THE BLUE CHAIR
Our walls were naked when we opened our doors. We’d used our bare hands to erect them. We’d jammed our knees, hammered our fingers, hung and focused lights. We’d twisted our backs in pretzel shapes to position the counters in one direction, then changed our minds and shifted them in another. We’d run the cables, fixed the outlets and rehung the doors. I thought I’d never get the drywall out from under my fingernails. We were armed with a cash register we weren’t sure how to use, computers not yet filled with the weight of useless information and a telephone that we stared at longingly.
No matter how much product you acquire for a new store, it never seems enough. It’s amazing how many books it takes to fill a bookcase. How many toys a hook can hold. It’s impossible to fill four enormous walls with decoration, much less items up for sale. But we maneuvered and shifted it all just so. Just enough to look like we were a store and not someone’s brand-new living room.
The space seemed vast. Cavernous. We’d subscribed to the motto “stock one of everything, not multiples of one.” But how do you choose which “one” is the right one? When we were lucky enough to make a sale, I’d rejoice! Then, I’d stare at the hole that had been made on the shelf and torment myself with what to fill it with.
Everyone has bookshelves. Everyone has counters with registers on them. Everyone has comic books on the walls. It was clear that we needed something special. We needed something that defined us. We needed something that distinguished us from the other stores in our town. We needed a touchstone that held some magic in it. We needed…
A blue chair.
It wasn’t much of a chair, as chairs go. It was soft and comfy. It was made of some vinyl fabric that was durable and easy to clean. It had a footrest that accompanied it. It made a squishy, airy sort of sound when you sat in it. And it was blue.
My partner had taken on the role of “hunter.” He’d sifted through catalogues for interesting fixtures and driven all over town poking and prodding and testing anything that might be a good fit for our new home. But it was his wife that had discovered it. They’d visited a vintage furniture store one afternoon and it had called out to her amid all the other `50s retro sundry. She’d had a vision about it living in the front of our store and bought it at once.
I’ll admit that I was more than a little skeptical. I wasn’t a big fan of furniture in a store, and I was working so hard to move away from that fresh, clean “living room” smell that seemed to drift over me every morning when I opened. But it was a woman’s intuition and I knew better than to argue with that and risk angering the retail Gods.
So, the blue chair took up its place in the front window and its legend began.
It didn’t seem to have any dramatic effect at first. It was just another piece of furniture filling a hole on our sales floor. As with every fixture in our store, it was a grand experiment. One of many puzzle pieces that could stay or go or change position. You’ve got to pay attention to your fixtures at all times in retail. Each one has a life of its own and each one has its own goal to achieve. So, I kept my eye on the blue chair and kept my expectations low.
One of my concerns was that folks would come in to buy a book, sit down in the cozy chair in the window, read it from cover to cover and not make a purchase. I’d devised time limits for customers overstaying their welcome. I carefully scripted lines asking customers to politely refrain from staying all day to read instead of making their purchases. Ways to tastefully convey the differences between our store and their local library (or Barnes & Noble, for that matter).
Surprisingly, I never found it necessary to say any of those things to my customers. They came to buy their books and read them in the comfort of their own homes. They came to communicate about their reading experiences, not isolate themselves in a chair and tune out their surroundings.
But there were scores of people who wanted exactly that. A place to tune out, to isolate, to pass the time. The “Companions.”
Wives, Girlfriends, Husbands, Mothers, Children, Grandparents, Aunts, Uncles, Friends.
All of the many people who accompany the rabid comic-book fan on their regular visits to their “local.” More often than not, these victims consider it a necessary evil to be endured for their loved one. It’s usually done in trade for something they enjoy that the other finds torturous. A negotiation. I do something for you. You do something for me.
The area where the blue chair resided hadn’t turned into a place where rabid fans could wile away the hours reading instead of buying. It had become a waiting room!
Wives would come in, faces ashen at the prospect of another half an hour of tedium while their husband did his shopping. Mothers would rub their eyes, exhausted at the mere idea of what their children were about to put them through.
Then, they would see the blue chair. The skies would open, their eyes would light up, and, like an old Bugs Bunny cartoon, they’d practically float into it. Relaxed, calm, serene. They loved me for it. And my customers loved me for providing their companions with a place to relax while they got to enjoy their hobby without hearing the constant ticking of the clock.
I watched as they stared lazily out onto the boulevard. I took notice as they casually made their phone calls. I listened to the bells and whistles of the handheld video games. I was happy to provide something for the friends and families of my customers.
Time passed and our store grew. The shelves filled out and the walls spread with product for sale. We brought in new fixtures and expanded the type of items we carried. Our traffic became steadier, which meant more companions. More non-customers needing comfort while their loved ones did their shopping.
One day, I glanced over and spied the wife of one of my regular customers drop into the soft cushion of our faithful blue chair. She casually reached into her purse, pulled out a paperback novel, kicked her feet up and began to read. She read the entire time her husband shopped and never once called out to him “are you almost done?” (A ritual that occurred with most waiting companions.) As I rang my customer up, he said to me “She loves coming here with me now. Gives her time to catch up on her own reading.” When it came time to go, she put her bookmark in place and happily rose to leave.
I had to set an experiment in motion. This is what I love about what I do. To me, it’s a science. The science of shopping. Putting together a mixture of product, placement and customer and watching the drama unfold.
We immediately subscribed to Entertainment Weekly Magazine. Every week, we plopped down the latest issue on the footrest of the blue chair. And like hungry sharks, they read them. Cover to cover until they were beaten and battered and the new issue was put out.
Within a few weeks, companions began to expect the new issue. They’d come into the store, make a beeline for the blue chair and look forward to the latest Hollywood news. I was so fascinated by this new behavior that I started yet another experiment. I took the magazine away. Two weeks without a new issue caused irritation. Three weeks caused a full-scale revolt. Companions were actually coming to the counter and asking where the new Entertainment Weekly was and why it had disappeared from its usual home.
The folks in the waiting room wanted something to pass the time. They wanted something to stimulate their imagination instead of staring at their watches. They wanted to read! Their desire was not so different from their loved ones who took such pleasure in every issue they held in their hands. If their desires were the same, why then can’t they share the same reading choices?
So out came FABLES. I placed the first trade paperback of Bill Willingham’s remarkable series out on the blue chair and stood transfixed by the petrie dish I’d created.
At first, they ignored it. Obviously, it was something some customer had left behind. It wasn’t nearly as interesting as Entertainment Weekly. This sort of thing belonged to their loved ones and wasn’t their taste at all.
But time passes. And it passes more quickly when you’ve got something to read. Eventually, they’d break down and crack open the front cover. Page one. Page two. Page three. Hooked!
I’d watch as their body language changed. As they slowly relaxed into the blue chair. As their feet went up and their defenses came down. As fascination grew and laughter reluctantly bubbled up.
Week after week, they sat in the chair and picked up where they last left off. It was a story and they needed to see how it unfolded. My customers were baffled by the new conversations they were having with their companions. They were actually leaving the comic-book store and talking about comics with one another. There were questions being asked. Embarrassed interest expressed.
One day, a customer was at checkout. Our transaction was almost done when his wife appeared by his side. She had brought over the copy of Fables and set it on the counter.
“I want to buy this,” she said.
“You…you…you want to buy something?” my customer stammered. Shock! Disbelief!
She replied, “I’m tired of getting little bits and pieces and having to get back into the rhythm of it every time we come. Might as well just take it home and finish it there.”
Again, the stammering reply “I just…I can’t…you want to buy this?”
Then the anger kicked in. The resolve. The pride. “Yes, I want to buy this. I read too, you know!”
Thus, new comic-book readers were born.
The blue-chair days were strange. Sometimes funny, sometimes frustrating and always surprising.