I used to work at Barnes and Noble. That job was sort of like my job now in the sense that people would always say two things: 1. “You’re so lucky, I wish I could work here. I bet you just get to read all day” and 2. “I need to buy a gift, what can you recommend?” And after twenty minutes of meticulous customer service, “Oh well, actually I think I’ll just get them this instead. Whatever.”
There was a year when I was working both jobs and I’m in no way complaining because it wasn’t exactly the most exhausting trial of my life. But I remember the exact moment when I realized how much more I liked working at Comics Unlimited. At B&N I worked in the Kids department and, like every other job when I’m given a lot of responsibility, I became far too attached. That whole part of the store (including Teen, Parenting, and Teaching) was all part of my domain and I took my job very seriously. It’s not all pointing to Thomas the Train or Harry Potter and letting customers run wild, I was in charge of merchandising as well as knowing the products and my co-workers always appreciated my dedication. You want to know who DIDN’T appreciate it? The goddamn customers. I recall once it was common cold season and I was its latest victim. I knew I shouldn’t have gone to work because I would be just re-infecting the rest of the populace but I can’t ditch work unless it’s absolutely dire or I absolutely don’t give a shit and neither of those stipulations were applicable. Despite the box of tissues and bottle of hand sanitizer on my desk, I still looked sick. My nose was red and splotchy, my eyes were watering, and I sounded so congested my breathing was ragged but I still wore that plastic retailer smile. I had numerous customers tell me I shouldn’t have come into work, some sympathetically and some disparagingly. This was not surprising, they just needed a copy of The Giver for their kid, they didn’t need to spread the cold to the rest of their family. The next day I went into work at Comics Unlimited expecting more of the same distant pity but what I got instead was genuine concern. Now, this is where the comic shop has a unfair advantage, my customers here come in weekly and therefore know me by name and see me much more regularly. However, that doesn’t mean they are required to treat me any differently than my B&N customers do, except they did. One customer offered to buy me soup from the Chinese restaurant and another regular surprised me by going to Starbucks and getting me tea. Lots of them suggested their favorite cold remedies and almost all of them wished me good luck in getting better. Isn’t it fascinating how differently people can act when familiarity is involved?
I’m not saying my B&N customers were all assholes, at least half of them were just trying to be good parents. If I was more than just the girl at the bookstore then they might have shown a little more worry, but to them I’m just background fodder and they probably never thought about me again until they walked back into the store and saw me months later. Not my Comics Unlimited regulars though, they need me to satisfy their addiction to comic books, especially if they have a pull list because then I literally hand them a stack of paper happiness. I’ve developed casual but meaningful relationships with dozens of these people. For some I know their wives’ and kids’ names, I know if their boss is a dick, I know how their parents’ are doing after they took a tumble. That seems insanely Single White Female when I read it back but I’m incapable of seeing people that often and not harboring some affection.
It’s easy to bond with someone in a place you both feel safe. I find that people fully allow themselves to geek out when they realize how much I care about these characters and storylines as well. Once I can get them to open up about their feelings on the books it usually isn’t long until they are willing to talk about their personal lives as well. And, again, I’m not prying all of this information out of people so I can commit identity theft, I genuinely want to know how they are doing. I’m only 26 year old, I’m not a fountain of experience or good advice but I can provide some support even if it’s from behind a glass counter. Luckily due to my Del Taco diet-formed figure and overly bubbly personality our customers don’t write Missed Connections about me but they are very much willing to spend hours talking about everything from Justice League: Unlimited to the milkshakes from Slater’s 50/50 to taking Lamaze classes. And one of the most mind-blowing parts of seeing the same people consistently over the course of years is watching their lives change. I’ve seen women throughout their entire pregnancy and now their kids are starting school, I’ve seen toddlers grow to be fully-functioning miniature people, and I’ve seen kids go away to college and come back after they graduate.
I’m very chatty by nature but outside of the store I’m not exactly a social person, even online. I don’t use my Facebook very often, I don’t go out with friends more than once a week, and even before I married Patrick I was not a casual dater. Books, Netflix, and Tumbr are like my very needy roommates and I’m more than happy to spend all my free time with them. Which means I get most of my social interaction at work, and why not? People come in, we talk for 20 minutes, I sell them books, and then they leave. It’s the laziest form of friendship but it works for me because I’ll see them again next week. If I don’t see a customer for a month I’m not force fed guilt, I’m rewarded with a cheerful welcome back. If I don’t like someone’s girlfriend I don’t have to pretend I do over drinks on their birthday, I can just walk away and organize the graphic novels. But at the same time, because I am not actually a part of most people’s inner circle of friends I can listen to them vent about how their boyfriend’s best friend might be psychotic or how unhappy someone is with their marriage. At the same time they don’t have to feel guilty for bragging about their promotion or showing me endless pictures of their toddler. Lots of people say their co-workers become like family, but when I spend this much time with our customers it’s hard not to feel that way about them as well.
When I looked over the 130+ guests at our wedding I got teary-eyed realizing just how many of them I met through the store, including Patrick himself. Regular customers who became friends, friends who became regular customers, current and former co-workers alike. What utter kismet. That’s how I know I did something right by quitting Barnes & Noble, I picked the winning side. That and I trying to keep a straight face when selling Twilight rip-offs is a lot harder than trying to sell Bionic Man VS Bionic Woman.
Fantastic article! I totally agree with what you’re saying about familiarity with customers. I went from working at a Borders to a little independent bookstore and the difference between the customer interaction is crazy even though I went from a bookstore to a bookstore.
I’m glad someone else understands!! I also feel like the people who choose to shop at small businesses instead of big chain stores tend to be more intelligent and polite too. Not always, but most of the time.