To provide the product that they wish to buy, of course. Easy, right? Even my visitor from the Mother Ship realized that good customer service wasn’t limited to the interaction between the bookseller and the customer because eighty percent of a customer’s interaction is with the books alone. You’ve practically won the battle if you have the book the customer is looking for.
But what if you don’t have the book the customer is looking for?
What if you refuse to carry it?
This is the case with the City Lights bookstore in California, and it is this attitude that makes me angry. My anger has nothing to do with the content of the book asked for, but how the bookstore and the booksellers were handling the customer’s request. This is the same anger I felt when I heard a story from a customer about Powell’s stocking Ann Coulter’s books in a section labeled “Kooks” and refusing to help her search for the copy she was inquiring after. It’s the same disappointment I felt when I realized that the Santa Cruz bookshop didn’t stock romance novels (this was a couple of years ago though and it might have changed).
And why am I angry? What does Powell’s labeling Coulter a Kook, Santa Cruz turning its nose up at Romance, and the City Lights refusing to carry Fallaci’s The Force of Reason have in common? A sense of entitlement, a right of the bookstore to force its opinions on the buying public regardless of whether or not that opinion is representative of its entire consumer pool. It suggests that the bookstore is no longer the den of free speech, but the soapbox for the opinions of the employees. In other words, it adds fuel to the fire that where once the bookstore was a bastion of the first amendment, it is now under the sway of whoever does the buying.
Instead of simply offering to order a copy in for the customer, the bookseller of City Lights apparently said, “We don’t carry books by fascists.”
Instead of just finding the Coulter book, and therefore cutting the need for the inflaming search, the Powell’s bookseller laughed at the customer’s ire.
Instead of just telling me that the Santa Cruz Bookshop had a more literary focus, the bookseller asked, “You actually read that crap?”
Yes, yes I do. It doesn’t lower my IQ, and it is my choice to read “that crap” just like it is the customers’ choice to read Coulter or Fallaci, but if you—as a bookstore—are going to claim that you believe in freedom of expression, then you don’t have a choice.
You have to carry everything.
You have to value everyone’s opinion even if you think it might be wrong because you have to value that person’s right to read.
It’s a lesson we all deserve to learn and be reminded of frequently.
Fascism is defined by Merriam-Webster online as: a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition. A fascist is defined by Dictionary.com as:
- An advocate or adherent of fascism.
- A reactionary or dictatorial person.
I make no claim that the customer is always right, but does a bookseller not take on certain fascist characteristics when refusing to carry a title due to content? Does that not make us just as bad as the people who speak out against the very rights we purport to defend?
I’ve worked in retail long enough to know that there are two sides to every bad customer service interaction, and that we—being humans—have a tendency to twist stories to better represent our side. I’m sure the bookseller who works for City Lights has a completely different recounting of that incident, just as I’m sure that the customers that gave me a hard time of not having Unfit for Command so long ago also have their own version of events. A person can only account for his/her own opinion of a confrontation, and it is up to that person whether or not s/he tries to see beyond to the bigger picture.
I don’t claim to be perfect. In fact, I know I’m just the opposite: often stubborn, oblivious, or just plain too perky. But everyday when I go to work, I try to leave my opinions at home (or at least locked away until someone requests them). My purpose at the store is to provide customers with the books they want, even if I have to order it in or send them to another store. It’s not that I believe in the phrase “the customer is always right,” but that I know that I don’t have the right to pass judgment or deny them their reading material of choice.
Bookstores should be a place of debate—learning—where the books on fascism can sit side by side with Marxist socialism and invite discussion. Where Right and Left can come to find the words written by not only those they agree with but those who differ in their opinions (if only to arm themselves against what “the enemy” is saying). If I claim to be for Free Speech then I have to be for all speech, even if I don’t agree because as I bookseller I’m not selling books to myself, but to the customer.
In my family you’ll often hear the phrase, “Opinions are like assholes, everyone has them and they all stink.” It serves as a reminder that not one of us is better another, and neither are our opinions (even if we do believe that ours smell like daisies). I know that there will be disagreement with what I’m saying, and I welcome it. There should be disagreement.
There should be discussion.
Because a bookseller I should be open to helping you air your views, no matter how stinky I might find them.