I’ve worked at a busy used bookstore for almost five years, on and off. I recently returned to that job after several years away, and I’m struck anew by my love for the customers who shop there. Of course, the bookstore is no exception to the general rules of customer service. You get happy people and grumpy people, rude people and polite people, people who want to chat for half an hour and people whose parking meter is about to run out. You also get some truly… unique people (shout-out to the lady who used to surreptitiously re-organize our books, and lectured me on multiple occasions about our refusal to adopt Library of Congress subject headings!).
Working at a bookstore, the odds that the next customer to walk up our stairs will be a kindred spirit are infinitely higher than in any other type of shop. After all, I’m selling my favorite thing in the world. Almost every day I find myself ringing somebody through for a book I love, a book that shaped me (there are a lot of those!). This always lifts my heart, and when I blurt out something along the lines of, “Oh, I love this book!” sometimes the customer will reply, “I know, me too! This is the sixth copy I’ve bought because I keep making my friends read it and I never get it back!” Discussing a book we both enjoyed creates a moment of rapport; we may never meet again, but if we do I know we’ll be glad to see each other.
Having read the same books is rather like sharing fragments of experience with these customers. After all, in a way we’ve lived the same borrowed lives. If each of us walks a mile in the same stranger’s shoes, won’t we come to understand each other better, as well as the stranger? There are people I nod to on the bus during my morning commute that I’ve never really met. I don’t even know their names, usually, but I’ve sold them books.
Then there are the true regulars. As a long-established bookstore in the community, my place of employment has more than its fair share of regular customers. There’s John*, the one-time radio host who wanders in almost every morning asking “what’s new?” in non-fiction. There’s Su*, an avid collector of mystery series, who knows all of our names and makes a point of talking to each of us when she’s in. Some years ago, when I found myself sleeping on a co-worker’s couch with nothing but a few suitcases to my name, Su gave me some spare pots and pans to help stock the kitchen in my new apartment. When I reappeared after two years of grad school, she was as excited to see me as my coworkers. Then there’s Bob*, who never (as far as I know) bought a single book but used to bring enough ice cream bars for the whole staff on hot summer days. Not all of our regulars are so friendly, but these days I view even Angry Guy, who tops the stairs with an explosive sigh and a loud grumble every time he visits, with affection.
Some of our regulars are a little unusual, maybe a little anxious or awkward. The bookstore is one of their safe and happy places, and I’m proud of that. Being rather nerdy, anxious, and awkward myself, I don’t know what I’d do without the community of beautiful nerds that frequents our shop. What can I say? Book people are the best!
*Names changed because I didn’t get permission to identify any of these fine folks in this article.