|bookseller Lisa greets Mr G, downtown Milwaukee circa 1995|
Nothing makes a rep’s day like a buyer who smiles and says “I have the perfect customer for that.”
As digital tools continue to colonize our working lives, it’s easy to start thinking of “the customer” as just some sort of abstract demographic. The stats may now tell you that 20% of the customers who bought a military history title from you also bought a cookbook. But who were they? These faceless demographics are surely helpful in some general way, but they mask the potent reality that bookselling is still a hands-on, person to person affair.
So I’m thrilled when a buyer knows that her sell-through on Philosophy is trending up, but I’m even more excited when she has names and faces in mind for the copies she orders. To me, this has always been real bookselling, and is the secret weapon that will slay algorithmic tyranny in the end.
The real, live flesh and blood customers who shuffle in and out of bookstores all day inevitably become familiar. It’s what we say we want- a feeling of community, of ownership: “I’m going down to my bookstore this afternoon.” Where they know me.
Though I’ve been out of the retail end of things for years (I managed the downtown Milwaukee Harry W Schwartz Bookshop in the nineties), I’m amazed at how easily I can recall my own special customers, the readers who’d come to mind when a rep pitched a book to me. These were people who shaped the store and our daily working lives. With a bit of nostalgia, I wonder what’s become of these twenty formerly familiar faces.
1) Ron J, the rich bookaholic lawyer who lined his office with hardcover copies of the latest fiction. He took every recommendation we could give him, and we delivered;
2) Jacqueline D, working on her PhD in English Lit. She scoured TLS and British literary journals and ordered hundreds of titles we’d import at great expense. We wondered where she got the money, the time, and the smarts. It was a huge feeling of accomplishment to hand sell her something she’d missed;
3) Rev. W was in the store daily when he was in town, knew our Music section by heart, read widely in history and philosophy (religion, oddly, not so much). He got in a bit of trouble later but we loved him as a customer;
4) Mr. K, not a customer per se as I never remember him buying anything. But a daily fixture: grizzled, thick smeared spectacles, filthy clothes, a half dozen shopping bags stuffed with newspapers that never left his side, and a half cigar that he never lit. Incomprehensible monolog, claimed to have had dealings with Harry W. himself. New staff were always afraid of him, then came to love him, then came to dread his time-consuming and smelly morning visits;
5) Mr. B: short, stout, red-faced, officious, with a nearly indecipherable German accent, which didn’t much matter since his only requests over the course of five years were for the German newspaper Die Zeit. It was never there on the day it should have been. This was always our fault;
6) Min K, the grande dame, a store favorite, she doted over us and we over her. She looked, dressed and behaved as if she’d stepped out of the Romanov court yet worked in a downtown office building. Her reading tastes were impeccable, and she couldn’t resist a sophisticated biography. She knew the entire staff by name, and their birthdays.
7) Mr G, an eccentric fixture. He had some sort of dementia and would come into the store every single day with two questions: “what time do you close?” and “is there a tax on magazines?” The answers never varied, but neither did the questions. He would sometimes call women “sir,” though never called male staff “madam.” He had a set of false teeth and as he perused magazines he’d habitually slide the top layer in and out of his mouth entirely, an alarming sight;
8) Cute Pop Culture Guy, whatever became of you? Every boy and girl on staff had a crush on you, and looked forward to your daily visits;
9) Mary, good friend of the owner, loved his willingness to act as personal shopper. Though her reading tastes were not unusual and any of us could have helped her, she enjoyed having David’s undivided attention and recommendations;
10) Tom B, photography buff. Never bought a book to my knowledge but offered regular critiques of our Photography section, which was never up to snuff. Oddly, I felt him looking over my shoulder when I was presented with a Photo book, thinking to myself “we’ll never sell it but Tom won’t be able to complain";
11) Mr Art Man: suave, dapper, possibly European, elderly, came in at least weekly, carefully perused the art section and spoke to none of us. He was a regular and we didn’t pay him much mind, until one day, shockingly, a bookseller noticed him walking out the front door with a load of art books under his coat. He’d been a patron for at least five years and robbing us blind while we looked for thieves among the rowdy teen-agers changing buses on our corner;
12) Paul C, one of the finest local musicians Milwaukee has to offer, and one of the most well-read. He had me at Flannery O’Connor. And he’s still a bookaholic- the other night when my local bookstore, Boswell Books, was closed for a staff meeting, I noticed Paul peering in from outside;
13) Cathy S, a true Milwaukee original. Heavy-set, butch, black denim head to toe, chain wallet, glasses, spoke out of the side of her mouth- she used to exchange postcards with Burroughs. She was a guidance counselor in a suburban high school, figure that! She had a "been there/done that" world weariness in her voice- ask her “how are you” 100 times and 100 times she would sigh “surviving…” Yet she was passionate about books, music, movies- bought anything and everything we’d recommend, and was in the store just about every day. One of the last times I saw her she was waiting online for a signed Patti Smith;
14) Mr B, older wealthy retired gentleman. Struck up a friendship with one of the quieter, nerdier guys on the staff. He’s the only one he’d listen to on book recs and he amassed a vast personal library. Rumor had it that the bookseller made out quite nicely when Mr B died;
15) Dr F, a dour, somewhat intimidating psychiatrist for whom we always felt we were failing. Why is it that small errors and mix-ups seem to attach themselves to the people with the lowest tolerance for them? But she was a good customer and ordered lots of books;
16) Kathy H, a waitress, my favorite kind of regular, popped in on pay day or if she had a pocketful of tips, always asked what’s good. We knew her. If a juicy gothic mystery came in someone would say “put that one aside for Kathy,” and usually someone else already had;
17) Mayor N, big and tall and impossible to be anonymous, but he loved to walk over from City Hall on his lunch hour. We’d give him space, though he liked talking to booksellers and was surprisingly up to speed on the latest new urbanism books and good novels;
18) Mr P fancied himself a mover and shaker, loved to have us wrap and send out books as gifts to business associates far and wide. Only we knew that they had to be cheap remainders, with the price stickers surgically removed;
19) Mrs J, 80-something, who used a wheelchair, would arrive at the store every few weeks with her companion in an emergency vehicle. She had won this service in perpetuity in some dispute with the city. Once inside, she wheeled herself through the store on the lookout for books for her niece in Norway. Though our ace bookseller handled her with great tact and love, she limited her enthusiasms to the books she could see, which happened to be mass market displays at eye level. She could be cutting. “She [her usually silent but no doubt long-suffering companion] might be interested in this,” she’d snort. “All she ever reads is the newspaper!”
20) Dennis P, the bookseller’s dream customer. If every bookshop across the land had a Dennis, the future of the book would be secure. A lawyer by profession but a self-taught intellectual by persuasion, he has a bottomless thirst for knowledge and reading. He puts books on order before they are even published, yet is always open to suggestion. He has the quaint idea that books can change the world. I can’t count the number of times as a buyer I said to my rep “this is a Dennis book,” and how many times, as a rep, I hear the same phrase from the buyer at Boswell, his current store. Long live Dennis!