What I Learned From The Cat
Do what you do with such zest, that they will want to come again and bring their friends.
~Walt Disney [Paraphrased]
I thought I knew everything about building a business. After all, I had spent an entire career teaching others how to be successful.
So when I fulfilled a lifelong dream of owning a bookstore, it was quite humbling to realize that what I really needed to know about customer service, I learned from my cat.
I wanted the bookstore to have a warm, homey atmosphere where people felt comfortable browsing and spending time.
Soft classical music in the background, the aroma of coffee brewing, stimulating book talk and of course, a cat curled up in an overstuffed chair in the reading corner. I began my search for an adorable kitten who would grow along with our store.
It was February and I soon discovered that due to the cat mating cycle, kittens in February can be scarce. (Who would have dreamed there could ever be a kitten shortage?)
Kittens were whisked from the shelters the day they arrived, and the local pet store had only one -- a scrawny gray Maine Coon with a seeping eye infection. Not quite the mascot I had envisioned.
Because this kitten was also going to be a February birthday gift to my daughter who worked with me, I reluctantly took him, along with a prescription for eye drops.
For days the kitten just slept.
"Great," I thought, as I lifted his eyelids three times a day to insert the drops. But as his infection cleared he showed signs of being the playful Maine Coon described in the cat books on our shelves.
The first thing we did was have a "Name the Cat" contest. Soon a huge jar was overflowing with names from customers and their children.
Because the name of our store was Pages, the entry of Footnote seemed the most appropriate winning choice.
Lesson #1: Participation creates a sense of community.
The day our neighboring merchant, the hardware store, had a sale on earthenware pots, I chose a little round one for my patio. I set it near the front door till I went home.
Footnote approached it cautiously, sniffing and marking. Then he curled into it and blinked his big green eyes at me as if to say, "Thanks. It's a perfect fit." The pot never left the store.
As Footnote grew, the bowls did too. He climbed into each one to accommodate his growing stature. Often he was so curled up so you couldn't see his face, just a mass of gray fur.
Other times he sat up in the bowl, near the front door, in a welcoming posture.
Lesson #2: Customers like to be greeted with a friendly and familiar face.
Soon customers were bringing in their friends and family -- even out-of-town guests -- to see the "Cat in the Bowl."
Although they came in to see him, they usually left with books in hand and a promise to bring yet another friend.
Lesson #3: A clever niche or conversation piece can attract customers.
Our used-book corner was in the back of the store. People brought in used books to trade. When we heard laughing and squealing from that corner, we knew Footnote was jumping in and out of their bags and boxes, often to the children's delight.
Lesson #4: People like to be entertained.
At Friday Night Bedtime Stories, the children wore their pajamas and spread their blankets on the floor while I read to them.
When they started giggling at parts of the story that weren't funny, I saw that Footnote had once again stolen the show by burrowing his way under their blankets and slithering from one child to another like a secret mole.
Lesson #5: Making children happy opens parents' hearts -- and wallets.
When mothers came in with baby carriages, Footnote would gently stretch up on his hind legs, put his paws on the front of the stroller and sniff the baby, often causing them to smile. If a baby or toddler accidentally pulled his furry tail, he patiently let them.
Lesson #6: The customer is always right.
However, if an older child teased him, he often retaliated with a swat.
Lesson #6a: The customer is always right, except when he's old enough to know better.
When we had book discussions, we gathered in a circle and ladies' purses were set on the floor beside their chairs. Footnote often sauntered from reader to reader, choosing the spot he would grace with his presence.
Because he could not resist the curiosity of an open purse, (or open anything) we soon heard him digging and pawing. When his head resurfaced, he had a five-dollar bill in his mouth, which he proceeded to walk away with. He passed on several ones as he dug his way to the five. A cat of discriminating taste.
Lesson #7: Laughter is a great ice breaker and forms a wonderful bond.
One of Footnote's favorite lounging spots was the center aisle of the store where he would lay on his back, all four feet spread wide in the air, causing customers to walk around him. It's been said cats do that only when they have ultimate trust in their surroundings.
Lesson #8: Trust creates customer loyalty, as the following incident proved.
One summer evening, a customer popped in to browse while taking a walk through our strip mall. She didn't have her purse with her, but wished she had when she saw a new release she had been waiting for.
I knew she wanted to start reading it immediately so I encouraged her to just take the book and pay for it the next day. I was confident she would return. (We were, after all, the neighborhood store where everyone knows your name).
She brought the money in the next evening, by which time she had told countless people what a great store we were. What better advertising than word-of-meow, I mean mouth.
As lease payments increased and big chain stores were encroaching, we decided to close this chapter of our lives. We shed many tears with customers (by now dear friends) who told us how much they would miss our store -- and Footnote.
The bookstore was the only home Footnote had known, other than trips home with us on Christmas Day to play in discarded wrapping paper.
Because we were open seven days a week, he probably had more attention than any household pet. When the last book was sold and we locked the door for the last time, my daughter took Footnote home with her.
Today, some fourteen years since we closed our doors, I still run into former customers in our community.
Often the children who came to bedtime stories (now in high school or college) are with their parents. I hear the mother say, "Do you remember how you loved going to Pages bookstore to see the cat in the bowl?"
A lasting lesson: Footnote taught us that a cheerful disposition will leave footprints on many hearts.
Have a great day!