“If you want us to be open on Sundays, you’ll have to do it yourself.”
When I became co-owner of the Acorn Bookshop in January of 1999, the store had been open six days a week, Tuesday through Sunday, and until 8 each evening – a lot of hours to be at the shop.
The founder of the store, Stuart Wheeler, had invited me into business with him because he had just been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer and didn’t want his shop to die with him. He knew of my bookstore background from my weekly visits to his shop since he opened seven years earlier, while I was managing the downtown The Map Store, and later Nickleby’s Bookstore Café just down the street from Acorn. After managing 13 other bookstores, I jumped at the chance to fulfill my life’s dream of having my own bookstore, though regretful of the circumstances that provided the opportunity.
He also knew that I had just returned from a year in Slovakia, where Linda’s second Fulbright had taken us. I had no job and was thinking about perhaps opening my own shop. Until Stuart offered me a partnership.
One of my conditions was that we would close at 7 and not be open on Sundays, unless, as I suggested, he be the one to do it, knowing he couldn’t, but finishing any talk about continuing the unwelcome six days a week schedule. I hadn’t had two days off back-to-back very often in my retail career; in my own store I was going to schedule that perk for myself.
Curiously, during that first year when we cut store hours by 20%, business improved by 25%.
Stuart was able to beat his cancer, but then developed Parkinson’s disease, and has been unable to come to the store for five years, and has been a very silent partner.
In 2000, I hired Norman Knapp to help me out with a big sale Acorn had. He had just retired as a chemist with the Ohio Geological Survey, and was hanging out in the store a lot, browsing and chatting. 10 years later, Norm is still hanging out in the store, getting paid to process all the books we buy. He wipes them down and puts book covers on the dust jackets as needed so that our books are always in the best possible condition. He also packs all of our Internet orders each day while listening to NPR.
The next piece of the Acorn people-puzzle was hiring Christine Hayes in 2002. She had retired back to Columbus after 27 teaching years in the Bay Area. She also goes by the name of Ramona Moon in her art and art-car world, and in some of my stories I call her Moonbeam. She’s the quintessential earth mother, and gets along with everyone. Once I had her help out front, the store really began to do well. She is my right arm.
About the mid 2000s, I came to believe that our business would increase if we did two things: 1/sell books online, and 2/open seven days a week.
When I hired Jack Salling in 2005 to be our Internet specialist, sales jumped dramatically. (See my store-y, “Ernest Hemingway Helped Me Hire a Bookseller”) And in 2009, I decided to search for a weekend bookseller.
I’ve hired hundreds of booksellers in my 45-year career. Most turned out well because of the hour-long (and more) interviews I gave each qualified applicant, even for a $6-per-hour cashier’s job. But since coming to Acorn, most of my employees – including numerous part-time ones – over the years have been hired after having first been Acorn customers, which has worked out very well.
Christine is the exception, however. She worked in another Columbus bookstore and came highly recommended, and I quickly understood why. She has become a vital key to the store’s success.
I wanted to continue the tradition of turning browsers into bookies, customers into cashiers. Knowing a person – even as superficially as in a few commercial transactions – assists in eliminating most surprises.
Christine and I began talking about potential hires among our Acornista base. We considered and discarded perhaps a half-dozen possibilities before settling on affable, energetic Johnerik Wenar, who fit all our needs. We’ve talked with Johnerik before about working with us to sell items on EBay, something he already did professionally, but nothing came of it beyond solidifying our appreciation of him as a great guy.
He appreciated this new concrete offer, which included the opportunity to continue selling his own merchandise on eBay, as well as Acorn’s. He said he would check with his new wife. She decided, however, that he needed to make more money than we could pay and spend less time away from home on weekends.
There were many customers who desired to work at Acorn, but for a variety of reasons we had eliminated them from consideration. Would you want Weird Michael or even Very Weird Michael helping you? No more than I would want Homeless Jonathan breathing on a customer as he made a recommendation of a book that fit into his conspiracy-nut worldview.
During the previous January, a devastating fire two blocks away wiped out an entire block of businesses, but the Z Kuchina restaurant had survived. I was horrified and mesmerized and spent most of that icy Saturday taking many photos during the fire. Some were of the firefighters working to save the restaurant.
Two weeks later, I took a booklet of photos down to give to the owner of the fire-resistant restaurant. While talking with him, I asked how he obtained his employees, knowing that in such a business, there would be a lot of coming and going.
Craigslist.com was his reply, and his recommendation. So I gave it a try.
OUR CRAIGSLIST AD
The Acorn Bookshop is an established secondhand
bookstore in the Grandview neighborhood. We are
seeking a long-term part-time employee to work Sundays and
Mondays from noon to five. The ideal candidate would
be very well read, have an enthusiasm for books,
and the ability to communicate that knowledge and
joy with our customers. It is essential that the bookseller
have the physical strength to lift 30-pound boxes each
day. The ability to work conscientiously and effectively
without supervision is critical. This would be an
ideal situation for a retired teacher or librarian. Pay is
$7.50 per hour..
We had about two dozen responses; some looked very good. Others were the equivalent of door-to-door job-seekers. Many applications evidenced no relation to our stated requirements. Applications frequently said some version of: I can work Sundays for you, but not Mondays. Students replied and said they could work for a couple of months before graduating/moving/getting married, ignoring our stated need for a long-term employee.
People were applying for a job – any job – in this bad economy. Most of the responding emails were deleted after a brief glance; they were so unworthy of consideration. Imagine working with someone wanting to be hired by a literary workplace who typed on her application “”bookstool” instead of bookstore – and didn’t spellcheck it!
We interviewed about a half-dozen Craigslisters, and finally ranked three in order of desirability.
The first was a retired OSU history professor named Warren who we promptly nicknamed “WarrenPeace”. He turned us down because he had found another job as a consultant in his field.
The next day I was about to call the second candidate – a free-lance science-fiction writer – when Christine arrived for work and said intensely, “Don’t hire her! I had a nightmare about her last night!” That was pretty amazing: Christine dreaming about the hiring process at all, let alone in a nightmarish way about a pleasant woman.
I value Christine’s judgment so much that I took her seriously. I didn’t hire Science-Fiction-Woman, though I had preferred her.
Number Three was JoAnn Jones, a high school teacher about to retire, who had interviewed well, and was going to be available when we needed her. She had taught literature and knew books, a good match for a bookseller. I called and invited her to join us. “I would love to be part of the Acorn staff!” she said delightedly.
I sighed with long- anticipated relief.
Excitedly I began to create a new Policy & Procedures Manual to train JoAnn with. The manual became a 57-page beast, dominating my time as I reviewed everything we did in the store, and why we did it that way. Christine took a look at the growing text and quipped, “If you had had that when you hired me, I would have quit immediately!”
Finally JoAnn arrived as Acorn Nut #20. She was scheduled to work full-time the first two weeks so as to see how the store functioned around her as we went page-by-page through the training manual.
Few weeks go by when someone doesn’t ask for a job with us. Some know the desirability of working in a bookstore. Others, mostly young people, canvass the street store-by-store, looking for work. The latter are usually clueless about applying for a job, not even bothering to look around to see what kind of store they’re in to more appropriately chat with us about their interest in working in such a store. The ones most likely to get hired – if we were hiring – would be those who browsed around a bit, and perhaps brought a book or two to the counter before asking about employment. As readers, they would be more desirable to us as potential Acorn Nuts. But to simply bang in the door – not dressed for success, come to the counter, and ask without preamble, “Are you hiring?” in a desultory way is a poor way to impress this potential employer.
During JoAnn’s training one day, a couple of women had been browsing a while. As they checked out, the one who was statuesque and of retirement age asked if we were looking for anyone to work with us.
I pointed to JoAnn, who was on the register, still trying to develop enough skill not to have to labor over every entry into simple machine and said, “You’re a week too late! JoAnn here was just hired to work weekends for us.”
“Oh, that schedule would have been fine for me,” this bookseller wannabe said. “I guess my timing was just a bit off.”
She told us her name, Brahmi, which certainly was memorable, but we didn’t take her number, as we had no reason to, having just hired our long-awaited weekend bookie.
After another week of training, I wasn’t sure that JoAnn was ready to solo on weekends, so I planned to come in with her as backup for a couple of times. I could work in the office or downstairs arranging stock while she dealt with the public alone, as she needed to learn how to do. She did well, and it looked as though we were finally settled in to our new schedule of being open seven days a week.
A few days after her successful debut as our weekend person, JoAnn walked into the store in the middle of a busy weekday afternoon. As soon as I saw her, an alarm went off inside. She didn’t live nearby, and it was just as likely that she was dropping by only to browse as someone walking in with every John Steinbeck first edition, signed and in pristine condition – and donating them to us. I continued helping several customers, knowing that her showing up was not good news.
And it wasn’t. When I got a break, she said that she needed to talk with me. I’ve heard that so many times from employees over the years that it usually means only one thing, and that one thing was not a ticket to Paris. I suggested the office and nodded to Jack that he needed to clear out for a few minutes. He saw JoAnn behind me and quickly did the boot-scootin’ boogie to the back room.
“I hate to tell you this, but I’m not going to be able to continue to work at Acorn,” JoAnn began, near tears.
“I’ve decided that I’m just not ready to go back to work anywhere so soon after retiring from 30 years of teaching. I need a lot more time to myself to relax and golf and…and just hang out, I guess. I wasn’t ready to go back to work, but if I was, this would have been the ideal job for me. I’m so sorry, for I know how hard you’ve worked to prepare for me and for being open on the weekends and I regret that I’ve screwed up your plans.”
Despite my great disappointment, I just went into diplomatic mode: “I’m sorry you’re leaving; you were doing just great; we’ll miss you; thanks for telling me so soon into your employment; and don’t let the door hit you on the butt as you abandon your commitment to Acorn.” The latter was thought but not spoken. Though JoAnn’s reason for resigning was very understandable, it was a pain in the ass after working so hard to get the new program with a new employee up and running.
We shook hands and wished each other well, and I prepared to tell Christine the news. Now that we had announced our 7-days-a-week schedule, we had to stay open whether we had a dedicated weekend employee or not. Which meant that until we replaced JoAnn – which could take some time, Christine, Jack, and I would have to cover Sundays and Mondays, an inevitable, but undesirable, solution.
I gave JoAnn a couple of moments to clear the store before I went back out to find Moonbeam. As I left the office, she was heading back toward me with a smile on her face, which confused me. I knew she had seen JoAnn and probably surmised something amiss, so her smile seemed incongruous, kind of like a bucked-off cowboy grinning as he is about to land on a saguaro cactus.
I motioned for her to come back to the office, that I wanted to tell her about JoAnn’s visit, but she interrupted me by nodding her head and saying, “I know, I know.” Then she excitedly said, “Brahmi’s here!”
“Remember the woman who came by when JoAnn was at the counter and asked for a job?”
I thought back in some confusion as things were happening very quickly, and finally, click! Holy Shit!
Brahmi just happened to come back for the first time since I turned down her interest in working here, and just as the reason I had turned her down had quit?!
Hurriedly Christine and I conferred about the amazing coincidence, and discussed approaching her. “Let’s do it!” we said simultaneously, and out onto the sales floor I went to find one very lucky woman.
Knowing how odd my reason for approaching her was going to sound, I went up to her and first said, “Hi, Brahmi! I’m pleased that you came back to the shop.”
“I love this place!” she enthused. “I hope to come here a lot now that I’ve moved to Columbus. That’s why I was hoping to get a job here.”
“About that job… Would you still be interested in applying for it?”
She asked about the woman who had been just hired.
I shook my head and said, “You won’t believe it, but just a few minutes ago she came in and resigned because she felt that she had started working again too soon after retiring. I was going to have to begin the candidate search again when Christine came back and told me that by amazing coincidence, you were in the store. And if you’re still interested, we’d be glad to interview you right now.”
After a brief pause to check with her friend, she agreed.
By then the store had pretty much cleared out, so we took Brahmi to the bay containing Cookbooks and Transportation for her interview.
“Brahmi” is the female form of Brahma, she informed us. She’s an unusual woman, having moved around the world for a while, a year there, two years here, teaching meditation classes – “Ishaya’s Ascension” classes, while absorbing local culture and metaphysical inclinations. We liked her a lot.
“There are no such things as coincidences,” Brahmi said as she accepted our invitation to join the staff, Christine having had no overnight bad dreams about her.
It’s amazing that she stopped by when she did. Without her phone number, we wouldn’t have been able to contact her. We would have returned to our Craigslist candidates and gone to the next one on our list. Brahmi would have come in and seen another new person behind the counter, and perhaps have learned that the job had come open again, but we didn’t know how to reach her, so it was offered to someone else. Being who she is, she would have shrugged her shoulders and said something to the effect of, “Que sera, sera”.
Brahmi’s been handling our weekends well for several months now, working the weekend shift, bringing in much-needed revenue during this recession with her outgoing and considerate personality. She also fills in an occasional day or two for Christine or me. She has read widely and remembers what she reads. Her conversations with customers about books frequently end up with a sale of a book she’s recommended. Her sense of humor fits well with us Acorn Nuts, and she is very quick on the uptake.
Several of our regulars have complimented me about how customer-service-focused Brahmi is, which is always gratifying to hear about someone running your shop in your absence.
Coincidence or not, we’re pleased that Brahmi Ishaya became Acorn Nut #21 in perhaps a non-coincidental way.