Fascinating courtly intrigue and bloody power games set on a generation ship full of secrets―Medusa Uploaded is an imaginative, intense mystery about family dramas and ancient technologies whose influence reverberates across the stars. Disturbing, exciting, and frankly kind of mind-blowing.” ―Annalee Newitz, author of Autonomous

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Why We Got the Jerks We Deserved (and Now They're Loose!)

I'm going to warn you right off the bat, some of you will recognize yourselves in this post. If you do, I want to apologize – not because I've offended you by calling you out, but because I'm one of the ex-Borders employees who taught you to be an entitled jerk.

Most of you other readers are innocent of any of these shenanigans, but will recognize your own customers, regardless of what sort of store you work in, because the economy we've suffered for the past 15 years has bred a lot of desperate customer-service policies. But there are some issues that are peculiar to bookstores, mainly because someone got the bright idea that book stores should have a coffee shop attached to them.

I can just see the wheels turning the head of the jerk who thought that one up. What would I want in a book shop to make the experience relaxing and perfect? they asked themselves. A place to sit down, read a book, sip a latte . . .

Yeah, that's great, all right. And in the late 90s this worked out fairly well for Borders and Barnes & Noble. People trashed a lot of stuff in the cafes (spilling coffee on unpaid merchandise and getting goopy fingerprints all over it), but the economy was good enough that they also spent a lot of money in those superstores. They became social meeting places, and that must have seemed like a great way to get customers into the stores

In fact, it was a great way to get people into the stores. People are often not customers. And as the economy tanked, and people had a harder and harder time paying for even the basics, some were able to continue enjoying their books and lattes – because they didn't have to pay for the books. Or the magazines. Or the newspapers that they spread all over the place as if they had purchased them.

There was an unspoken agreement between the superstores and their clientele that if you were sitting in a chair and reading a book, it was because you were considering buying that book. It was (mostly) true at one time. But by the time Borders went bankrupt, it was usually not true. And as we employees watched families move in to the children's section to grab armloads of books and spread themselves out on the floor as if they were in their own living rooms, we could see which way the tide was turning. These folks became so bold, they brought bags of MacDonald's food in with them and put greasy fingerprints all over the books they left in untidy stacks on the floor.

And we did it to ourselves. We created the environment that made it possible for people to walk all over us. We should have been trying to adapt to the bad economy instead of pretending it was all a matter of good customer service. And now Borders is gone, and surviving book businesses are having to cope with customers who were raised in a barn. Many of these folks are now shopping for books they are considering buying online, but they want to review them first, turning local bookstores into the amazon.com showroom.

Yes, people are behaving pretty badly sometimes. And very few businesses have adapted to the situation. One of the few I can think of is Wired? Cafe in Taos, New Mexico. They have a handful of book titles that they sell, but most of the books on their shelves are used books donated by staff and customers, available to read for free. Primarily, they sell lattes and internet/computer time. Since they're located in a popular travel destination, this model works beautifully for them.

As for the rest of us, we're still suffering from the austerity policies that have wrecked economies all over the world (she said, without the least hint of political bias). Until things get better, the knee-jerk customer-service policies that companies think up to compensate for the fact that customers don't have any money will continue to create monsters among their clientele. Sooner or later, regardless of the economy in general, this is going to have to be sensibly addressed.

Photo by Em, drawings by the fabulous Ernest Hogan.