When we booked our event with former President Jimmy Carter, we began a half-joking ritual of knocking on wood whenever we mentioned our preparations. As the weeks progressed, we learned that in spite of his age, President Carter was witty, inquisitive, and still very much involved in world politics. We heard stories of the 1200 people who turned out for his event several years ago, of how gracious the President and Mrs. Carter were towards our staff -- our Master Bookseller loved to talk of how Mrs. Carter found out during the middle of the signing that the government had approved their mission to Palestine. We began promotion weeks in advance, worked diligently with the publisher to meet all of the President's needs, and prepped our staff and customers for the intensity of the event.
On September 28, our staff arrived hours before opening to make final changes proposed by the Secret Service. Customers braved downpours to be the first in line, and by the time 11am rolled around, two hours before his scheduled arrival, close to 500 people stood in line. Parents had excused their children from school, many had traveled from more than three hours away, and customers from as far as Texas had called to purchase a signed copy.
At 11:30, we got the call that the President's plane had arrived and the car was en route to the bookstore. Being only 30 minutes from the airport, we made numerous last minute prep checks, staged our booksellers and the Secret Service moved through the store making extra security checks.
At 12:15, we glanced towards the curtained off area, thinking any minute we would see his shadow heading towards the staging room. We joked that the motorcade was probably stuck on I-480 due to rubberneckers needing to get a look at the flat tire on the side of the road. Everyone stayed put; we were nervous with excitement by this point, knowing our months of preparation was about to pay off.
At 12:30, our Events Coordinator approached us with her jaw hanging open. She'd received a text message that said the President had been rushed to the hospital. We all grabbed our cell phones and sure enough, the news was all over Twitter, Facebook, and we all had texts and voicemails. Within seconds of finding out ourselves, the crowd began to mumble & the questions began to fly.
The Secret Service insisted it was a go for the event; we were told by the head of the team to make an announcement that the event was delayed, but not cancelled. A few event-go'ers gave up early, making returns, leaving shrugging their shoulders. Others asked us to hold their spots in line while they used the restroom, or got a cup of coffee. Many began to pray. Most were on their cell phones and laptops, keeping us all up-to-date. The news crews left; only two local papers stuck around. The Secret Service insisted he was coming, and we believed them. Our staff went into backup mode -- we made a Delay Strategy, then a Cancellation Strategy, just in case. We were reassigned. We were ready again.
Then the phones began to ring. The local and national networks called first. Then we began fielding calls from the Associated Press, The New York Times, Politico, The Wall Street Journal, CNN and CSPAN, NPR, and all of the local AM news stations, not to mention our family and friends, our regular customers, and the curious gossipers. The cacophony of ringing phones, the nervous & frustrated buzz of the customers, and the many rumors we were faced with rattled us. About 45 minutes after the delay, a bookseller handed me the phone saying the President's publisher needed to speak with a manager. I spoke with a rep at FSG who gave us official confirmation of the cancellation. About ten minutes later, the Secret Service told us to make an announcement and agents left, assumedly reassigned to Metro Hospital.
We prepared for an onslaught of returns but only 50 people asked for it. I manned the doors, thanking everyone for coming, telling them to check our website during the week for a reschedule date. The local news crews who had abandoned us during the delay were back outside our doors, stopping customers for interviews. A few were angry, many disappointed, two were openly crying, and only one thanked me for our gracious staff. Within twenty minutes, the store was empty, we turned the Glee soundtrack back on, and we all tried to breathe. The staff dispersed, back to our regular assignments. The management staff began to return phone calls and emails from concerned members of the publishing industry. Our general manager spoke to half a dozen reporters, giving the rest of us the opportunity to plan a rescheduling strategy.
The early morning crew convened upstairs to eat the lunch our Bistro had prepared for the President. For close to an hour, we talked about what worked, adjustments to make in the coming weeks, and we laughed with relief that even though it didn't go as planned, we had succeeded in how we handled it. At one point, the room quieted as we all sent silent wishes for the President's recovery. We headed home, exhausted from the long day, all of us eager to do it all over again in a few weeks.
We spent the evening watching the news, reading websites, and texting each other the old mantra "All publicity is good publicity." We sent each other links to news stories on international sites where the only English we understood was "Joseph-Beth Booksellers." At 9am on Wednesday, the phone calls began about rescheduling dates, news crews called for final details and for information on how to be included in the media crew for the makeup date. Everyday customers saw our banners & our rebuilt display at the front of the store and stopped us to ask, "The President was coming here when he fell ill?" and the staff liked reliving the hectic day. In the end, we went back to doing what we did so well yesterday -- we waited.
Business leaders will tell you that the true test of a team is how well they handle the unexpected. We never expected to host an event with a former president. We never expected a last-second cancellation. We never expected the support from the publishing industry and from our customers as we work out Plan B. We never expected that our event with President Carter would make us a stronger bookstore - that it was just the thing we needed to recharge, refocus, and remember why we serve the Cleveland area.
I can only imagine how he'll change us -- as a store, as a team, and as a community -- we he arrives. Get well soon, Mr. President. We can't wait to meet you.