Bookselling: Making it Personal
Our postcard for Rose's Books.
By Renée Magriel Roberts
It is Tuesday morning and we have just finished printing up today's orders. Like most days, it is a mix of foreign and domestic orders. We have one book going out to a customer in Switzerland, two individual books and a set of books going to the U.K.; the rest domestic orders from our rare, used and new book collections. An order that was awaiting payment is moved from the pending/hold pile to the outgoing pile. Several special orders that came in this morning are matched with their order forms. We pick everything from the warehouse and line up all the books with their packing slips, postage and shipping labels.
Most days, I am happy to pack efficiently and accurately, and to do it well. We check all the used books for listing accuracy, and all the new books for any sign of damage. Every book is swathed in a soft, heavy recycled paper. We add the packing slip and invoice, as well as a postcard. This postcard, of my grandmother reading a book (and after whom the store is named) has a handwritten note. This is sometimes just a thank-you which I sign; other times, if I know the customer (or have something else to say), a more personalized greeting.
The entire packet is then bubble-wrapped, boxed in the right kind of packaging, or bagged, and dispatched via any number of services: the U.S. post office; FedEx; UPS; or Pitney Bowes. I've attempted to write down the algorithms for selection of service and appropriate packaging, but largely, they are still in my head, a pile of if-then statements resulting in the best service for each customer, while saving money, if possible, for us.
Most days, accomplishing these tasks would be enough. The effort is huge because we do everything ourselves. We believe that performing these tasks well sends a non-verbal message to every customer: we care about your purchase, and we care about your satisfaction. You have connected with us; we want this connection to be positive.
We decided, long ago, to keep our business growth within our reach. We want to continuously improve our stock, our services, and our customer base. But, we do not want to become so large that we need additional employees or space.
At another level, however, there are other connections occurring. I was reminded of it this week when I received a series of emails and phone calls from different customers. Besides including a handwritten card, we always post our names, email and telephone number on our sites (no hiding under a pseudonym!). We try to make it easy for people to reach us; we're real people and we want real communication.
It was at the end of the day when a man called inquiring about a book by Thoreau. I knew we had it. It was an inexpensive book with a sweet art nouveau design to the boards.
There was an urgency to his voice. He asked if we could send it out express mail the same day. We had already gone to the post office in the morning and my husband was out collecting our granddaughter from day camp. I thought briefly about sending it out with next day's mail, but there was something unsaid that made me think otherwise.
So, when Mark came back I ran out with the package, told him not to bother turning off the car, and sent him off to the post office before it closed.
Bookselling: Making it Personal
The 12th-century Theological Hall of the Strahov Abbey Library, Prague.
About a week later, the man called again. I recognized his name immediately. He told me that he had been taking care of his dying mother for 9 months, and that she had wanted him to read the book to her. The book arrived in time; she died the following morning. He was calling to thank us.
I became emotional and it was difficult to speak. He was calm. He had spent 9 months accepting her death and felt a calmness about it, he said. We hung out on the phone for a few minutes before saying goodbye.
The next day, a new email comes in from an entirely different customer, exuberant. "Who is this woman?" the email rhetorically says. She loves the packaging, the recycled paper, the postcard of my grandmother. And moreover, she is full of information and links to a wonderful website with pictures of fabulous libraries worldwide. And she is interested in textiles and mathematics. And she is an author.
I have to print this one out. I answer it quickly with more information. Just a quick business-type email won't do. I'm still working on a letter. It is one of those flash-connections that occasionally happen on the Web.
Other emails follow: a brief note from a gentleman out West who is studying the history of his family and has purchased a New England genealogical book. A query, followed by a sale, of a set of the writings of an early US president, combined with a request for help in developing a library of works that are related to his research. A now-daily telephone call from a friend, who bought some works by another American president, and now is working with me on an annotated bibliography to be published by Clock & Rose Press.
Why do these transactions turn into relationships and connections that enrich us beyond monetary profit? It is hard to say exactly. I think that certainly taking care that the information and the order are handled as well as possible creates a meaningful communication. Posting our contact information says we encourage dialogue. Adding a note or a question to a confirmation is another way in which we reach out.
Or maybe, something else is happening in the ether between us and our customers and the books.
In any event, when I feel bogged down, or overworked, I remember that we have chosen not to just sell widgets. It is a bit more work to go beyond just good transactions, and to make bookselling personal, but that is the only way we want to do it.
Renée Magriel Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.