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Ghosts of Retail Past

December 26th, 2013 by | Tags: ,

Christmas is over. I hope yours was nice. Mine was pretty great. Here’s me wearing the stuff my best friend got me.

In return, I got him this pillowcase.

There are a lot of different things that made this holiday season great, most of all being that it’s my first Christmas with my two nephews, Jack and Syd. Being an uncle rules.

A lesser, but still important, factor into what made this season so fantastic was that it’s the first time in nearly 10 years that I haven’t been working holiday retail. I had worked for Barnes and Noble for seven and a half years and with that was there for eight holiday seasons. When I discuss my time there, I tend to tell people, “I worked there for seven and a half years and enjoyed seven of them.” For a long while, I felt very loyal to the company and did my best. That got chipped away as the years went on, mainly towards the end.

There were a lot of things that set me astray, I suppose. I remember finishing off the 2012 holiday season with a feeling of, “Never again,” without putting much thought into it. Shortly after, a managerial miscommunication over a necessary day off I asked for a month in advance soured me pretty badly. Everything was beginning to wear on me and I started feeling like Randy the Ram during his last day at work in the Wrestler. Another big thing was how we got a new, stricter district manager and that led to a big “shit rolls downhill” environment in the store. Everything became more corporate and less fun, even though we were a store that consistently met our goals.

I can bore you with specifics, but one of the big things was selling the membership. Or more importantly, selling new memberships. We had quotas on that and the increased pressure made it unbearable due to the “lead a horse to water” mentality of it all. Even if you had a good week, it didn’t matter because maybe next week you don’t do so well and you get talked down to for your failure. I had my opinions on it and I had my own methods of motivation, which got results. Those got me in trouble to the point of being told I was on thin ice.

Initially, I became emotional. I was afraid for my job and I felt that I was one misstep from being let go. I told myself and my coworkers, “I need this job. Barnes and Noble is all I have.” Then I calmed myself and realized that that wasn’t true at all. I wasn’t happy anymore. I used to be, but not anymore. Even if I didn’t feel like my employment was in danger, what was I working towards? A management position? I’ve been wanting one for years, but with my patience for the more rotten customers wearing incredibly thin, all I’d be doing would be dealing with the negative aspects of my job for a little more pay. Nah, I needed to just secretly find a new job and then give my two weeks.

The moment I made that decision, I felt so free. It was amazing. I was quick in finding a place that wanted me and was able to say my goodbyes and move on. It was a good thing too because while I certainly had my problems with the place’s new direction, I wasn’t the only one. In the month or two surrounding my leaving, there was an exodus of like a dozen employees for a variety of reasons.

Oh, and they changed it so that people can only apply for jobs there via online and that slowed down the process so much that it was like four months before they finally filled my position. Jesus.

This year, I didn’t have to deal with all the holiday madness. Sure, my current job got pretty busy in the last week, but it was a drop in the bucket compared to B&N making $7,000 an hour in sales. I didn’t have to spend hours cleaning up messes of people who decided to take out ten books and leave them in a pile in the café. I didn’t have to endure the impossible parking and extended hours. I didn’t have my Christmas ruined because I’d need to get to sleep early and wake up at 4am because I was scheduled for a 5am shift on the 26th. I also won’t have to deal with two months of assholes wanting cash back for a gift that somebody else bought them with a gift card.

As a way to celebrate, I thought I’d tell some stories. I have a million tales from that establishment and since they most certainly didn’t want me mentioning them while I was on the payroll, I guess I might as well have some fun. These are just some from the top of my head.

– I once gave a piggyback ride to a customer. It was a weeknight and the place was pretty dead. I was at the information desk and a couple showed up to ask me about a book.

“It looks like we have it.”

“Can you show me where it is?”

“Hell, I’ll give you a piggyback ride if you want.”

“Okay.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“All right, then. Let’s do this!”

Then I walked over, had him hop on my back and walked him over. He proceeded to give me a $5 tip. I went back to the info desk, feeling pretty good about myself. Then I saw that the next customer was like 300 pounds and knew that wasn’t going to be a repeat.

Later on, I was reading my horoscope and it said that I’d make a small fortune in an unorthodox way. Swear to God.

- One day, I was walking through the store, taking my time and when I passed a bookshelf near the exit, a little kid collided right into me. He was going like sixty miles per hour and didn’t even slow down when I stepped into view. I was horrified, but the kid was totally okay and his mother was very apologetic, fully blaming the kid for what happened. Everything was copacetic and they were on their way.

My manager only saw the aftermath. He came by right as the kid was getting up. Once they left, he walked over, smirking. “Gavin, what did you do?”

I explained the situation and how everything was okay. After a second of us snickering at the incident, I realized that the security cameras would have caught it. There was this brief pause between the two of us until at once we RAN right to the back to rewind the feed and watch it. Again and again and again. It was hilarious because the cameras had a low frame rate. You’d see me walking at a glacier’s pace until out of nowhere, the kid appears and smacks his skull into my knee. Watching the footage on its own, you’d swear he teleported.

We spent what seemed like a half hour calling in any employee we could find to watch it over a dozen times over. It never got old.

– Kate Gosselin is a terrible person. Remember her? From that John and Kate Plus 8 show? Yeah, she’s a total bitch. At our store, we mainly had book signings by local authors that nobody ever really cared about, but occasionally, we got a real deal celebrity. Unfortunately, while a neighboring B&N got Weird Al to do a signing, we got the likes of Kate Gosselin and Glenn Beck.

Now, to be fair, Glenn Beck wasn’t bad. I had no intention of meeting him, but despite his political bullshit, by all accounts, he was a really processional and nice guy to deal with on every level. Gosselin, not so much. There were a lot of problems with her, like how she tried to leave an hour earlier just because. The worst thing was that she made a little girl in a wheelchair cry. Not even joking. A girl in a wheelchair got to be first in line and was so pumped about meeting Gosselin. She signed the kid’s book, handed it back to her, asked for the next person and didn’t even glance in the girl’s direction.

While I don’t give a crap about celebrity gossip or any of that, I do find it funny how the employees picked up on her affair with her head of security long before it became a news item.

– Everyone has their own bad jokes they repeat to customers in order to amuse themselves and hopefully the customers. One of mine was how if anyone asked where Harry Potter was, I’d jokingly say, “Oh, he doesn’t work here anymore,” then actually help them. It was worth a chuckle a lot of the time.

Then one day I used that line on a girl who appeared to be in her late teens or early twenties. After helping her, I went back to doing what I was doing and a middle-aged woman marched up to me several minutes later, yelling, “Do you think you’re funny?!” I had no idea what she was talking about and she demanded to see the manager. I called the manager and in the meantime, just stood there in awkward silence. I asked what this was about and she repeated, “Harry Potter doesn’t work here?!”

Blink. Blink.

What?

The manager came over and the woman claimed I refused to help her daughter. I disputed that and said I most definitely did help her. I made my joke, said I was kidding and then showed her where the books were. The daughter also backed up that I helped her, but told her mother that she didn’t like the way I said it. Then she told her mom that they should leave because B&N sucks anyway. Despite the sour grapes, the manager tried to calm them down by leading them back to where the books were while turning to give me a wink as if to say, “You aren’t even close to being in trouble for this. Don’t worry about it.” I’m pretty sure they were in the store for another two hours after talking up how much the store sucks.

So to answer the question. Do I think it was funny? Normally, not really, but if it’s going to get that kind of extreme reaction over such a molehill? Yeah. It kinda is.

– One busy Saturday night, I was in charge of putting away the magazines. This was a big job because there were stacks and stacks of them lying around all over the place. I was exhausted and had a bunch of them in my arms. Then I notice this middle-aged black dude in a suit standing there, staring directly at me with a huge, insane smile on his face. He walked over and said in a thick, Caribbean accent, “Busy, busy, busy. YOU… are Mr. Busy.” Then he walked away.

It was one of the greatest moments in my entire life.

– For loss prevention reasons, we couldn’t just give out plastic bags unless somebody bought something. Somebody came by asking for a plastic bag and I said I couldn’t do it. Annoyed, he smugly said that this is why Amazon was kicking our ass and left.

I had to scratch my head on that one because I’m pretty sure Amazon wouldn’t give you a free bag either. If they did, you’d probably have to wait a few days, regardless.

– Every year the stores have a big gift card contest during the holidays. Whichever store in the district sells the most in gift cards wins a prize. Or maybe it’s percentage of sales. I don’t know. Anyway, we had a Community Relations Manager whose job was to deal fishing for sales outside of the store. Setting up bookfairs, putting together book signings, etc. She scored a big deal where a wholesaler was going to buy several hundred Nooks at a discounted price. Already, that was great because it put us in the black for the holiday season almost on its own.

That’s when she cheated the system. Instead of just having the guy buy the Nooks, she had the guy buy that exact amount in gift cards. Then she waited a day and put the sale through, buying all the Nooks with those gift cards. Due to the way it was set up, our store officially sold that amount in gift cards, shooting our totals to the moon. Not only did we demolish everyone in the district and state, but I think we were in the top three in the whole country.

Everyone in the store won a free Nook Tablet. I still use mine as a poor man’s iPad, usually to put videos on when I go to the gym.

– I was fortunate to only be around for one Harry Potter release. The last one came out and we had a massive midnight release party. My schedule for that night was 11pm to 7am. Yes, even though we released the book at midnight and closed the doors maybe an hour and a half later, me and a couple other employees were tasked with cleaning up the biggest bookstore mess I’ve ever seen. Even when it was time to leave, we still weren’t completely done. It was madness.

A couple years after, we had the midnight release of Breaking Dawn. What a difference that made. The teenage girls only cared about the Twilight books and zeroed in on those, contrasting with the Harry Potter kids and adults who tore the place apart. That place was remarkably neat by the time everyone was gone.

I recall there were rumblings of doing a midnight release party for the third Eragon book, but that fizzled out. Man, that series fell hard into relative obscurity.

– On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, a shopping cart filled with bags were left in front of the entrance for a long, long time. Keep in mind, this B&N is connected to a massive mall. Security came to check it out and I believe the police came too.

In the end, it was left there by some Chinese foreign exchange students who could not for the life of them understand why this was a big deal.

– We had a girl working in the café who really loved all the Paris Hilton/Nicole Richie celebrity brouhaha. She placed a book “written” by Paris Hilton on the staff recommendations shelf. Underneath it was a label, saying her name and – in big, colored letters – “THAT’S HOT!”

The book sold out, oddly enough, leaving the spot empty. Someone else decided to fix it by putting a cookbook about jalapeños in its place. Brilliant.

– A guy was caught on camera peeing in the water fountain because the men’s room was being cleaned. Luckily, he was so fat that you couldn’t see anything in the footage. He actually STUCK AROUND afterwards and hung out in the café. The manager went up to him to say that if he did what he thought he did, there would be trouble. The fat guy claimed he didn’t know what he was talking about. The manager said he was going to check the footage one more time. He took two steps away and the guy BOLTED out of there.

Years later, I’ve never been thirsty enough to want to drink from that fountain.

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3 comments to “Ghosts of Retail Past”

  1. Man I’d feel bad for physical book stores if they’d ever been really good. The only one I ever liked was Waldenbooks…by the time my area got a Borders and a B&N they just felt like huge, heartless, focus group tested corporate bullshit. Amazon is better than any ‘new’ book store ever was. I still love used book stores though:)

    Sorry I know that wasn’t on topic at all but it’s what I always think when I’m reminded of b&m book stores…


  2. Were it not for the office Secret Santa, I would not have had to do any holiday retail shopping at all this year. But it turns out that I did go to one store, and that happened to be Barnes and Noble. It was somewhat debilitating to my psyche to know that there are children’s books for Angry Birds as well as What Does the Fox Say?, and that there were daily calendars dedicated to things such as bacon, Failblog, People of Wal-Mart, I Can Haz Cheeseburger, and other such things previously confined to the Internet. On the other hand, it was awesome that they had free gift wrapping stations, and since I was there on a weeknight there was no line.

    More to the point: thanks to this post, I now know what I’m getting everyone as gifts for the foreseeable future.


  3. Jeez does this article hit close to home.

    The place I work at went through a complete overhaul in the last few months. New, stricter management and a focus on EFFICIENCY has really drained us, and a number of senior employees have been fired or left for greener pastures. By the time Christmas break rolled around it was getting really hard to put a smile on. The fact that I spent the majority of Christmas laid up in bed with a nasty stomach bug did little to improve my mood.

    All this to say I really needed something to lift my spirits, and I’ll be darned if this article didn’t do the trick. Hilarious and insightful. Not to sound too sappy, but it really helps me put a lot of the garbage that’s happened into perspective. Thanks a lot man, and have a Happy New Year!