Seeking Bad Examples (There but for the Grace of God)

My wife and I honeymooned in this town, and we revisit it frequently when we want to get away from the shop. This week we’re out here with another couple, which is fun. Tonight the other three in our group are doing an Escape Room. Since I’ve got an aversion to being locked in a room, even for play, I decided to sit it out and spend the evening downtown, visiting businesses.

A local game store was recommended to me by another retailer, so I went to have a look-see. As I walked in, two occupants briefly suspended their conversation to say “Hi” to me, then went right back to talking. The store was probably 2,500 square feet or so, and mostly consumed with tables. There was a calendar of events poster from Wizards of the Coast that went out of date two months ago. The merchandise section was about 150 square feet of sloppily-piled, but at least mostly current, merchandise. I looked around for 90 seconds, then turned around and left. A hasty shout of “Was it not what you expected?” hit my back before the door closed.

Sadly, from the sub-prime location and $150 unlit sign, it was exactly what I expected. I didn’t introduce myself because I didn’t want to offend the clerk. Besides, he seemed busy. I asked my friend about it and found out that he’d confused this store for another, less terrible, one.chair

Later, I visited a used book store. It’s run by one elderly lady and her tiny dog, and she spends all her time making yarn in the center of the store. I visit it every time we come to town, just out of disbelief that it’s still around. Is she living on a big life insurance payout? Does she have a reverse-mortgage arrangement for the very valuable real estate? Is it a front for a government safe house? I’m not sure, but she’s still there after at least eleven years.

As always, I was confronted first by a small, angry dog. The owner advised me not to be friendly, but just keep moving. I stepped around chewed-on chicken bones that were piled in the floor and walked on.

“Hi! Where is your science fiction section?” I asked, looking as always for more copies of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to give away.

“We don’t have much, but come here, I’ll show you.”

“Oh, I don’t want to interrupt your work.” I said.

She looked up at me with annoyance. “I wasn’t going to get up. I was going to tell you where to go, if you’ll listen.” She pointed with her nod, since her hands were busy with the spinning wheel. “Go down until you see the hat rack, and turn left, then take the aisle on your right.”

I thanked her and walked back into the store, stepping around loose boxes and piles of yarn. I wasn’t seeing any hat racks.

“Didn’t listen, did’ya? Turn around and come back, then turn at the hat rack, then it’s the first aisle on your right.”

I turned around and, sure enough, there was a crocheted hat sitting loose on one of the bookshelves. I turned right, then right again, finding the section.

“Life is better when you listen, isn’t it? I can never get anybody to listen.”

Biting my lip, I examined the shelves. No Heinlein at all, save two copies of The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. I poked around for a bit but, fearing that she was becoming grumpier with me by the minute, soon wished her a pleasant evening and left. She asked me not to bring a messenger bag with me, next time.

I’ll be back without the bag next time. This has become a tradition.

My dad used to say something about businesses he saw being run poorly. “Whatever it is that the owner wants out of that business, I guess they’re getting it.”

I never asked him what he meant, but I think I can give it a shot. In our industry, retailers are constantly fretting about the Big Bad of Amazon, Books-A-Million, and digital delivery. The response is frequently that we should endeavor to beat them with superior customer service and attention to detail. Everyone says that they care about making a great customer experience, but we’re all hypocrites on one level or another. Maybe it’s poorly-merchandised shelves, or dirty bathrooms, or employees that don’t greet and engage every customer. My shop could use some cord-hiding, a coat of paint in the bathrooms, and a fresh wax job.

On some level we all have things that we give up on, or at least tolerate with no definite plan for improvement. Visiting businesses like these helps remind me that, much as every person is the protagonist in their own story, every owner of a terrible business has perfectly rational-sounding excuses that allowed their business to decay to this point.

After looking at these pictures? I’m going to buy some paint when I get back to the store.

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