It was a huge bookstore, divided into four sections. Each section held books on a group of subjects. Salespersons were moved each week from a section to the next, so that they get to know the whole store and learn to deal with different sets of clients. The store manager emphasized that the cardinal rule of the store was that, when a client names a book, the salesperson doesn’t just tell the client where the book is located, but walks with the client to the shelf, retrieves the book and places it in the client’s hand.
It was a coincidence that, when we returned to the store, there was the same woman again, approaching the help desk. Perhaps to test my mettle, the others promptly urged me to attend to her.
“Could you please help me with a book I want to buy?” she asked politely.
“I would love to. Do you have the title of the book,” I asked in return.
“Fiction,” she said, “if I remember it right.”
“And can you recall the name of the author?”
She hesitated slightly and said, “Something like George.”
I said to the woman, “I know the book you are looking for and I will get it for you” and walked to the shelf and picked the book and gave it to her.
The others were slack-jawed with surprise and asked me how I knew what book she wanted.
I explained that I was lucky enough to have known about the book, but the real reason was I didn’t assume that she was stupid and listened carefully to her. She did not say she wanted a book of fiction; she said ‘fiction’ when I asked the title. She did not say George was the name of the author; she said it was something like George. I realized she wanted a Spanish masterpiece called Ficciones, a book so famous that even the English translation carries the orginal name, written by the great Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges, whose first name an English-speaking person may be forgiven for remembering as George.
I confused the store manager by requesting that I should be allowed to work, contrary to tradition, in the fourth section continuously for at least four to six weeks.
“That is the section of information technology books, and nobody likes to work in that section. They say it is hard and confusing. Why do you want that section for so long?”
“That section can be the biggest money-spinner,” I said, knowing it was the dot-com boom period. “It is confusing, because nobody has tried to sort out and rearrange the new technologies correctly. I believe it can be simplified and the clients will love it.”
I soon realized that it was difficult to do all the rearrangement while the store was running and buyers were looking at the shelves. I asked for an extraordinary measure: to give me an assistant and let me work a whole night while the store was closed. When the rearranged section opened, it had suddenly become an easy job, at least for a computer enthusiast to find a book. Startups started visiting in large numbers and the revenue of the section shot up overnight.
The tradition of walking with a client to the shelf and physically locating the book for the person was a good one, I thought, better than telling the client “Go to aisle 4-G and look for it,” among fifty other similar looking books. But the core of the practice, a demonstrative helpfulness, was frequently missing. Many people don’t just want to pick up a book and buy it; they may be curious about the author’s other books or other volumes in a series. While other salespersons thought they had done their bit by accompanying a buyer to the book, I found I had far better results by just being friendly and attentive and letting the client tell me what really interest him or her.
The shocking reality was that the bookstore showed little interest, while hiring its sales people, to ascertain whether they had any interest in books. In fact, supervisors admonished salespersons if they as much as opened a book, saying, “You are here to sell books, not to read them.” I have a suspicion that, when a bookstore puts its trust in people who don’t care for books, it is sadly changing the very meaning of a bookstore for its best clients, the book lovers.