books, retail

The Lowest Price And The Best Deal.


Last Saturday, Amazon invited customers, while browsing brick-and-mortar retailers, to use its new price-check app and earn up to five dollars off any three non-book items. Today, the novelist Richard Russo penned an op-ed for the New York Times gathering the thoughts of some of his author friends, among them Stephen King, Ann Patchett and Scott Turow (president of the Authors Guild), about this kind of promotion. They describe it with phrases like “invasive and unfair,” “a bridge too far,” a “bare-knuckles approach” and “scorched-earth capitalism.” The most eloquent of Russo’s subjects is Patchett, the owner of a new independent bookstore in Nashville called Parnassus Books. Says Patchett,

I do think it’s worthwhile explaining to customers that the lowest price point does not always represent the best deal. If you like going to a bookstore then it’s up to you to support it. If you like seeing the people in your community employed, if you think your city needs a tax base, if you want to buy books from a person who reads, don’t use Amazon.

Writing in trademark contrarian fashion over at Slate, Farhad Manjoo, in an article not-so-subtly titled “Don’t Support Your Local Bookseller,” takes issue with Russo, Patchett et al. After acknowledging that “Amazon just did a boneheaded thing, and it deserves all the scorn you want to heap on it,” Manjoo counters,

Compared with online retailers, bookstores present a frustrating consumer experience. A physical store—whether it’s your favorite indie or the humongous Barnes & Noble at the mall—offers a relatively paltry selection, no customer reviews, no reliable way to find what you’re looking for, and a dubious recommendations engine. Amazon suggests books based on others you’ve read; your local store recommends what the employees like. If you don’t choose your movies based on what the guy at the box office recommends, why would you choose your books that way?

Readers of this blog are well-acquainted with our views on independent retailers (particularly bookstores), shopping locally and the virtues (in our minds) of a book you can hold in your hands versus one you can read on a computer screen. Because one of his makes his livelihood working at a bookstore, we obviously have a dog in this fight. It’s no mystery where we come down on Russo vs. Manjoo.

What is Manjoo really asking for, though? Yes, it can be a frustrating experience to go shopping anywhere this time of year, and there’s a certain sedating charm in the ease of ordering online (assuming you know what it is that you want). But what we find lacking in Manjoo’s perfect world is anything resembling human interaction. The joys of browsing a bookstore, beyond comfy chairs, hot coffee and a space to do your best thinking, are running into a friend or former teacher while you’re there; hearing an author speak in person and then meeting him after the reading while he signs and personalizes your book; having a place to go on a cheap date night; taking your child to story time, where you are treated to the sublime pleasures of Pete the Cat; and conversing with a bookseller about an author you just read and loved (or hated) and being told what you should read next (or avoid). Yes, Amazon has wonderful algorithms that tell you what other people who bought the same book as you bought next. But is that really an educated recommendation? Isn’t a person — hopefully a knowledgeable one, who asks what you like to read rather than just foisting something he likes upon you — far better than an algorithm? (Manjoo is a technology columnist, so he probably has poor interpersonal skills.)

Manjoo also takes issue with “the hectoring attitude of bookstore cultists like Russo” by arguing that there really isn’t much that’s “local” about your local bookstore. “Unlike a farmers’ market, which connects you with the people who are seasonally and sustainably tending crops within driving distance of your house,” he writes, “an independent bookstore’s shelves don’t have much to do with your community.” Except, of course, for the investment that any local business has in its schools, nonprofits and the community; for the tax base it provides that community, which Amazon does not; and (not least of all to us) for the jobs it provides.

Today at work, I (Ben) saw one of my favorite customers, someone who hadn’t been in for a while. I asked him how he was doing. His mother was in the hospital. He had just finished moving into a smaller home with his wife, who was newly retired. Neither of them had found their retirement footing yet. He said he needed to come to the store to “relax and get lost in a book.” He asked for two that we had in stock, and I put two more in his hands that he hadn’t heard of yet. He gave me a smile and shook my hand. Both of us had a better day for it.

letters to people who won't write back, retail

Dear Woman Who Tried To Pay For A 99 Cent Coffee With A Hundred Dollar Bill At The BP On Madison Road This Morning,

We understand that the store’s credit card machine being down was a major inconvenience in your day. We don’t understand why you were paying for a 99 cent coffee with plastic. But that’s another matter.

You know who had even more of a major inconvenience than you, though? Mary, the clerk behind the counter. You’re just one of a hundred customers she had to ring up today. Contrary to what you may believe, she herself did not personally sabotage the credit card machine for shits and giggles.

She also does not generally have change for a hundred. It says that on the door. Mary didn’t set that policy. It’s just that Mary doesn’t want to get robbed (you may have noticed the height markers by the doors when you left), so they keep the drawers light.

We have some suggestions for you to consider so as to avoid this situation in the future. We’re confident these can ensure that everyone has a more pleasant day.

1. Carry smaller bills than Benjamins. Throw in a Grant or even a Jackson for some variety.

2. Brew your coffee at home. Then you can save the Benjamin!

3. Read this essay by David Foster Wallace. It really needs to be read in its entirety, but we’ll whet your appetite by quoting just this much as a teaser.

You get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home. You haven’t had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be but you can’t just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store’s confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to manoeuvre your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough check-out lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.


But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.


Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn’t yet been part of you graduates’ actual life routine, day after week after month after year.


But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.


Or, of course, if I’m in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest (this is an example of how NOT to think, though), most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.


You get the idea.


If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.


The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.


Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.


Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to.


But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.


Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.


This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.

This, m’am, is what we would have told you had we had time before you left without paying for your coffee. It was easy of us to assume then that you were getting into your Lexus to drive off and get a Botox injection, but we’re choosing to consider that there may have been other trajectories to your day that are beyond our imagination: that, for example, you had been up most of the night worrying about your sister’s operation this morning, and that you needed a jolt of caffeine to stay awake as you drove to the hospital to sit with your mother, who has just been a wreck throughout this whole thing, and await the news from the doctors. Who knows? We don’t. But since our paths crossed this morning, we just thought we’d drop you a line.


The Vores

books, retail

Surreal Moments in Retail History: November 11, 2010


CUSTOMER is female in her 70s. BEN is working at the information desk.

CUSTOMER: Where’s Broke?

BEN: It’s up front on our bestseller table. Let me run up and get a copy for you.

[BEN retrieves book.]

CUSTOMER: And what about Bush’s book?

BEN: You know, that’s up front too but I think we’ve got a copy right back here.

[BEN takes one from the stack at the info desk.]

BEN: It’s not stickered but this is on our bestseller list too.

[CUSTOMER takes meaningful look at book, then runs her hand across the cover.]

CUSTOMER: I don’t know what you are, but if you’re like me, you sure wish he’d come back.

BEN: I’ve heard it’s a very interesting book.

CUSTOMER: No matter what you think, at least we knew he was an American.

BEN: Actually I think our current president is an American as well.

CUSTOMER: Well then I know what you are.

BEN: Just someone who believes the facts, m’am.

CUSTOMER: Hmmm. We could have an interesting conversation, you and I, about what this country is going to look like in six months. Things are changing now. For the better.

BEN: I certainly hope they are.

CUSTOMER: Six months. I’ll come back and find you and we’ll talk. What’s your name?

BEN: My name is Ben. And I look forward to having that conversation. What is your name?

CUSTOMER: Jan. Your name is what again?

BEN: Ben.

CUSTOMER: Ben. We’ll talk. Six months. Good day.

books, retail

Riding on Slippery Pavement

One of the joys of being a bookseller is deciphering what exactly customers are looking for when they can’t tell you exactly what they’re looking for. I (Ben) am not talking about customers who want recommendations for, say, a historical romance they can escape into or the next Scandanavian thriller writer to tackle after Stieg Larsson (Henning Mankell). Nor am I talking about customers who ask for the best guide to Windows 7 or a nice coffee table book on small towns in Italy. I’m talking about customers who know exactly what they want but have bad information. Like the woman who asked me yesterday, “I’m looking for that book everyone’s reading, something like Riding on Slippery Pavement.”

So far as butchering book titles go, this one may have topped them all. I’ve encountered numerous slightly incorrect queries that are nonetheless still easy to figure out. “I want that book, The Accident with the Dog at Midnight” is, given the book’s actual (confusing) title, rather elementary to sleuth out — especially the fourth or fifth time you hear it mangled. Other creative interpretations, like The Vatican Code, Really Loud and Even Closer (or, “That book with the hand on it”), The Purpose of the Driving Life and The Guernsey Pie Eating Society are simple fixes. These customers are like lost drivers who pull over for directions and just need a gentle course correction.

(The Glass Castle is, for whatever reason, perhaps the most frequently abused book. What is it about this title that is so mind-boggling? Maybe because it’s relatively straightforward? I’ve heard The Ice House, The Glass Building, Brass Castle, Brick House and — inexplicably — The Ice Pyramid. I also once took a woman who asked for The Castle to Franz Kafka. “Is this about a woman who lives in New York and has homeless parents?” she asked. “Um, no,” I said. Then, recalling my teenage difficulties with Kafka, “At least I don’t think so.”)

Occasionally you get a customer so flummoxed by his inability to remember the title of a book that he takes you to task for your inability to read his own mind. “You really haven’t heard of this book?” he asks, indignation rising. “It was just on the radio last week. I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s asked for it!” Or, “It’s a book with a picture of a girl in pigtails on the front. Can’t you just search for book covers with girls who have pigtails?” Or, “You don’t know of any books about an immigrant family whose son wants to become a boxer but the sister has polio? None??” These requests, needless to say, are almost impossible to fulfill, and leave both parties deeply frustrated.

The customer who wanted Riding on Slippery Pavement was in a league all her own. She knew that wasn’t the exact title but kept saying, “You know which one I mean!” She was cheerful and a bit comical, waving her hands as if emphatic movements would jostle my memory. When we finally figured out which book she wanted (thankfully we had it in stock), I had to scribble down her request on paper so I wouldn’t forget it. Riding on Slippery Pavement? Really? And yet, helping a confused customer find what she wants (or what she thinks she wants) is one of the most satisfying feelings I get in my line of work. You feel as though you have solved a riddle, and fixed someone’s problem to boot.

(For a clue on what book the woman actually wanted: Dogs.)

books, retail

Why I Work For An Independent Bookstore

If you haven’t heard of Mockingjay — or The Hunger Games, or Catching Fire — you will soon enough. There will be movies, which Hollywood hopefully won’t butcher the way it did the first two Harry Potters, or Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief, or anything Dr. Seuss ever wrote. But before the movie you will probably read articles about Suzanne Collins and her trilogy of dystopian YA novels, about a girl named Katniss who must survive a competition — to the death — between fellow teenagers. (It’s like Lord of the Flies meets The Running Man meets “Survivor” with a splash of Gladiator thrown in.) While Katniss Everdeen isn’t quite the household name that Harry Potter was, she is a suitably compelling heroine to have drawn about eighty people to the independent bookstore where I (Ben) work, for a midnight release party of Mockingjay, the final book in The Hunger Games Trilogy. There were young and old in the crowd, though more of the former than the latter. One parent sat in a chair most of the night catnapping; the other got in line at 11:30 even though there was no line and no books for another half hour. “The things we do for our kids,” he said. “Do they have school tomorrow?” I asked. “No, but I’ve got work,” he said.

Everyone who loves and discovers something — especially something or someone who makes it big — wants to believe they got there first. The Hunger Games didn’t exactly come out of nowhere — Stephen King was singing its praises well before it officially released — but it wasn’t something I would have picked up were it not for a fellow employee named Molly. Molly read it and loved it so much that she got Scholastic to send a slew of advance reader copies to our store. Pretty soon they were all gone and we had to borrow from one another. And, as these things go, we started putting the book in any customer’s hands who would give us the time of day.

Molly and Steph, who are our kids book gurus, have a knack for discovering books like The Hunger Games. Of course they were Harry Potter fans from the start. But they also knew about Twilight before everyone else did. And they put books like When You Reach Me and The Brixton Brothers in my hands before the ALA awarded the first with the Newbery award and the Pulitzer committee inexplicably passed over the second. (For shame!)

But the point isn’t that they pick the surefire winners. The point is, they can tell you all about the books everyone will be talking about — the Harry Potters and Twilights and Hunger Games — but, once you finish with those, then they can tell you about the books that will never be made into movies but are still worth your while. Yes, Amazon can tell you what Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought — and this is, in fact, often a very helpful thing to know — but that’s not the same as talking to someone about a book you love and then hearing that person say, “Well, you know, what you should really read next is…” and then putting that book in your hands.

I’m lucky to work not only with Steph and Molly, but a whole staff of people who do what they do. It’s hard to know how much of a need there’ll be for us independent bookseller types in five, ten, twenty years down the road. One can hope. James Stewart, for one, reads the tea leaves and sees an opportunity for independents in Barnes & Noble’s recent financial hardships. Despite proclaiming “I can’t say I miss physical books … my shelves are already groaning and can’t accommodate any more,” Stewart — who owns both an iPad and a Kindle — goes on to add,

I do miss the bookstore I grew up with in the Midwest and the small stores that once dotted my neighborhood. Could B&N’s decline pave the way for the return of the independent bookseller? Despite the array of suggestions tailored to my interests (or at least to my recent purchases) that appear when I open the Amazon site, I still yearn for someone intelligent who can recommend a good book. I enjoy the community of other people who love books. I like talking to someone both before buying a book and after reading it.

He would’ve enjoyed being at our store tonight (er, last night) around midnight, even if he did have to work in the morning.


Tragic Moments in Retail History

The following conversation took place tonight at Ben’s place of employment. The customer was on the phone.

CUSTOMER: Yes, I was wondering if there might be a new book by Tony Hillerman coming out sometime soon.

BEN: Uh, I don’t think so but let me just double check on that…

CUSTOMER: My son-in-law likes to read Tony Hillerman. His birthday is coming up. I thought maybe I’d get lucky and get him something he hasn’t read yet.

BEN: Well ma’am, I don’t see anything new from Tony Hillerman. You — you do know that he passed away, don’t you?

CUSTOMER: Oh my! No I didn’t. When did he die?

BEN: According to Wikipedia, 2008.

CUSTOMER: Oh dear.

BEN: I’m very sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

CUSTOMER: I had no idea.

BEN: Yeah. I’m sorry.

[Awkward silence.]

CUSTOMER: Well! This is shocking.

BEN: Yes it is.

CUSTOMER: I suppose I won’t be getting my son-in-law any new Tony Hillerman books then.

BEN: Probably not any new ones, no. Perhaps one he hasn’t read yet?

CUSTOMER: Oh I’m rather sure he’s read them all.

BEN: I see.

CUSTOMER: Well then. Thank you, anyway.

BEN: I’m very sorry.

CUSTOMER: Yes indeed.

faith, retail, Uncategorized

Pain, Suffering and Inheritance: The Tricky Art of Handling the Customer Complaint


At my job I (Ben) often get to handle customer complaints. Whether I’m any good at it may best be answered by those doing the complaining. As with all things, you get better with practice. So this little Saturday morning homily is not a seminar from an expert, just observations from someone on the learning curve.

First, it’s important to distinguish exactly which kind of complaint you’re dealing with here. I think there are two main categories: Justified and Unjustified.

Justified scenario: You have provided poor service. You or someone you manage has slighted the customer through rudeness, oversight or incompetence. Examples: You overcharge someone or leave an item out of their bag. You screw up their food order. You insult their personal appearance, their taste in literature or their appalling lack of fashion sense. You serve them undercooked wings and give them food poisoning and hire Jeremy Piven as a spokesperson. Etc.

Unjustified scenario: You have provided reasonable, maybe even exemplary, service but it is unequal to the customer’s desires (however unreasonable those may be). You moved mountains but didn’t walk on water. You did not have the book or CD or piece of clothing she wanted. You did not make a plane arrive on time. You did not not cook a meal that was as tasty as the one he had years before and has committed to memory with incomparable nostalgia. You did not prevent a hundred other people from rearranging their schedules so as to not impede the pre-made plans of your disgruntled customer’s Saturday. You did not murder in cold blood the person in the Toyota Camry who stole your customer’s spot even when he clearly saw it first and had his turn signal on to indicate this fact. You are incapable of making someone’s spouse finally forgive her or father love him more. You cannot personally bestow unto him or her the peace that passeth all understanding. Etc.

Both scenarios require the same basics in the tool kit: The ability to listen, empathize, apologize, make restitution. Every customer, regardless of scenario, wants to be heard. But from henceforth, I will address only the second category of complaint, the Unjustified.

The Unjustified Complaint always results from the customer not getting what she wanted. The sooner you acknowledge this and apologize for this fact ( “I realize you wanted x, and I’m sorry we couldn’t deliver x for you”), the sooner you arrive at the fork in the road. The customer will either be disarmed by you cutting to the chase (and may even come to her senses and say, “You’re right, my complaining is pointless”), or — more likely — she will redouble her efforts because you are trying, sincerely, to be direct, kind and understanding. Most angry customers hate this.

“If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink,” say the Proverbs. “In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” That last part sounds a bit like retribution, but Eugene Peterson translates it a little differently: “Your generosity will surprise him with goodness.”

This is really the only way I know how to deal with an Unjustified Customer Complaint. The customer has pain to dispense, and you give him back kindness.

This is of course the hardest path to take. You (I) want an eye for an eye. It doesn’t take long in retail to wonder if you have a bull’s-eye pinned to your chest. Even if you manage to avoid repaying an unkind customer with unkindness, you still have the problem of inheriting it. The Unjustified customers will win this battle nine times out of ten. They will resort to name-calling. They will spit bile and condescension. They will say, to use one example from my week, “I will do everything possible to take my business away from a store run by a bunch of flippin’ morons.” (Use your creativity to substitute other words for “flippin’.”)

What next? If you give into temptation, you will unload this venom on someone else. Maybe someone you manage, maybe someone you love. Then everyone’s miserable.

To borrow a spiritual analogy, it’s part of what Christians believe about Jesus dying on the cross. When handed injustice and persecution, Jesus took it but didn’t give it back. You don’t even have to believe that the symbolic weight of that injustice is “sin” or subscribe to the idea of atonement to agree with the basic transaction there. Something stopped at Jesus and went no further.

An Unjustified Customer Complaint isn’t persecution (or, obviously, crucifixion), but it’s the meager spiritual offering I could make this week, and I tried to receive it without passing it on. I resisted saying to that customer, “Well, your mom is a flippin’ moron. Sha-blam!” But just barely. You start where you are.

Enough preposterous spiritual/retail analogies for a Saturday. Especially a day off.