Are customers always right?

Nope. I can tell you that from my days at Coles as a teen. Listen, some version of crotchety Bookninja was always inside here and I didn’t hold back on stupid customers. I regret it now, of course, but it felt fairly cathartic at the time.

A single example among many: in ’92, I came back to my old job at Coles at the request of my former manager to work the busy Xmas season for some extra cash. I was 21 and I needed the money. Sue me. Anyway, when a customer waits through the 60 person line that wound around the store to ask me a question, I still naively assumed it would be a good one. But when she reached the counter, right beside a new releases shelf with the book she was looking for stacked 50 deep, she read from a piece of paper.

“I’m looking for a book for my son. It’s called ‘It Takes a Hero’ by Stormin’ Norman.”

“Oh, yes,” I replied. “That’s right behind you there on the stand. It’s called ‘It Doesn’t Take a Hero’, by Norman Schwarzkopf.”

“No, no,” she said, shaking her head sadly. “My son said, ‘It Takes a Hero’ by Stormin’ Norman.”

[Insert a half dozen more versions of this same exchange, but with different words.]

The line had grown and people were starting to grumble with impatience. Finally, I sighed, came out from behind the counter, picked up the book and held it out to her.

“Yes, you see, ‘Stormin’ Norman’ is Norman Schwarzkopf’s nickname, and he’s being modest about his role in the war, and so it’s called ‘It DOESN’T Take a Hero’, see? That’s him on the cover.”

She blinked, looked back at her paper.

“No,” she said. “It says right here ‘It Takes a—-”

You could almost hear the twig of my last fuck snapping.

“LOOK, LADY, JUST BUY THIS BOOK AND GIVE IT TO YOUR SON AND IF IT’S THE WRONG ONE I WILL PERSONALLY REFUND YOU THE MONEY OUT OF MY OWN POCKET.”

Tl;dr: customers are often jaja dingdongs. Especially in the age of Amazon.

Customer expectations that independent booksellers will do what a massive online operation does has caused deep frustration for Beverly, Mass.-based Copper Dog Books co-owner Meg Wasmer. Prior to coronavirus, most orders were placed in the bookstore, where Wasmer could put her expertise to use right in front of customers, guiding them through decisions that they might never know they have when buying online. She informs them when a hardcover is about to be released in paperback in order to save them money and helps them select the best edition of a book that will arrive fastest for a special order.

“Removing the actual experience of putting a bookseller with a customer has been a challenge,” Wasmer said. “We do this work for a reason and seeing what our industry looks like when we’re not actually involved, and how people buy books is absolutely bizarre.” For instance, since the outbreak began, Wasmer said half a dozen customers have placed orders for print-on-demand books by Mark Twain that they could have bought for a third of the price and received more than a week faster.

Like Orichuia, Wasmer stressed that the vast majority of customers are patient, but when their ordering decisions translate into delays, it has led to angry e-mails. Already feeling the effects of sustained eighty-hour work weeks, Wasmer made the decision to step away. She has posted publicly to social media about her frustration, but her business partner manages the responses to the few e-mails that are confrontational. “People are kind for the most part, once we get on the same page,” she said, “but until there’s that actual bookseller-to-customer interaction I think they forget that we’re real.”

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