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Sunday, August 17, 2014
Turn Back! This Way Lies Madness!
I’ve gotten into the habit this summer of telling people when they bring their chosen books to the counter, sometimes even before I start writing up the sale (if they’ve got a big stack or an expensive book), “I only take cash or check. No cards.” Better to let them know right away, up front—in case they missed the little sign on the front door, which is my early warning system. You might be surprised how seldom the no-cards reality presents an insurmountable problem. Someone will turn to a friend or a spouse and say, “Do you have cash?” or ask me for the location of the nearest ATM, or they’ll get out a checkbook or go into their secret, hidden cash stash. I’ve found that since I’ve become more up-front about what I accept for payment, I’m more relaxed, and my customers take it better, too. Almost always....
Then comes the rare exception, like the man at the counter on Saturday who told me high-handedly (reminding me of the Rebecca Solnit essay, “Men Explain Things To Me”) that I won’t last long in the business with such a policy. But I’m more relaxed about these rare remarks, too. After all, Borders came, and Borders went, and I’m still here. Of course, as I acknowledge with a smile, it’s only been 21 years, and there’s no telling what tomorrow will bring. I don’t add that there’s no telling what tomorrow will bring for any business, regardless of what kind of payments it accepts. It feels good not to go on the defensive and not to feel threatened.
But you know this is building up to something, right? The man on Saturday couldn’t stop telling me how my business should be run, even after he’d found a $100 bill in his wallet and been told with a smile that I’d been in business 21 years, because in his eyes I was still wrong. He couldn’t (or wouldn’t) let it go. “Well, it depends on how much money you want to make,” he remarked next. Okay, I could let that go by. But then he asked, flat-out--and I’m not making this up--“What’s your income?” Excuse me???!!!
Up to that point, I’d been good-natured and easy-going, despite the stress of a crowded shop and a fairly loud conversation going on right behind me, despite this man at the counter predicting my imminent business demise, but to be asked how much money I make pushed me over the edge. It shouldn’t have, but it did. I told him it was none of his business. And it was not his business, and he shouldn't have asked, but I could have gotten the message across more graciously, more kindly. He was probably just clueless about how to talk to a woman in business. (Or maybe anyone? Some people are just clueless. In fact, most of us are clueless about something--if not one thing, then another.) If nothing else, I could have said “None of your business” without modifying the noun. Yes, I modified the noun. No, it was not a gracious or even a necessary modification.
Then, on top of my harsh retort came laughter from one of the friends who’d been engaged in conversation before stopping to eavesdrop on an exchange he found more entertaining, and out the door the potential customer went, tail between his legs, no longer confident that he had all the answers.
Let me be clear. I’m not upset about losing the sale. Win some, lose some, and taking crap for a buck is not my way. It’s not that.
I wouldn’t change my message, either. It was not the man’s business, and it was rude of him to ask.
But his rudeness doesn’t excuse mine.
Humiliating him publicly, making him a laughingstock, was not my intention. It was, however, the consequence of the way I made my point. I could have drawn my boundary clearly by saying simply, “Thank you for your concern, but I do all right.” Instead, in responding the way I did, someone left my shop feeling worse than he’d felt coming in, and that goes against everything I want my bookstore to be, and for that I’m disappointed in myself. I failed in my own mission.
Do you see? It wasn’t about the money.
That’s not the end of the story, though. Curious about how other people would see the episode, I posted a paragraph on Facebook describing the incident. The results were interesting. One stream in the comment thread had to do with people rallying to my support, saying, “Good for you!” in many different ways. Well, good for me to draw a privacy boundary, I thought, but not good for me to have hurt someone’s feelings. The other comment stream was from those who, while sympathetic to my “plight,” nevertheless thought the man was right, i.e., that I should take credit cards. The people in that second stream took up a position, maybe expecting me to come over to their side, maybe expecting me at least to give an explanation for my ridiculous intransigence. For them it was a debate.
One Fb friend said she would have responded to the question “What’s your income?” with “You first!” Clever, I told her, but that response would imply a willingness to share the very information to which the questioner is not entitled. No, thanks! Another Fb friend commented that she would start shopping more often at my bookstore. Not sure how that connected to the incident, but regulars are always appreciated and welcome! And that’s my real point. I want everyone to feel welcome, and one man now won’t. I ruined it for him.
As I say, the Facebook conversation was interesting. I appreciate my friends’ support and am not offended by their advice, but neither comment stream addresses my real concerns. (1) Answering rudeness with rudeness does nothing to reduce rudeness in the world. (2) As for payment methods, as I told a friend many years ago, with regard to moving my bookstore from Traverse City (where I’d been for a little over two years) back to Northport (its place of origin), “It isn’t a debate. It’s a decision, and it's mine to make.”
Maybe someday some go-getting young couple will buy my business. They’ll put in sophisticated point-of-sale equipment to track inventory and customers. They’ll add credit and debit card capability. They’ll whip up a whole new streamlined website that lets customers halfway around the world order online and pay by credit card. They’ll sell e-books. Who knows what changes lie over the horizon? Maybe those energetic, visionary future owners will decide that a bricks-and-mortar store doesn’t make sense, and they’ll run the “bookstore” out of their basement at home.
I am not those people. Their business is not mine. I’m here now.
Retail was never my big dream; it’s books I love. But I love my loyal customers and all the friends I’ve made over the years, and I love being my own boss, making my own decisions, and bringing my dog to work with me. For these rewards I have foregone a regular paycheck, sick leave, paid vacation, and a pension. It’s a cost/benefit analysis, or sorts, but it's also a question of priorities.
So the next time someone is rude to me I need to remember my own #1 priority: everyone who comes into my bookstore should feel at least as good going out as they did coming in. Many feel better when they leave, and that feels like success.