Things Mark does better than me

Mark and I currently have a bit of a jobshare arrangement, owing to having a two-year-old at home, which means we are hardly ever in the shop together. Naturally things have descended into a bit of a competition about 'who's best'. And I have to grudgingly admit, Mark wins hands down on pretty much everything. In fact I'm getting pretty used to a look from customers that hovers hopefully somewhere over my left shoulder. "Oh I spoke to a very nice young man the other day. He was most helpful. and so charming. Not here today?" And Mark finds it so effortless to talk to people I'm sure it's only a few hours later (if ever) that people must look at this package in their hand and wonder if they really wanted that book. I can confidently say hardly anyone ever walks out of the shop if Mark's there without having bought something. Mark is also always utterly super at effortlessly finding the (almost daily) weird requests we get from people. Only this week a customer came in having 'heard an author on the radio beginning with A' and Mark ACTUALLY FOUND IT. I'm there fumbling with the keys, promising to get back to people and wondering why on earth we decided we'd offer to track down hard to find and out of print books. (Although both of us have failed miserably on a request from one of our favourite customers who heard about a book - about a couple who refused to do any shopping for a year. Anyone out there who can help on this? We are still searching in vain.) Mark is also much better at me at remaining chilled at the things that seem to constantly go wrong, particularly with what is turning into a litany of disasters with certain customer orders. For example. In our first week of opening we had a request for a slightly obscure book. Our customer ordered two copies. We contacted our wholesaler and they seemed to think there would be no problem. It took a few weeks, but one copy eventually drifted in. Where was the other? They would chase it. We telephoned and asked every week and only got a 'oh that's very strange' response every time, and an increasingly not-too-pleased look from the customer who dropped in weekly to check up on his order. Eventually I got so fed up, decided to try to track down the book myself. I couldn't find the publisher on the web, but actually managed to find an email for the author (a local academic) and contacted her, half expecting that with the summer break there would be no reply. But she got back to me the same day with contact details of her publisher, who were also most helpful. So far so good. But then unfortunately sent us a copy of the book without attaching a stamp (I tell you, this book is jinxed) and it was a good long time before it drifted through the Royal Mail and ended up at the sorting office where we could collect it after paying an exorbitant sum. Our customer eventually collected the book on Saturday. I have a feeling he won't be rushing to order any more. Why our wholesaler was utterly unable to get hold of more than one copy of the book is still an utter mystery that I guess is all part of the learning curve by two novices stumbling their way through the book trade. Mark is also much better than me at some of the things that go wrong. I am beginning to really gnash my teeth. In fact it's not just the wholesaler who is not in my good books at the moment. As well as Thursday's (Parcelforce) delivery going to Waitrose, Friday's (Parcelforce) delivery was delayed. As ever when there are delays, it was chock full of time-sensitive customer orders. A phone call to the wholesaler assured me the delivery had been despatched and was on its way. First phone call from anxious customer and reassurance. The book that she needed as a present TODAY would definitely arrive. A bit later the customer came in. Had the delivery arrived yet? Another phone call to the wholesaler. They checked and were able to tell me the van had broken down, but the delivery was definitely on the van and it would arrive, only be delayed. Lovely customer very understanding bought two more books (and asked me to track something complicated down which brought on a few minutes of inexpert fumbling with the computer and a promise to 'get back to her'). The book would DEFINITELY be with her, I said. If it was really late we'd drop it in to her at home. Then the said driver arrived in the shop to collect two boxes (wrongly - they had been collected the day before - by Parcelforce. See a pattern emerging?). Yes, he was the driver who had broken down. No, there was no order for us. Panic. Another call to the wholesaler. Oh, in that case your order has gone missing and it DEFINITELY won't arrive today. Aarghh. This was about four o'clock. Phone customer with bad news, or . . . ? A quick phone call to a large, independent bookstore in Oxford ascertained they had the book and I insisted Mark drive in, buy it and deliver it to the customer. Cue 30-mile round trip - major kudos to Bl*ckw*lls. (And don't even ask about the special American wine book order that we were so chuffed we could order that then went AWOL during the recent security scare.) I tell you, every time a customer comes in and wants to order something that isn't actually in stock with our wholesaler I break into a cold sweat. Mark is much more chilled than me about cock-ups. He says it comes from having spent the last few years trying to sort out software problems with people in Indonesia and the Congo. I'm not quite so convinced this bookselling lark is going to be such an effortlessly pleasant and relaxing way to spend the day as Mark seems to be finding it. But I still reckon I'm going to win our 50p bet on whether his obscure American "persuasion architecture" (don't ask) web marketing book 'Waiting for your cat to bark' book will ever sell. I still reckon I'm better at stock choices than him.


  1. Right, Nicki - you say Mark is better at finding things? OooooKaaaay..... Let him have a go at this one. In 1957, Follett Publishing Company of Chicago published a book by a fellow called Edward Ormondroyd - kidding aside. The book was called David and the Phoenix, and in 1958, the Weekly Reader Children's Book Club in the US brought out its own edition. Should someone - me, say - wish to get hold of a copy, and we turned to your excellent good selves, would you - could you - find us a copy? As if balancing the books isn't challenge enough....

  2. Do you think that your customer was after Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping by Judith Levene, published by Simon & Schuster?

  3. OK Van - I'm sure someone else will post something about this on the blog (and may even hint heavily where you can get it from), but basically we can get it from the USA (The Weekly Reader's Edition was illustrated by Joan Raysor).

    I have to say - this looks a great children's book, and the fact that it was republished only 5 years ago probably says a lot about the quality of the book.

    Email me at if you want us to get hold of this for you...

  4. Thanks for this Stephen - spot on. I'm also bound to say thanks to Jackie who phoned us *35 minutes* after we posted the blog with the same answer - the power of the blogosphere...

  5. Special orders are such a total killer. I agree. After 10 years of dealing with special orders (1985-1995) I finally stopped doing them altogether. I've had eleven years of essentially special-order-free bookselling. When people ask me if I can get something for them, I say, "We don't do special orders." I know that this is appallingly weird. However I just lost the psychic capacity to put up woth those nagging needy special-order-ers. I decided that since I was in high traffic locations anyway, that if I stripped out the cost of doing the S.O.'s and matched these against the income from doing them, they were clearly losing me money.

    Many booksellers argue that you need S.O. business NOT because they make you money directly, but because they ensure a stream of repeat customers (s.o.-book-picker-uppers often buy an extra book on their return visit). I agree that this is true if the location doesn't already provide you with a good customer stream. In which case, the trade-off might be laid out as: Cheaper Location Requiring The Doing Of Special Orders To Guarantee Customer Flow vs. More Expensive Location Non-Requiring the Costly Doing Of Special Orders Since Customers Are Already Flowing Due To Location.

    It's all theoretical of course. We're each locked into decisions we've made already. But we can keep our eyes open for alternate configurations.