A little over three months ago, I took a part time position in a book store. This is a reflection on that time…

Most of the employees who hold my same position are either in high school, or about to graduate. There are one or two in their early twenties who are also plodding through college one class at a time. At times, there seems to be more managers than employees.

There is this curious ritual that happens once a week where the management decides to move a bunch of stuff around. Just when I think I’m getting the layout of the store down, they change it on me. They say it’s because there are new releases each week, which is cool. But half the stuff that moves is not new. And there was nothing wrong with the table where it was. Corporate, they say, decides where the stuff in the store goes…that’s lame.

I’m told, “You have to greet the customer as soon as they arrive.”

“Smile.”

“Ask them what they’re looking for.”

“Make sure to recommend something else in addition to what they want.”

“As often as possible, make sure you place the book in their hands.”

Here’s what I’ve learned about people from doing those things consistently for 90 days:

Most people will greet you back. Some may even ask how my day is going, but that’s rare. There are others who will avoid me like they do a car salesman, as if speaking to me will make them purchase a worse book than they already intended to buy. Eye contact is key, but I’m surprised at how many people do not make eye contact. Those who do meet my eyes are often shocked at how blue they are.

Smiling. I’ve become overly experienced with fake smiles. I’ve gotten heart-warming smiles from some, but most are plastic and fake. Most people don’t smile at all, which confuses me because, I mean…it’s a book store! I smile when I walk in each evening to work; and I don’t even get the pleasure of lounging around, leaving books and magazines littered all over the aisles, or strutting around in my own self-importance. I’m smiling at you because I get to talk to you, not because I get your money.

There is a small population of customers who know exactly what they’re looking for. They get in, find the book, and get out. They are driven. Usually parents of high schoolers who are there to get a book that their teen should have read a month prior. Most customers have an idea, a color, a genre that interests them, but they don’t want recommendations. I respect that. They’re on a treasure hunt for their next adventure, and I don’t want to get in the way. Please don’t be that customer that doesn’t know the title or author, and you want me to find the book for you. I had an old lady come in during my first month who was looking for a fiction book. She didn’t know anything about the book other than that it had a blue cover with yellow writing…that’s it. I’ll do everything I can for you, but I’m gonna need more than that!

Recommendations and up-sells. Most people I’ve noticed do not care for what I’m up selling. I mean, I don’t like up selling when I’m out shopping, so I understand. But it’s a requirement for my position. I’m getting paid less than $10/hour to make sure that you get what you want. During my first week, I followed a scripted example of a typical customer encounter, given me by the store manager. As a retired soldier, I saw this as a set of orders, or an SOP, for how to do what they want. I followed that script EXACTLY and parroted it to every customer. Even if they walked away. Even if they tried interrupting me. Even if they said “not interested”.

After that first week, I was put in the cage up front as a cashier for a day. I felt like I was in a penalty box! Up selling at the register is another ball-o-fun. By the time a customer gets there, they’re ready to check out and leave. They’ve either been in the store for hours and are now, at the moment of purchase, in the biggest hurry of their lives; or they’re trying to win a land speed record for getting in and out of a book store in the shortest possible time! They do not want to hear about the coupons, or the memberships, or what they would have saved if they had been a member. One out of every fifty actually takes the time to listen, which is okay.

I don’t really want to tell you about the membership anyway. Corporate wants me to focus on selling “memberships” more than anything else, but there’s no incentivization (if that’s not a word, then it is now!) for me to sell the memberships. I’m not invested in it. I can sell them, and I do it well; but if we don’t make our quota for memberships, I’m not overly worried about it. The sun will still rise. I suggested to the management that there should be some exterior motivation for an employee to sell memberships…they told me that wasn’t a good idea.

For those who think providing incentive is off-base, here’s an example: A former employee, who I’ll call Z-Shizzle, started a week after me, but recently moved on to other employment. She was the best damn seller of memberships the store had seen in a long time; at least according to what I’ve been told. When we worked on the same shift, it was a cold day in hell if we didn’t make the “quota” for the day. This saleswoman once sold 100 memberships in 30 days! No other employee had ever done that. When I brought up providing inventive and recognition for the effort, I was met again with a tepid response about “corporate, blah, blah, blah.” Z-Shizzle moved on and was met with anger and frustration when she submitted her two-weeks notice. I mean, you could have kept her, but you paid her $8/hour…she moved on to another sales job making twice that. You can’t be mad at her.

Then there’s the crazies that scuttle about each day, seemingly normal in appearance, but bat guano crazy in their demeanor.

The first is Newspaper Nick. That’s not his name, but that’s what I call him. He comes in most every day, buys three news papers, and then walks around the store talking to himself. He seems like a nice guy, but he doesn’t like to talk to people. I once asked him if I could help him find something, and his response was, “No.” Another time, I introduced myself and asked of him his name. He answered, “No.” He did come up to me once and ask me if I had served in the army, to which I affirmatively answered. He walked away, and we haven’t spoken since. What I like about the guy is, sometimes when he pays for his newspapers, the total of which is always $6.50, he pays in dollar coins from time to time. Kinda classy for a weird dude.

The next regular crazy is Stormin’ Steve. This guy is a tall, pasty dude with shoulder length black hair. I noticed him on my first shift. And on every shift thereafter. He comes in every day, storming through the store, aisle by aisle, and then leaves. Some days, this happens repeatedly; other days only once. I once asked him if I could help him find something. He looked up at the ceiling and yelled, “Why is he talking to me!” That was one of the only times I’ve talked to him! He seems harmless, but he unnerves some customers. I saw him at a restaurant next door once, and he seemed quite normal. I said “Good morning!” And he politely replied with the same. Odd, indeed. It seems that the book store upsets him.

Over all, my time at the store has been nice. I get to talk to people about books and, in many cases, pressing issues they want to share. I’ve listened to customers as they grieve the loss of a family member. I’ve had customers break down when I show them where the diet books are, and all I can do is encourage them. I see parents like myself who are stressed out by their kids. I had one dad, same age as I, tell me that his little girl had passed away a few month before, and I couldn’t hold back the tears. I even had a drunk university professor named Boris Boris (yes, there’s two of them) who told me that the Russians are the source of all our problems and walked me through a history of the conspiracy…that started simply by saying hello.

I took this gig to get out of the house. I retired in 2014 and became a stay-at-home dad to six kids. After five years, I was burned out, and needed something outside of the house to do. I Uber’d for a bit, but jumped at the chance to work for a book store. Overall, it’s not a bad time, but it really doesn’t pay much. Good thing I don’t the money!

Thanks for reading! I’ll give another update later.

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