Theories of Service - My Life in Retail

Michael McGrorty writes "Yesterday I was sitting at the reference desk, enjoying a brief moment of silence between patrons when it the entire meaning of the library business was revealed to me. At precisely eleven-thirty on a spring morning the oyster came open and I realized my place. And it was all because of a fellow named Donald.

Donald arrived at the tail end of the morning, dressed in a flannel shirt buttoned to the neck and corduroy pants without a belt. His face wore a deep frown, the sort which originates in a bad dream that continues into daylight, and the tumult of his hair showed that he had left home without consulting a mirror. He approached the desk like a man delivering a summons.

"I want to sue an attorney," he rasped, in a voice that sounded like he'd been shouting at somebody pretty recently. "You have to help me. I also want to get some unemployment payments. You have to help me with that, too." He put a lot of emphasis on the word 'you.'

Having examined the patient, I proceeded to my diagnosis: Angry, with a trace of instability excited by disappointment. Fortunately, the man hadn't displayed any sign of actual disorder-at least he hadn't until he yanked a yellow binder from under his arm, removed a packet of crumpled notes and began to arrange them on the desk between us. Make note, young librarian: disordered minds keep a lot of notes.

The binder had the name 'Donald' written upon it in letters as big as the type used by newspapers to reveal the start of war. The papers from the binder looked as though somebody had written them with a blunt chisel. I observed all this while searching the Internet for the address and phone number of the state bar association. I produced the number for Donald. He gave the result about a second's thought and barked,

"That's an '800' number. I want a real phone number. You have to get me another number."

Needless to say, he put a lot of emphasis on 'you.' I found my friend a new number; for good measure I gave him a small collection of them to call. He gazed down at the list like a man looking at a bad coin, but pocketed it anyway. I knew what was coming next, and proceeded to find the site for the unemployment offices even before his demand.

I said, "Sir, I'm going to print you out a listing of offices so that you can go to the one nearest your home. This will only take a moment or two."

While the printer was working I turned to another patron who had approached the desk; the woman asked where the magazines were located. I pointed to the rear of the building, whereupon Donald erupted:

"You can't help anybody else now. It isn't right. You're supposed to help me until I say we're done. This always happens. This is terribly insulting. You have to help me until I'm done."

Donald communicated this to me in a tone which indicated he was about halfway between rage and tears. I nodded, assumed my most apologetic demeanor and began handing the first pages to Donald, who quickly set them down on the desk.

"These papers are very hot. Why do you give me hot pages?"

I thought quickly and said, "Because they're fresh. Only the stale ones are cold."

That seemed to mollify him. I gave him a thin stack of fresh hot pages, then thanked him for his patronage, whereupon he commenced to lecture me about the insult of our having paid attention to another person during his appointed period of service. I don't recall the conclusion of the speech because I left to help another patron before the last paragraph. When I came back Donald was gone.

Back when I was in college, I had a collection of the sort of jobs one gets to keep the lights burning: nothing of the career sort at all; one of them was clerking in liquor stores. One of the tenets of any business is that its customers are consumers of the product. In a liquor store one deals with drinkers. There are basically two types of drinkers: Happy and Unhappy. The Unhappy are divided into Sad and Angry. You get a pretty fair distribution on a given night.

There is perhaps no better preparation for librarianship than having worked a busy liquor store. You learn the stock; you learn the process; more than anything, you learn to roll with the punches. If you have never worked in a store, you come to understand the nature of human choices; their motivation, their satisfaction; you see the same thing over and over, but every once in a while you get something new that throws you on your back before it teaches you a lesson.

There is not a lot of difference between actual insanity and the sort of behavior exhibited by drunken adults. Then again, there's not an inch of separation between a nasty sober customer and a nasty drunk. The worst customer I ever faced was a middle-aged woman who was disappointed because we didn't carry the wine she wanted. In front of a line at the checkout, she flew into a rage, called me names I hadn't heard since the Navy, threatened (all five feet of her) to beat me up, then burst into tears and departed in her prim business suit and matching pumps.

The reason she was the worst was because she rang all the bells of failed service: I didn't have what she wanted; I couldn't help her, and she disturbed the other customers. Strike three and you're out. For that matter, I couldn't even throw her out the door-it would have looked rather ungentlemanly, and she hadn't actually crossed the qualifying line into violence.

By way of reference, I was robbed twice during my career as a liquor clerk; once at gunpoint and again with a knife. I also had a few altercations with surly folks who didn't realize that most liquor stores keep a baseball bat close at hand near the register for such occasions; I didn't have to hit any home runs, but it sometimes became necessary to display the lumber. I felt no pang of guilt from this: for the bat to come off the rack, the patron must have violated the rules of engagement, which, though drawn rather broadly in the liquor business, nevertheless have their boundary line.

Thinking back on that incident just after Donald's departure led me to formulate the Big Picture of the library business: We are, all of us, engaged in the retailing of information. Within this structure the public library is the corner store. The job, no matter what it might seem, is to send them home with something-something they wanted, something they didn't know they wanted; something we could convince them they needed. That's the job. We don't make books any more than the grocery makes tomatoes, but it helps a lot to know where they come from, and why.

Within this construct, Donald, that dear frustrated boy, is nothing but a sharp customer. It hardly matters that he is nasty to the point of petulance; the point of the acquaintance is a sale, after all: A sale and a goodbye and on to the next customer in line. As my old boss in the liquor business used to say, "You don't get to pick 'em."

It would be easy to point to the better grade of customer and give that as your reason for staying in the trade, but some days there aren't very many of them, or you get a migraine or a sore heel that even the nice ones can't make go away. Better to stay for the hard cases. The rest will take care of themselves.

And then, just like that, it was afternoon: The sun streamed through the western windows, turning the carpets into gold leaf and the air to dusty nectar; a figure crossed this background and approached the desk in the waning moments of my shift.

She was new to me. I would have remembered this one: she was perhaps thirty, maybe a shade under, tall and thin and pretty enough. She came up to the desk the way children approach, in small increments, with the caution of a songbird.

She said, "I need, I think, a dictionary." She paused at the commas like a stage actress giving emphasis. Her face wore a strange smile, as though some secret thing was making her very happy. I said, "Are you looking for a word?" She smiled-just smiled. So I led her over to the dictionary on the long table before the reference desk. She ran a hand over the open pages, smiled her smile again and sat, with the sudden bird-movement, then searched for her word as I returned to the desk.

And then, as I watched, pretending not to, she began to speak: she would turn a page, find a word and say it, just loud enough so that I could hear. She said "enigmatic" in all its syllables-- then laughed just louder than a whisper. Then she turned another page and found a word, sounded it out to herself, and laughed again. This finding and laughing went on for some time. Occasionally she would discuss the word she'd found with herself-- put it in a sentence as though giving an appropriate example of usage. After that the laugh would come. This went on for a small piece of time, and then I had to help a patron with something that took me to the far corner of the library.

When I came back, the mood had changed. Now the searching seemed frantic and the laughter mocking; when the next librarian came to relieve me at the desk she was heading toward sarcasm; the last word I heard was 'splendor,' and the sound of it wasn't pleasant. Just as the elevator arrived I gave a last look at the woman; our eyes came together but she was in the middle of a laugh and I don't think she took me in. That was the end of my day.

I rode my motorcycle home with pictures of the two patrons running through my head. By the time I got to the house, the retail concept had been shot all to hell and I made a mental note to search for another model during my next shift at the desk. It wasn't Donald but the Bird Lady who did it-- she didn't seem to fit into any theory I could put together just then. I knew there was a customer between the two of us, I just couldn't figure out who it was.

Michael McGrorty


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