Saturday, August 7, 2010

Getting to Little Rock--an Unpleasant Trip turns Pleasant at the 11th Hour (Yes, Literally)

I'm on the first of several weekend trips, which I guess constitutes vacation. The first is a visit to Hot Springs Village for a 50th anniversary party. We took an unnamed airline to Little Rock, through Atlanta. It reminds me how bad service can be in the modern age.

First our initial flight to Atlanta was cancelled, and we were automatically rebooked. Then the connecting flight was cancelled. Then the next connecting flight was three hours late to leave. Then our luggage showed up on a different flight a half hour later. We were not flying budget, having put almost $500 per person into these flights.

The killer was that at no point along the way could we get us to tell us anything. "Go to the machine! Go to the machine!", every employee gestured. Admittedly, they were all very short staffed, and for some reason, an outfit of jeans and tee shirts didn't make them any friendlier, despite the probably convincings of a paid consultant.

I'm not singling out this airline. I had two different trips to the east coast in the last three months, filled with cancellations, no explanations, and my favorite, false apologies. That's when you say "I'm sorry" with sort of a sneer, or after all the problems, the admittedly under-pressure phone operator tries to convince you that the service was great.

When I talk to these folks, I immediately say, "I know this is not your doing. I know you have no control over this", but the key is that you will never ever talk to someone who makes the decisions. It really makes me never want to travel again, which is good for all my customers at Boswell, I guess. (And no, I'm not bragging about the incredible service at the bookstore. I know we have our issues. I forgot to reassign someone to check our info address when our regular went on vactaion. My bad! But still, nothing as bad as what I just went through.)

There was one highlight, of course, and it turned not to be the infomercial for a classic collection of L. Ron Hubbard's short stories at one of the bookstores, being piped out in five minute intervals. There were a lot of bookstores or bookstore equivalents at the Atlanta terminal. I'm not sure who was "hosting them", despite being under various nameplates. I felt bad for the seafood restaurant who gave us an atrocious overpriced meal. It was an airport franchise, but after that meal, I would never, ever, ever eat at one of their actual restaurants.

No, browsing the airport bookstores was not a highlight.

No, it was looking over, in our 12th hour on the road, and seeing, in a sea of uninteresting very commercial novels and ebook readers (yes, some, but not as many as I expected), a copy of Bo Caldwell's The Distant Land of My Father. It reminded me that even though Caldwell is every other thing my Nancy B. (one of my favorite regulars) and I talk about, I still haven't read her new book coming in late September, City of Tranquil Light. Yes, it's another China novel!

So I thought, "Why not?" and asked the woman how she was enjoying the book. S. told me that she had read a bunch of bad books in a row and the person at her favorite bookstore, WordsWorth Books and Co. (it's on our short list of must visits) said, "It isn't new but I love it so much and you have to read it." Where do I find that bookseller?

We then had this wonderful 20 minute conversation of books we love and those we didn't (S. hated Middlesex, but she wrote down The Lonely Polygamist anyway. It's not that similar, just a hook for me really, especially because the thing that made Eugenides difficult was some of the factual errors in the science. I know how that is, having just read a book where the author has someone go from Madison to Chicago by train. Why not bus? Why not bus? There is a bus!) and S. came away with a page of book recs, and we came away with some restaurant suggestions.

When S. told me how much she liked Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I convinced her to move The History of Love (event with Nicole Krauss at Boswell on 10/27)to the top of her pile (she already had it!) and then of course, told her to run out and buy (order in) Frederick Reiken's Day for Night. She might wait till paper, but I think, after our conversation, that she will trust me and buy it from WordsWorth.

It made the whole trip worthwhile. Note to airline personnel. If things are going particularly badly for me, find your best reader and get me involved in a conversation. I'll forgive just about anything after that.

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