If you are really lucky in your working life, you will have that feeling of utter rightness and coming to a place where you know you fit perfectly. Such was my feeling when I landed the role of manager at the very small but perfect Grey Lynn Library, at that time a “boutique” library in the former Auckland City network. How the stars aligned to bring me to this role, and how I felt from the moment I started really only come along once in a career.
It was at Grey Lynn that I truly learned the meaning of community, and also of customer service in its absolute essence. Grey Lynn is an extremely mixed community in inner city Auckland where the well to do rub convivial shoulders with the less fortunate in life, and as a result, it’s a place where some of the homeless dine on hummus and pate. There are a number of halfway houses in the areas, some of which provide the most borderline of accommodation to people on the fringes of life. For the truly destitute or mentally unwell, homelessness is a real issue in this area.
As well as the growing number of luminaries – writers, actors, artists and musicians whose names are well known in any New Zealand household, there is still a strong Pacific element in the community. All of these strands come together in an amalgam of colour, intellect, crime, and above all, community. And in the middle, at the heart of the community, sits the library, very small and squat, built in the 1920s, and a place where there are no barriers, and all customers are respected, known and liked equally.
Some of my best library stories come from my five years at Grey Lynn Library… Like the largely Pacific Catholic church next door and the parking issues that arose every time there was a mid week funeral. The library car park would fill up fast with mourners, infuriating library customers who were denied access.
On one occasion a car pulled up right across the front steps of the library. I dashed out as always on these occasions, to talk to the smartly dressed man in the process of abandoning his car.
“You can’t park there, I’m sorry. You know, you are completely blocking the entrance to the library,” I said, mesmerised by his startling white patent shoes.
“But I have to. I’m late.” He motioned to the church. “ I MUST go. I’m the organist at the funeral.”I sighed as I’ve heard these stories before from mourners.
“Look I’m sorry, but I don’t care if you’re the body. You can’t park there, and if you do, your car will be towed. You do realise that no one can now enter or exit the library?”With a deep sigh and a backward look of regret at me, he moved his car.
Some days later while chatting with the priest I mentioned this incident. “Ah,” he said, followed by a long silence. “Yes, I can see that this causes you and your customers problems.” We brainstormed this for a while, and as he was leaving he said to me as a kind of aside, “You know, we didn’t have an organist at the funeral that day.”
On another occasion, an urn complete with ashes came in through the after hours book drop, somewhat alarming the staff. Some careful detective (or library) work by one of the team around the other items returned, as well as searching the name on the urn to see what we could find out led to a phone call to a bemused and somewhat careless customer.
“Might you be missing anything important to your family?” I asked carefully.
“Um, no, I don’t think so.”
“Are you sure? Maybe some…. umm…human remains in an urn?”
“Eh? I don’t think so. Wait! Oh yeah. That’s my husband’s cousin’s daughter. When she passed, the fmaily divided the ashes so we could all have a bit.”
“Ah, well ok, perhaps you could come and collect your bit then?” She agreed that she would, but several weeks later, we were still greeting the urn each morning as we arrived for work. It was several more phone calls before the remains were finally uplifted, and our workroom was ours once more. I wonder where the urn was despatched to next by the careless custodian.
Everyone in the area found their way to the library at some time during their week for conversation, reading recommendations, to stay dry, to connect. In this community everyone was equal, and the staff commitment to ensuring this was very special. When I landed the job I was as proud as could be, and thought that maybe this was my job for life – quite limiting when you’re in your mid 40s and have spent 10 years of your life studying for the qualification that got you the role. It was this and this alone that sent me looking at new career opportunities five years on. However, I still reflect on these days, and keep our interactions foremost in my mind when thinking about customer service and relationship building with customers.
And so to finish, I’m reminded of a frivolous and enjoyable Friday afternoon customer interaction which had us all laughing til we cried.
“Why does Edward Woodward have so many “ds” in his name?”
Because if he didn’t, his name would be EeeWaa WooWaa!