In the close-knit world of independent booksellers, Nicola Orichuia’s tweet struck a chord. Last weekend, Orichuia posted a comment from a customer admonishing the Boston bookseller to improve his communication skills, and reminding him that she was trying to support him over Amazon. It is a familiar trope, and one that has gained public attention amid delays on popular anti-racist titles and a spate of hostile customer e-mails aimed at Black-owned bookstores. Increasingly it is also a kind of needling incivility that booksellers are willing to speak publicly about, breaking with a wall of silence about customer interactions that has largely held up even in an age of social media.
Like thousands of other booksellers, Orichuia has had to transition I Am Books, an Italian focused bookstore in Boston’s North End, to being an entirely digital operation. That process has gone well thanks to customers who have buoyed the businesses with orders from across the globe and supported the store’s successful GoFundMe campaign in March. “The overwhelming majority of our customers have been extremely patient and understanding of the situation,” Orichuia said.
That outpouring of support has been marred by dozens of messages from frustrated customers who have criticized aspects of Orichuia’s business, telling him they expect I Am Books to be as efficient as Amazon. The customer message was the final straw. “Sometimes we take a break on weekends because everything is so darned complicated,” he posted on Twitter. “So if we do not reply to your FB message right away, please do not start pouring your frustrations all over us.”
From Orichuia’s standpoint, one major problem with the comparison to Amazon is that the online retail giant has had significant gaps in efficiency in recent months. “Amazon has said over the last few years, since they launched Amazon Prime, we’re not only efficient, we’re the fastest option and the cheapest option, which doesn’t always translate to the truth. When things got bad [in March] Amazon decided not to send stuff quickly,” he said, referring to Amazon’s decision to deprioritize book shipments at the start of the outbreak.
But with most booksellers relying for the first time on online sales, Orichuia acknowledged that they are in a territory long-dominated by Amazon. “In a lot of people’s minds, when you say online shopping they think Amazon,” he said. It is a challenge that Frugal Bookstore in nearby Roxbury ran into when a flood of more than 20,000 orders for books that were being reprinted by publishers was followed by impatient customer e-mails that prompted the owners to publicly plead for patience and civility.
"We are...receiving a number of disheartening e-mails asking us to cancel orders and refund payments, criticisms about how slow we are and that we have poor customer service because we have not answered e-mail," the owners wrote. "We do hope each and every one of you who has shown us support by purchasing through our website believe we are not accepting your money with the intention to keep it and not send out your orders."
Customer expectations that independent booksellers will do what a massive online operation does has caused deep frustration for Beverly, Mass.-based Copper Dog Books co-owner Meg Wasmer. Prior to coronavirus, most orders were placed in the bookstore, where Wasmer could put her expertise to use right in front of customers, guiding them through decisions that they might never know they have when buying online. She informs them when a hardcover is about to be released in paperback in order to save them money and helps them select the best edition of a book that will arrive fastest for a special order.
“Removing the actual experience of putting a bookseller with a customer has been a challenge,” Wasmer said. “We do this work for a reason and seeing what our industry looks like when we’re not actually involved, and how people buy books is absolutely bizarre.” For instance, since the outbreak began, Wasmer said half a dozen customers have placed orders for print-on-demand books by Mark Twain that they could have bought for a third of the price and received more than a week faster.
Like Orichuia, Wasmer stressed that the vast majority of customers are patient, but when their ordering decisions translate into delays, it has led to angry e-mails. Already feeling the effects of sustained eighty-hour work weeks, Wasmer made the decision to step away. She has posted publicly to social media about her frustration, but her business partner manages the responses to the few e-mails that are confrontational. “People are kind for the most part, once we get on the same page,” she said, “but until there’s that actual bookseller-to-customer interaction I think they forget that we’re real.”
At Print: A Bookstore in Portland, Maine, co-owner Josh Christie follows a few rules to guide his interactions with hostile customers, all of which are rooted in the same practices he follows when his store has been open to browsing. “You can’t control the way other people behave, but you can control the way you act,” Christie said. When customers are upset about delays, he gives them an explanation about what the cause of the delay is, and the timeline for its resolution.
Starting with education is essential, Christie said, because he believes most customers do not know how their books get to a bookstore, let alone why they might be delayed. “Perhaps as booksellers and an industry in general we haven’t done a good job educating customers about what backordered and reprinting mean,” he said.
Still, he noted that there is a line where that conversation moves beyond the point of no return. “I was kind of disabused years ago of the idea that the customer was always right,” Christie said. “Fifteen years of being a frontline bookseller and particularly now as a store owner, I feel that you want to give a good explanation to your customer, but your first responsibility is to your staff. If someone is treating your staff poorly, they’re no longer a customer, they’re an agitator, and you have a responsibility to your staff.”
In Nichola Orichuia’s case, his attempt to take a Saturday away from customer orders to be with his three children only worsened the situation with his impatient customer, who followed the message he shared to Twitter with another that said she would never stop at the store again.
Orichuia emphasized that he does not feel he is beyond reproach with all orders. “We’ve made mistakes,” he said. “But when you say I’m sorry, those are magical words, and 99 out of 100 customers say, ‘Don’t worry, I totally understand.”
“In this case though,” he said, “it didn’t resolve amicably."