Fairs | March 2010 | Christopher Lancette

Five seconds is all it takes ...

WASHINGTON -- Everyone who runs a business knows that it takes a long time to win a customer for life but that you can lose one in five seconds. That's about all it took today for an organizer of the Washington Antiquarian Book Fair to tempt me to cross it off the list of events I support. Worse, it could kill the interest in the entire hobby for a visitor who took home her first rare books.

I hope the experience I share today along with two other mistakes organizers made serve as reminders for WABF and of any fair to remember the basics of solid customer communications.

What happened?

My friend Won-ok and I had finished our shopping around 3 p.m. today after we spent five hours shopping. We bought a ton of treasures. One of the volunteers with Concord Hill School -- the Maryland school that organizes the fair as a fundraiser -- nastily told us that "You can't have all those bags." She was referring to the grand total of three that another hard-working volunteer had filled with our goods. The woman then snatched some contents from one of our bags and overloaded them in the other two. 

It was a shocking display of rudeness that left me biting my tongue to avoid lashing back. 

My experiences to date with every single Concord Hill School volunteer had been nothing but outstanding. This event, by the way, is the first fair I ever attended and its friendly, helpful volunteers played a key role in giving me my seemingly incurable rare book collecting fever. 

But today I was ticked. The fair would close in only two hours, more empty bags were on the table, and I was standing there with piles of books in hand.

"Excuse me," I wanted to say, "I just spent a thousand dollars on books that I'd rather not have crash onto the ground in the parking lot. I think you can spare another two-cent bag."

The volunteer was oblivious to how she sounded and made no effort to soften it the way people do when they realize they've been rude. I knew it wasn't my imagination, either. The volunteer standing next to the first looked horrified. She recognized the need to administer  some emergency room customer service and was sweet as pie. 

I stood frozen for a minute longer. I reflected on the otherwise delightful time I had over the past two days and how much I love the books -- and etchings -- I bought. "It's certainly not the book dealers' fault this volunteer was so rude," I thought. "Don't form your opinion of the fair based on the last five seconds."

Still, this wasn't the first ball organizers dropped this week. They stated on the Web site that there would be lectures by book dealers (there were none), and a request for additional information sent through the site went unreturned.

I chose not to say anything to the rude volunteer. Won-ok and I got in my car and pulled out of the garage. She is a lot more understanding than I am so it didn't even occur to me that she might have been irritated, too.

"You know," she began, softly -- knowing how much I love book collecting and how much I had talked about the WABF -- "That was pretty interesting for my first time. I enjoyed it, actually. But I didn't like being treated like that. It kind of leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth."

I cringed. 

Even though they were well out of earshot, I suspected about 75 book dealers did, too.