by Rick Klaw
I have this theory. A bookstore should be available to any member of the community, regardless of race, gender, religion, age or disability. Sadly, not all store owners agree. Many of these short-sighted individuals (and corporations, which absurdly, are legally considered individuals) are losing out on potential sales to large segments of the buying population. Thankfully, we have civil rights legislation which affords rights to a majority of people and the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). It is the latter that has had a very personal effect on my life.
The ADA is the reason when you go to the grocery store there are so many handicap parking spaces, the aisles are wide, the water fountain is short, and the bathrooms have those extra wide stalls with bars to help you get up and down from the toilet. I'm sure there are several of you out there saying we shouldn't have to legislate such things. You are right, but unless a company makes an immediate profit, it often won't follow a suggestion. This is why the ADA is so important. Many potential customers would be sitting on the outside of a shop looking in.
I've heard many excuses why the ADA is bad for business: the requirements are too expensive, or they are unreasonable requests. And the most laughable: it makes things difficult for the non-disabled. That is absolutely absurd. Try spending some time in a wheelchair or with a condition that requires a cane to move around. Then you will know what "difficult" means.
I have multiple sclerosis. MS is an auto-immune disorder that attacks the central nervous system. The symptoms can include numbness, fatigue, weakness, equilibrium problems, loss of coordination, stiffness, vision difficulties, and basically anything else that can be affected by the central nervous system. MS is unique in every individual and usually every episode is different. It is chronic, there is no cure, and the cause of the disease is unknown. Thankfully for me, I have the relapsing-remitting type of the illness. (There are three types of MS, each varying in severity.) My symptoms are usually temporary, and when I am not having an episode, you would not know I am sick. My most common recurring symptom is numbness on my left side. When this occurs, I walk with a cane. Those seemingly always available handicap spaces became essential. I get very pissy when some jerk off parks in a space to wait for someone... or even worse when Mr/Ms. Able-Bodied park there so they can "just run in real quick." Hey, if you can walk, do it. (This brings to mind one of the more annoying trends I have seen lately is the creation of special spaces for customers with children. Aren't most children little bundles of energy? They should have no trouble walking the few extra feet. I recall walking at that age across miles of parking lots with my mother. No serious harm came to me.) If it wasn't for the ADA, a many businesses would NOT have these spaces.
I realize that a lot of the ADA requirements are difficult for smaller bookstores to implement, but most of the guidelines are written to according to business size. For example, parking lots with 1-25 spaces must have 1 handicap space (26-50, 2 spaces, and so on). Big deal. The bathrooms are bit more difficult, but must be done. The chain stores all comply with the laws, so disabled individuals will frequent those establishments instead of yours. (A clean accessible bathroom is a MUST. Someday I will write a column about why. For now, let's just say that a lot of people get very "relaxed" in a good bookstore.) For a small investment, you will open your business to a larger segment of the population.
The biggest problem most bookstores have may also be the most advantageous. According to the ADA, there must be at least three feet (roughly 1 meter for the rest of the world) clearance in all walkways. This doesn't refer just to aisles but also to the clearance around displays, tables, and the like. I can understand the difficulty here. I've been there at holiday shopping time when the place is overflowing with merchandise. All those displays, calendars, and the like cluttering up the place. But a pathway must be cleared. Let's ignore the law for a moment and look at the economics. Approximately 15 percent of the United States is disabled. That's a lot of potential customers that won't be shopping with you; that would be going to a chain store because they have the accessibility. Remember, reading is a wonderful non-physical activity. I spend a lot of time doing just that when I have an MS episode. On top of that, a store with wider aisles is usually less cluttered and more pleasing to the eye. A better laid-out store is easier to protect against shoplifting, more fun to browse and shop, and to the employees' joy, easier to clean and shelve. All of your customers will appreciate it. And we all know what happy customers mean: SALES! It's not only the law and the right thing to do, but financially, it is essential.
It can be very difficult doing the right thing and working in a capitalist society. I try to treat everyone well and equally while serving the financial interests of my employer, though sometimes I fail on one or both accounts. All I know is that a person who is treated with respect is a happier customer.
Not content with just being a regular columnist for SF Site, Rick Klaw is also the fiction editor for RevolutionSF. As a freelance editor, former book buyer, managing editor, and bookstore manager, Rick has experience with most aspects of the book business. He is a guest at this year's ArmadilloCon in Austin, TX on August 16-18. Stop by and say howdy! Rick will return next month where he might write a column that mentions a book or two.
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