Confession time. A little known fact about me… Family: Psh, yeah right. *titter titter*. “Little known”? Really, Erin?… Ahem, here goes: I’m a bit of a worrier. That’s right. The proverbial worry wort est moi. It’s genetic; I get it fair and square. I can’t help it. Of course, that’s not true. If I did more yoga and deep breathing I’m sure I could help it and indeed I’ve been working on that lately in this unpleasant season of unemployment.
But I digress. Last night as I was going to bed I had a brainstorm. For weeks now I’ve been wasting precious time (and putting unseemly wrinkles on my tender, young visage) worrying about my local Indie bookstore. They’re old-fashioned, you see. They don’t have a website, don’t do social media. E-books are the bain of their existence and, heavens, no, child they won’t be caught dead selling those things even if every customer comes into the store and asks them to (as some have).
They’re lovely people, my booksellers — I’ve been going to them since I was a tot — true booksellers in the sense that they don’t just know their stock, they’ve read everything that comes through their door… or just about. I admit, I like to try to trip them up. Sometimes I’ll come in with a particular book in mind, but more often I’ll just be browsing. I’ll pick up a new release and say, “Is this one any good?” and then either Margaret or Sarah will give me a summary, sometimes clipped, sometimes exuberant, which is how I know they’re not just parroting the review from Book Page. Though strategic booksellers (they’ll always have something positive to say about a book, or else why would it be in their store?), I know they’ve actually read the books because their responses to my inquiries are not uniformly laudatory. I can tell when they approve of a book, but perhaps didn’t find it to their taste. More impressively, they know when a book will not be to my taste.
Which leads me to my brainstorm of last night. That dialogue I just described? That informed and transparent customer service? That’s what makes old-fashioned brick-and-mortar businesses so special. One might say that’s what makes them old-fashioned. I’ve been for going on a month now trying to convince my booksellers that they’ve got to get a website up and running with online buying capabilities. They’ve got to start selling e-books. They’ve got to start Tweeting, blogging, Facebooking more regularly, and for heaven’s sake, responding to their emails. And then it hit me: If they did all that, would they still have time to read the books in their store? Would it distract them from being who they are — booksellers of the first order — which is the reason I go to them in the first place?
Now, I’m not recanting all I’ve said in previous blogs about the importance of embracing new technology. Booksellers really must change with the times if they want to stay afloat. And they’ve got to be smart about it, making sure that they do so while holding onto their core values. That’s a lot of work and a tall order for an already overworked and underpaid bunch of people. But I believe they can continue to offer good old-fashioned customer service while still modernizing in simple ways. Indeed, modernizing would bring that hallmark customer service to a new wave of customers.
But I guess my thought last night was this: If Barry Eisler was right and bookstores really are due to become novelty shops, the same as antique and vintage clothing stores, then is customer service and face-to-face conversation just part of that novelty? If it is, then I don’t think it’ll take us very long to figure out that a search engine can’t replace a conversation with a bookseller. Of course, maybe we’ll soon have an application that simulates real life conversation.
What do you think? As people become increasingly isolated and plugged-in, will they still want customer service? Face-to-face interaction? Do you want that?