Monthly Archives: June 2017

A Mad Dash Down the Aisle

I was trying to keep up, but it was not easy.  My mentor and boss, Clara, was showing me the ropes of my first Christian Booksellers Trade Show (nearly twenty years ago now) and I was exhausted.  We had been going from publisher to publisher placing orders, looking at new books and quickly moving on to our next appointment.  Somehow, we visited and placed orders with eighty different vendors that week.  In preparation for this trade show, Clara had spent considerable time reviewing catalogs, checking in-store inventory and preparing orders.  It all seemed so time consuming and overwhelming.  The trade show itself extended over an area larger than several football fields put together and just getting from one appointment to the next could give you a good work out.  Was all of this really necessary?

As the years flew by, I became the manager of the bookstore, installed new technology, read extensively about best practices and attending training seminars and workshops.  We began using the internet to look up product information and place orders and learned about the benefits of just-in-time inventory.  One of our distribution partners was located in the same state and we had the great fortune of being able to place orders by 4PM and got next day delivery and free freight.  If our primary book distributor did not have something in stock, we simply cascaded the order to another distributor and never had to deal with the book publisher at all.  Who needed product catalogs and long meetings with reps if you could look everything up on a website?  Efficiency was king.  We were dashing into the future.

Over time, we got really good at using our technology.  The young people we hired learned our systems quickly and even taught us “older folks” a thing or two.  Then it happened.  So much change had happened in such a reasonably quick period of time from when I had first started that I didn’t notice it at first.  One day I was listening to one of our team members helping a customer and it became clear there was a disconnect.  The customer has asked for a particular book by a well-known author of the past and this team member had never heard of it.  She offered to do a quick product search on the computer and nothing came up right away.  Without blinking an eye, my colleague turned to the customer and said, “I’m sorry, it doesn’t look like we can get that book for you.”  Since I had been trained by Clara many years before never to give up that quickly when helping a customer, I offered to do some research and get back to her.  We called the publisher of the book and learned that the book was still in print, but had a slightly different title and a new ISBN number.   At that moment, it struck me that maybe this was not our first customer that had been disappointed by our technology.

When that light-bulb went on, I began to listen and observe our customer interactions more and more and realized that we were frequently defaulting to what was available in the system.  This was also true for the way that we ordered.  We simply allowed this wonderful technology to tell us what had sold well in the past, what we were currently out of stock of and what was a suggested order.  While this does work pretty well, it does not account for new items that we had never had in stock before or unique items our customers wanted that were not in the system at all.  Something had to change.  We had to become curators again and not simply good technologists.  In fact, it was time to embrace the lessons of the past.

Abandoning the technology was not the solution, but using it differently was.  We needed to take time to meet with vendors again, learn from their vast product knowledge and then apply our store metrics and systems to their suggestions.  More importantly, we had to find way to become great booksellers again.  This would involve actually reading new books that were being suggested to us, listening to customer recommendations, becoming detectives to discover “the next big thing” and reading blogs and on-line book reviews on a regular basis.  Then we had to share our stories again.  I remembered how Clara used to rave about particular books and authors she loved and how those moments impacted our customers.  That needed to become our reality as well.  A simple question like, “What are you reading right now?” became a great conversation starter with our teammates and customers.

As I head to the International Christian Retail Show in Cincinnati in a week, I am looking forward to interacting with the next generation of bookstore owners and managers and encouraging them to follow this path.  While most will not be placing eighty orders and the trade show floor is considerably smaller these day, the lessons of the past still hold.  We need strong partnerships with our publishers if we are going to run successful Christian bookstores.  We need to be more committed than ever to be subject matter experts that are “ready in season and out” to help make life changing recommendations to our customers and to love what we are doing as we open the doors every day.

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Peace at Last

We watched in silence as the man and woman in white Naval uniforms folded the flag.  I had never seen anything like this and had never been to a military funeral before.  Bob Hornish, who had served his country faithfully in the 1940s, was being laid to rest and being given full military honors.  They folded the flag with such precision it was as if their life depended on it and they gave it to Bob’s oldest child and his only son.  This was a moment of honor and recognition that I will not soon forget.

Bob is my brother’s father-in-law and a very generous person.  He was a man who led by example and would not want people to know all the kind things he had done.  After leaving the military, he became a school teacher for his entire professional career.  As a committed believer, he made his local church, New Hyde Park Baptist in New York the nexus of his life.  It seems like there were very few tasks that he did not perform as a volunteer over the years.  Whether it was on the mission’s committee, serving as a deacon or working with the curriculum for Sunday school, he was always doing something to support the church and its growth.

I had the privilege of attending Bob’s memorial service the night before the burial and was deeply impacted by the people that shared about his impact on their lives.  Everyone from the janitor to a young man who grew up on the same street where Bob lived told of his love of life, love of his family and love for God and his church.  Over the years since my brother married his daughter, I had met Bob several times.  I cannot say that I knew him well, but what I did know, I liked.  He doted on his grandkids as if they were his own and took a genuine interest in others.  He wanted to get to know my family and even sent us gifts on occasion to support us in our missionary endeavors.

As the preacher spoke about Bob at the memorial service, my mind was drawn to a particular verse in 1 Thessalonians about how we are instructed to live our lives,

and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, 12 so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody

Bob did work with his hands a lot as model trains were both a hobby and passion for him.  You could not know Bob and not know about his love of trains.  His life was not always easy, but he faced his trials with a quiet confidence and faith that was an example to others.  At the memorial service, it was clear that a few “outsiders” were in attendance and it struck me that Bob’s life was not lived in vain.  Every day he lived, he did so as an example of leading a quiet Godly life and in death he left a legacy of faithfulness that will live on long after he is gone.

In an age when it seems that everyone is trying build a bigger and bigger social media platform (myself included), Bob chose a different path.  He didn’t care about a public persona and actually shunned the limelight.  Instead, he plugged away at the tasks that God had given him – loving others well.  The outpouring of love at his memorial service demonstrated that he had done his job well and could finally find his “peace at last”.

 

 

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