsellers to 40% off to combat this (a steeper discount than even I get as an employee). The result has more people buying the bestseller, but just the bestseller, and we don't make any profit off them (or any money at all really) if they don't pick up a second item.

I fully believe that this, and not the political orientation of my customers, will bring about the demise of my bookstore. Unless, of course, they drive me nuts and I do my best Milton impression:

"Because if they take my stapler then I'll set the building on fire..."

Teresa said...


At my local grocery store, the checkout clerk always asks whether I found everything I was looking for. My answer is usually simply "yes" or "no." If it's a no, they either tell me that it's because they don't carry that item or send someone off to aisle 5 to get it for me. I do not, however, pound my fist on the counter and demand the overthrow of the dictator running the store but not before they produce the chipotle peppers I was looking for.

This sense of entitlement in our society is getting out of hand. "I am here. I have money. Bow down before me or feel my wrath!"

Give me a break!

Bookseller Chick said...

This sense of entitlement that you bring up seems inherent in bookstores, something that has always struck me as odd. It is as though people, by admitting they read, develop this superiority complex about how they are so above us (the lowly bookseller). This superiority complex is not defined by political views, age, or even reading preferences, anyone it seems will pull it out when they don't get their way. It's amazing.

Kate R said...

you say you work in an upscale mall. there we go--Upscale and entitlement go hand and hand.

It's a type of person who exists in all parts of society. . . bordering on the sociopath. She/he is the only one whose opinions and needs are truly important. Any opinion. Any need. Might actually be a matter of a person who never really got past the toddler stage.

In the rich world, they're entitled. In the poor world, they blame their misfortune on everyone but themselves and wait for someone else to solve the problem.

I got my degree online. Can you tell?

Hey, speaking of owning the world, what's with all these other people visiting and posting at MY bookseller chick's spot? Jeez.

Bookseller Chick said...

LMAO! Don't worry, Kate. You find me first right? In my family that always meant first dibs.

Part of that entitlement does stem from having money, definitely. At Christmas it's always the worse when these women come in with their little ESL nannies or maids (who are there just to haul around packages), but they don't want you to approach them, they want to approach you.

This is different from the lower income suburban mall I worked in before, where a mom with three to four kids not only wanted you to approach her, but wanted you to stay with her every single minute of her shopping experience. We were the only person to help them the whole day, and the hell that we were going to escape before we pulled all their books, carried them to the counter, entertained their kids, and listened to their life's problems. Forget being a bookseller, I was an unpaid babysitter/psychiatrist, and woe be it for me if I attempted to get away or was distracted. Not pretty.