Anyone who has ever worked in a retail establishment of any kind knows that there are times when you have to deal with unpleasant or just plain creepy customers. On one hand, most customers are kind and considerate, and a joy to have in the store. There are the ones who make retail a magical place. But once in a while along comes some character that delights in pushing your patience to the limit. Complaining, demanding, haggling, whining; they just don’t know when to stop. That old adage that “the customer is always right” is total bullshit.
But the ones at the top of my personal “most hated” list of customers are laptop users. I hesitate to even use the word “customer” when talking about these people, because they certainly are not the type of repeat patrons who spend money on a regular basis. Just as all customers are not nasty cheapskates, neither are all laptop users inconsiderate ingrates. Some of the people I see using laptops appear to be polite, sensible folks who are aware of what is going on around them, and now how to use their laptop without disturbing others around them. But the rest of the laptop-clicking masses seem lost in a digital daze, oblivious to the rest of society. I realize that people are more mobile nowadays, and love having their gadgets with them at all times, but the sight of people going into retail establishments and whipping out a laptop seems akin to public masturbation. What compels them to use their laptops in public? I suspect that there is some sort of exhibitionist behavior at play here. Why can’t they do whatever they are doing at home or back at the office? Or don’t they have homes? Perhaps that then is the problem: what we are seeing are simply sad cases of homeless people with nowhere else to go, so they are forced to seek air-conditioned sanctuary in order to fulfill their vital computing needs.
Whatever the reason for their presence, it seems there is no stopping the rising tide of public laptop users. Starbucks and similar establishments that offer free wi-fi are actually encouraging this odd behavior, deeming it “normal” practice to allow someone to hang out for hours at a time without having to purchase anything more than a single beverage. Then again, perhaps that’s why the coffee is so expensive at those joints.
But my bookshop can’t handle this sort of “customer.” We have three floors of books, but each floor is quite narrow and it should be obvious to anyone who steps inside that we aren’t a spacious Borders type of establishment. We have space for exactly one table downstairs and a counter by our front window where an additional two people can sit. We provide these seats for customers who want to take a break and drink some coffee (sorry, our supply of whiskey ran out last month!), or perhaps peruse a book or two before buying. We DON’T provide these precious few seats for people who want to use our shop as their personal workplace or study hall. One woman thought our shop would be a fine place for her to conduct language classes. She had already held three lessons — without ever asking us for permission — until we finally told her it would be better if she held her sessions elsewhere. She appeared offended at our suggestion and never returned. Wow, what a surprise!
But the laptop fondlers are the worst of them all. They act as if they are entitled to takeover any public space and turn it into their very own private domain for whatever length of time that suits their needs, oblivious to any other people who might need to use that same space. The laptoppers will unashamedly sit for hours nursing a single cup of coffee while immersed in their “work,” or whatever the hell they are doing on their precious devices. An hour or two? That’s a short coffee break for these slackers. I’ve seem some of them hole up for five or six hours. But rarely, if ever, do these digital wankers ever buy an actual book. I honestly don’t think they could handle reading something that doesn’t beep back at them.
Places like my bookshop — even though we mercifully do NOT have wi-fi — have become magnets for these cretins. We had a woman in my shop one day last week who sat for over five hours at our downstairs table, methodically pecking away on her laptop, in between fielding phone calls on her mobile. Then this wench had the audacity to ask if we had an electric outlet to recharge her phone. I just smiled and shook my head “No.” It took all I had to refrain from making a truly nasty comment. This past Saturday night we were treated to yet another inconsiderate laptop flasher; a fellow who spent over four hours with his laptop — and the obligatory single cup of coffee — at the front counter. The entire time he alternated between his laptop and a battery of other shiny iGadgets; clicking, fiddling, nodding, twitching. If I hadn’t have announced that “we are closing in five minutes,” I reckon he would have obliviously remained in his digital cocoon for another hour or two. One day last month we hosted a young Thai couple who set up shop at the table, both of them furiously clicking away on their matching laptops and phones for a solid three hours. Hey, who needs conversation when you can share digital table space? Now that’s true romance!
Thankfully, it’s rare that we are subjected to these marathon laptop sessions, so when they do occur it makes it all the more annoying. I fear the situation is only going to get worse as more people start toting around tablets, laptops, iPhones, and other gadgets and commandeering public space for their own selfish needs. It’s just another sign, in my opinion, of the decline of civilized society. Yeah, yeah, all these gadgets are nice and handy — and apparently indispensible for some — but they are also a major contributor to slothful, impolite behavior. It’s time to fight back!