There’s a wonderful secondhand bookstore in my neighborhood that I’ve browsed and shopped for at least seven years. The frequency of my visits qualifies me as a Regular Customer. Yet every time I walk in, the proprietors regard me as if they (A) have never seen me before and (B) merely tolerate my presence. The greetings, which I initiate, are met with a darting of the eyes and a hasty, barely audible “hi.” Having consistently observed them treat other customers this way, I view it as their quirky little pathology and don’t take it personally.
But it bothers me enough to write about it.
My favorite local greeting card shop, a funky, cheerful place, is run by people who—no matter how many times you come in—will greet you with indifference or wariness, and sometimes a withering combination of each. I’ve never considered myself a suspicious-looking person. In fact, some have commented that I look like a grown-up Opie of Mayberry. And still I get the once-over.
(Note: As a Caucasian, I realize that I am able to write about this casually with a sense of bemusement; for black and brown skinned people, being treated as objects of an establishment’s distrust is an insult of far greater magnitude, occurring for many on a distressingly daily basis. My issues pale in comparison.)
My friend Bob shares my disappointment in the state of merchant hospitality. He recently told me about a camera store he had patronized for over a decade in which the owner never bothered to learn his name or acknowledge him as a familiar face. Deciding that it was no longer okay to feel invisible and unappreciated, Bob eventually took his business elsewhere, a move he admits was overdue.
Bob and I have expressed our mutual bewilderment at how any business owner could fail to understand the importance of hospitality. Why do so many seem unable to express in words or attitudes, “Thanks for coming in! Glad that you chose our business and not our competitors’! I’d like to you to feel good about spending your money here. You are the reason we’re here at all, and it’s my pleasure to help you enjoy the experience so you’ll tell others about it.”
If you’re snickering at the preceding paragraph, perhaps it’s because you too have come to expect indifference. This is why experiences of genuine hospitality stand out. Whenever I visit my sister in Eugene, Oregon, I’m struck by the consistent friendliness of the people in service roles. Eye contact, greetings, and smiles appear to be the norm. After a sixteen-year-old grocery bagger engaged me in light conversation one morning, I exclaimed to my sister, “Talking teenagers? You do live in a magical place!”
I doubt the bagger’s hospitality is something he picked up in a customer service seminar. The kid just gets it. He likes people, finds them worthy of respect. He’s comfortable in his own skin, unafraid of human interaction. He may even feel a personal investment in the store, and care about its success.
In Tarot terms, the bagger embodies the essence of THE LOVERS —not the romantic, sexual aspect of the archetype, but the part that informs our ability to focus on people other than ourselves, to connect with our fellow human beings through a core sense of commonality, relatedness, and goodwill.
I’m not saying that hospitable people can’t be found outside of Eugene, Oregon (there’s a postal clerk in my neighborhood who makes Disney theme park characters look inattentive). Nor do I propose that introverted shopkeepers be denied their business licenses. I’m just asking for a little more of their notice, a little engagement. I want merchants to act as if giving them my business makes a difference. If THE LOVERS offers the gift of recognition and appreciation, wouldn’t it be nice to find more of them behind cash registers?
29 Apr 2009 Paul Quinn