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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Turn Back! This Way Lies Madness!

View from my bookstore counter

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.


plastic man said...

(Okay this isn't your point, but off I go). What if you didn't take cash or checks? Credit cards only? I know, but there'd be a few disgusted customers who wouldn't appreciate the problems of maintaining a cash drawer, making change, accumulating the proceeds, making out a deposit slip, hauling it to the bank, etc. But how many customers know or care the costs of credit cards? The expensive equipment, the monthly fee, the service charges, minimum charges, processing fees (a percentage small volume stores pay a lot more than big volume stores), compliance hassles (read harassment), rewards charge backs (who do you think pays for the bonus points?). And people think its a convenience. I'd tell them I'm doing them a favor preventing credit card crime. Be thankful I don't charge a surcharge for using a credit card to cover my expenses and lost wages. Or I could just raise my prices. There, just made some enemies. Thanks for letting me rant.

P. J. Grath said...

You're right: it wasn't my point. But I can add a couple of things to your list. Pay with credit card, and you leave a trail of what you purchased, inviting accumulation of data about you that can be sold to other commercial businesses, who will then begin to harass you to buy more, from them.

Karen Casebeer said...

My comment is mostly to plastic man regarding his points about the "expensive equipment, the monthly fee, the service charges, minimum charges, processing fees," etc. Going the traditional way of using credit cards can result in all of those difficulties. But that whole process becomes very easy and inexpensive with a more non-traditional approach using a product called Square. There are no hidden fees and they send you the tiny bit of equipment you need completely free of charge. It's a small, square card reader that attaches to a smart phone or tablet. For each swipe of a credit card, you are charged a flat fee of 2.75%. If you wish not to swipe using the Square Reader, but to enter the charge information manually on your computer, the fee is 3.5% + 15 cents. With much trepidation, I recently started using a Square Reader because I'd had so many queries regarding credit card use. So far it has gotten lots of use in the sales of my photography. And when the item is free, it doesn't take many sales to justify the little time it took to set up the process. Just a FYI that times are a changing in the credit card world.

P. J. Grath said...

I looked into that, Karen. Sounded great at first -- and I'm glad it's working well for you and others. My reservations were twofold (at least): First, I checked out reports online for that service and two or three of its leading competitors, including Paypal. Having payments held for long periods of time before deposit was one of the more serious complaints, but there were others. Since I'm not interested in debating this question, I'll leave it at that.

My second reservation had to do with, yes, equipment, because while you don't need the traditional credit card equipment, you do need a smart phone or tablet. I don't have and don't want a smart phone. I don't want to be reachable and traceable 24 hours a day. For a couple of days I was keen on the tablet avenue and somehow convinced David that we should both go that route (before my first pile of reservations had heaped up), but when he got his he explained to me that the memory for it is stored in a cloud. I don't want my memories in a cloud. I want them with me.

Yes, I am a dinosaur. But this morning I had a little revelation about the phrase people use: "It's here to stay." The thing is, it isn't. The current digital, high-end technology is no more "here to stay" than were LP vinyl records, 8-track tapes, cassette tapes, or CDs; adding machines, cash registers, store charge accounts; or anything else. The ONLY constant is change. "Change or die," we are told, but guess what? We're going to die, anyway!

In the long run, we'll all be gone! I don't want to spend my short run chasing after the Next Big Thing. I'd much rather spend it going for walks with my dog, slow country drives with my husband, hanging laundry out on the line as the summer sun is rising, having conversations with friends and customers NOT about money or payment methods or business practices but about BOOKS (and dogs!).

My business does not lose money. It does better than breaking even. If those two statements were not true, I would not still be in business after 21 years, and that's all anyone needs to know -- that and that I have a FABULOUS collection of books, new and old! Appreciative customers from all over the United States visit my store and take away treasures.

Please compare my track record to that of Borders.

Thank you!

Karen Casebeer said...

Thanks for your input on this, Pamela. I am a techie sort, as you know, but I totally agree that change is inevitable. For a while, I wanted to upgrade my phone with each new iteration, but finally found peace with not needing that and being satisfied with what I have. I agree that being with my dogs in this beautiful area is the best that it can be. Karen

Dawn said...

Ok...stop beating yourself up for a mistake you were provoked into making. You sound really sad that it turned out the way it did, and so I am sad with you. Hopefully you'll run into him somewhere someday and you can both apologize to each other. Meanwhile, you'll be spreading good cheer and good books in the upcoming days and lots of people will be happy they explored and found your shop.

P. J. Grath said...

Thank you for your very kind and sympathetic comment, Dawn. I think everyone did leave happy today! And yet, I don't see that I'm "beating myself up." What I needed to do with this incident was to think it through, see an important mistake I made, and articulate it so that, maybe, someone who's tempted to respond in a hurtful way to rudeness will be able to stop and respond in a better way than I did. I like to think we can learn from each other's mistakes and regrets once in a while. Again, thanks -- and hugs!

plastic man said...

We looked into the Square. Don't have a smartphone to use for that so would need an iPad for the Square Register ($). And we'd need the cash drawer ($), oh, and a receipt printer ($). Not everyone will give us their email to send the receipt to. Total $896. Didn't consider that insignificant let alone "free". The software is free. Only works with Square of course. I wouldn't trust someone with a card reader attached to a smartphone. Except Karen if she promised not to get hacked or lose her phone.

P. J. Grath said...

Okay, the above post and comments were from 7 years ago. I now take credit cards. I use Square. I did not need fancy equipment, and people can choose to have a virtual receipt e-mailed or texted or just make do with the handwritten paper receipt I give them. My fee rate is .0263, which seems reasonable to me. And I'm still in business! Twenty-eight years this July of 2021!