The Delicate Dance of the Damaged Book

Shortly before closing time this evening I had to dust off my diplomatic skills and try to get a parent to pay for a book damaged by her child. Needless to say, this is one of my least favorite parts of the job. It’s so unsavory that it has become something I bring up during job interviews to make sure that a potential hire has the stomach to do it when necessary.

I’m sure there are some people to whom this kind of situation is no big deal. But I am very shy about approaching people in any context, plus I hate confrontation, plus as the business owner I have a vested interested in achieving the optimal outcome: customer pays for damaged item but without feeling the least bit embarrassed or offended, so that he or she will not hesitate to return to shop another day. That can be a hard goal to achieve in a sticky situation like this, made even stickier by the fact that “these days” everyone is feeling a financial pinch already.

A woman came into the store with her two small sons, a toddler and a preschooler. She grabbed some books to read to the older child and settled everyone into the reading nook at the front of the store while Dad went to find an ATM and feed the meter. As I’m going about my business behind the counter I hear the mom reading a book about trains, then a book about being green, then I hear a certain tell-tale crumpling sound and look over the side counter to see the mom putting a dust jacket back on a picture book and glancing furtively (it seems) at me.

First off, I need to find out if the book was indeed damaged, preferably without coming out and asking, because that might put the customer on the defensive. I walk over that way and straighten up the fixture next to the spinner where Mom is putting away the books she was just looking at. I pick up the train book she just put away (there was only one copy of this title in stock) and, sure enough, the dust jacket is a mess. I pick it up and ask the customer gently if the book looked like this when she picked it up, knowing darn well it didn’t. Luckily, she admitted right away that it didn’t–that her baby had stepped all over it before she could stop him. I sighed and told her, “Well, the thing is, I won’t be able to sell this book now that it’s in this condition.”

 “Well, I suppose I can buy it.”

I thanked her and followed up with a statement about how this is my business and I personally had to pay for the book and can’t afford to lose money like that. (Her offer was very reluctant, as if she was hoping that I would say “Oh no, don’t worry about it.”) For some families that might have been what is known as a teachable moment, but the child who walked on the book was too young to really grasp any of it, and I’m not sure that the mom did, anyway.

I am very grateful that this customer did own up to the accident and pay me for the damaged book, but I have to say I’m disappointed that she was apparently not about to say or do anything about it until I approached her. I also find it odd that, after the book had been paid for, she continued to look around and then, holding up a different book, asked “Do we have to take that book or can it be a different one?”

I explained (again) that the problem was that no one would want to buy a crumpled up book from me, so yes she needs to pay for the damaged one. She nodded and said. “Oh, I understand,” but something about her expression made me think that she still might not. Oh, well… at least I didn’t lose money and the customer didn’t lose face… and if nothing else was learned, I’m sure that the baby will be watched more closely in the next store they visit!

Published in: on June 10, 2010 at 10:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

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