Buck Stops Here: Why is courtesy so unexpected?

The Fourth of July was once a weekend full of fireworks, fun and family traditions. But ever since we opened our Civil War store in Gettysburg, Pa., “the Fourth” has taken on a new meaning. For those of you in the dark, the horrendous Battle of Gettysburg was fought the first three days of July. Hence, the Reenactment of the Battle takes place over the Fourth of July weekend, drawing thousands of tourists to watch “soldiers” recreate the battle. When the fight is over, the hoards hit the streets.

The Buck Stops Here by Melanie Thomas

Last year, at least 1,000 folks traipsed through our doors during this three-day boon. Normally a blitz of foot traffic so huge brings an energizing hum to our nervous systems and cash box, but by the third day, we were ready to bar the doors.

We couldn’t take it anymore. Young children ran amok with sticky, Italian-iced fingers while their parents, oblivious to the mayhem, admired either the sparkling jewels in the display cases or the museum-quality rifles hanging from gun racks on the walls, failing to keep an eye on their over-stimulated, under-disciplined kids. By the end of the third day, we were exhausted, irate and exasperated.

So when the weekend of the Reenactment rolled around again this year (has it really been 12 months already?), we were prepared. We called in for reinforcements: our part-timer who makes her full-time living as a sergeant in the U.S. Army. She knows her way around guns and boisterous men, so we knew she’d be a great help during the upcoming onslaught.

Armed and ready, we unlocked the doors. And as so often happens, if you open, they will come. And come they did. Only this time, they were nice. Polite. Courteous, even.

What happened?

Why was this year so different from last year? Heck, why was this weekend so different from last week?

Read more:Antiques dealers must adapt more than inventory to stay relevant

Just a few days before, a phone call came in from a young man who had coveted a diamond ring in our display case the previous March. That’s right, March from more than 100 days ago. During that visit, he said he’d call me back within two weeks with a credit card number to place the coveted ring on layaway. In the meantime, he asked me to “hold” it for him.

I asked for a $50 deposit to “hold” the $1,700 diamond ring. He didn’t have $50, but stressed he would send the deposit money in two weeks.

It was March. We weren’t exactly fighting off the customers. I agreed to hold the ring until the end of the month, sans deposit. What can I say? I’m a soft touch for young lovers.
Time passes quickly during tourist season.

Fast forward to late June and out of the blue, the same young man calls. He informs me he is ready to buy that diamond ring, right now, this very minute. He fails to realize or chooses to ignore the fact that he’s about three months late.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I sold that ring about 10 days ago.”

The conversation suddenly took a turn – a nasty turn. I found myself on the wrong end of the receiver, being berated for not having the ring, because I had promised to hold it for him.

I reminded him of the three month time lapse and that he was supposed to have sent a deposit. He wouldn’t listen; he didn’t care.

His response to my explanation? “I have to have that ring now!” he yelled.

Apparently, he was getting married in six weeks and had waited until the last minute to cough up a ring. After rubbing my ear and still determined to be helpful (and make a sale), I suggested he peruse our website and look at the other engagement rings.

“I’ve already done that,” he shouted yet again.

Nothing on our website suited him. Struggling to stay calm under this verbal assault, I informed him I was attending two large shows over the next few weeks and would try to find him a suitable ring. The response to this suggestion was, “I don’t have a few weeks! I need that ring now!”

Again with the “now!” Excuse me for trying to be helpful and pardon me for not holding a diamond ring for months without a deposit. “Stick a fork in me,” I thought, “I’m done.”
My warm and fuzzy feelings for the young lover evaporated. I asked the young man to take his business and attitude elsewhere.

Customers who had overheard my end of this frustrating conversation chuckled. “Did you forget to tell him you’re in the business to sell jewelry, not keep it?” someone yelled from across the room. Another guy asked me where the kid got off expecting me to hold a ring for months without a deposit. Where, indeed? The old expression, “No good deed goes unpunished,” flitted through my head.

The very next day one of our regular customers called, using a stiff and formal tone. She wanted to make an “appointment” because she had “something very serious to discuss.” Great. The only thing this woman ever gets serious about is whether she should wear a bracelet with a brooch or skip right to the earrings.

She arrived on time, lips pursed. Her appearance brings to mind a little bird, a sparrow perhaps, because she is a tiny slip of a thing and always wears shades of taupe or gray. Today was no exception.

She pulled out a bracelet she’d bought from me about 12 months ago. That’s right, you read correctly, 12 months past. Did she have a receipt? Of course not.The sparrow said she wasn’t happy with her purchase and that she wanted to return it.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I don’t think the stone is a real amethyst,” she replied.

“Did a gemologist look at the stone?” I inquired.

“No, but it just doesn’t seem right,” she responded.

Well, how can I argue with that logic?

Without a receipt or inventory number, neither one of us could recall how much she had paid for the item in question. Besides, she informed me, she’d never worn it. I wondered if she thought that mattered somehow and justified the return.

I guesstimated the purchase price and gave her a full store credit. Knowing the sparrow’s pattern of behavior, I then pulled out every antique bracelet in stock. After 45 minutes of deliberation and repeatedly asking her husband, “Which one do you like,” and he wisely answering, “Whatever you want, honey,” a different bracelet was selected.
As I wrapped it up, I reminded her I would never exchange another item without a receipt more than 30 days after the purchase. She nodded and left.

Two days later, the phone rang. Caller ID warned me the sparrow was calling. I braced myself.

“Do you still have that bracelet I returned?” she asked.

“I do,” I replied, wondering where the heck this was heading.

“Well, what do you intend to do with it?” she asked.

Flummoxed, I responded, “Why does it matter?”

“Well, I didn’t realize until I got home that I was emotionally attached to it, so I’m thinking of buying it back,” the sparrow chirped.

Are you kidding me? I thought. The very first thing that popped into my head simultaneously came out of my mouth, which is never a good thing.

“How did you get emotionally attached to a bracelet you never wore?” I couldn’t help but ask. I guess she didn’t like the question because she said, “Never mind,” and hung up.
Hours later, the sparrow sent us an email. The email contained only one thing – a link to the latest weight loss fad. Because I do not weigh 100 pounds, I wondered if she trying to tell me something.

Like a litany for the next 24 hours my husband repeated, “Let it go, just let it go.”
So just a few short days later the Fourth of July weekend loomed upon us. We readied ourselves in every possible sense. The U.S. Army Sergeant was in place, armed with a key to the display cases and a don’t-take-any-prisoners expression on her face. Extra trash cans were on hand to handle the barrage of soft drinks we’d be commandeering, rolls of quarters for the parking meters were stacked in the cash box, free bottles of water cooling in the fridge (for paying customers) and a couple of six-packs icing down for us the minute we closed up. Yep, we were prepared.

Except this year, we didn’t have to be. Everyone, and I mean everyone, was nice, Polite. Pleasant. Appreciative, even. We were stunned. It was like being all dressed up and having nowhere to go.

But what a wonderful weekend it was! In fact, this Reenactment Weekend goes down as the best ever. And just in time, too, as I had almost given up believing in one of those good old American values, common courtesy.

Not a bad way to commemorate the founding of the world’s most exceptional nation.

Melanie C. Thomas has 20 years experience researching, buying and selling military memorabilia. She and her husband run Arsenal of the Alleghenys, a Civil War artifact shop in Gettysburg, Pa.

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