Last Day For Returns

The following scenes depict my experiences conducting practice field research at a local bookstore, and are compiled from my field notes.


My fellow researchers and I met at a local bookstore on a Tuesday evening, planning to study the locals. We had a short meeting before we began, where we discussed the specifics. There seemed to be several different sub-cultures within the store, and it seemed best to divide ourselves among the different groups in order to maximize our efficiency. After some discussion, it was decided that I would be focusing on the employee-customer interactions. My goal was to gain some understanding of the rituals and customs that dictated the relationships between those who worked in the store, and those who merely came there to shop.

After wandering for a time in search of interactions (at first finding none), I decided to settle in wait while observing the lone cashier who sat at the register. She was an African American woman in her late 30s or early 40s, with glasses and short hair she had pulled back away from her face. She wore a black sweatshirt and a scarf, which seemed strange to me at first. The other employees I had observed had nametags, and those in the cafe wore green aprons that marked them as employees. The cashier, however, was dressed entirely in civilian clothing. If not for her position behind the register, I never would have realized she worked here.

I stood behind a table full of books, trying to act like a casual shopper while I watched and waited for a customer to arrive. While she was waiting, the cashier kept her head down, and she seemed to be reading or texting with a smartphone that was out of sight behind the counter. When a customer finally arrived, the cashier was short and to the point. She rang up his purchase and placed it in a bag while he swiped his card through the reader mounted on the counter. In less than a minute the transaction was complete, and the cashier said, “Thanks.” She then returned to her texting before the customer had exited the building.

I wandered off for a time since there didn’t seem to be much action at the register. I swung by the information desk and saw two young men there, talking. They both wore nametags, however, marking them both as employees. My goal was to observe interaction with a customer. I abandoned the information desk and moved over to the cafe to explore that area. A young man and a young woman were behind the counter, chatting while they cleaned and restocked the supplies. No customers.

It wasn’t long after this that I realized in order to see any customer interactions, I was going to need to create a customer.


After several more failed attempts at finding any interaction, I returned to the cashier and found another of my fellow researchers, Veronica, lingering nearby. Like me, she was hanging back and not directly interacting with anyone. I told her about my concerns, how I didn’t know how I was going to observe any customer interactions if there weren’t any customers. We discussed it for a short time, before Veronica decided to take matters into her own hands.

“I’m going to go talk to her,” she said.

I decided to observe from a short distance away while she approached the cashier and struck up a conversation. It didn’t take long for the cashier to guess at our purpose, at which point she declared that she could tell us all about what really goes on in the bookstore.

The first thing she told us was that the store was cold. She waved a hand at the tall windows behind her and said, “These windows are not insulated.” The then began complaining that the windows in the manager’s office are insulated, which she said was not very fair. Due to the cold, which was made worse every time someone opened the doors right next to the register, she said she had to wear “this,” and gestured to her sweatshirt and scarf.

Veronica continued asking her about what the store was like. “I’ve been here so long,” the cashier said. “I’ve worked here so long. Each semester gets worse.”

She told us that she had been working for the same bookstore chain for several years, but had only transferred to the college bookstore a few semesters back. She had been there long enough, however, to develop some opinions about the college-aged customers who frequented the store.

“How do these kids get into college?” she asked, shaking her head. She then started listing some of the common issues she had with the college customers. “Do you not know when we return books?” she asked.

I looked up at the register and saw a sign mounted there, where it would be in plain view of any customers that approached. It read, in bold black lettering, “Last Day For Returns is 1-27-14.”

Despite the sign, and the stickers placed on the books listing the last day for returns, the cashier said many students come in after the deadline, trying to return their books. She explained how some students will purchase a $200 book before class starts, which sometimes includes a plastic-wrapped set of books and CD-roms. The stickers on the plastic-wrapped packages instruct students not to open them until they are certain they won’t need to return them, since opened packages cannot be returned.

“They clearly don’t read directions,” the cashier said. “And we gave them dang near two weeks. Then kids come in on the 9th [of February], ‘I wanna return my book.'” She also said some of the kids get an attitude, or bring their parents in to argue. “It’s not even the kids – it’s the parents.” One student, she said, even tried to return a book he had purchased the previous semester. She told us how the kid’s father had argued with her about it until she explained to him that the book was from last year.

“Students have no common sense,” she said.


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