Skip to main content

Tales from the Bookstore: Holiday Edition

While sifting through my books recently, and because it's the most wonderful time of year (please read that with the dripping sarcasm with which it was intended) I was reminded of my time working at a bookstore, during my college years. It was a Waldenbooks—remember those, kids? A dinosaur, now extinct, Waldenbooks was the bookstore of choice for most Americans in the 1980s and into the early to mid 1990s, with one located in nearly every decently populated town across the country. Most were in malls, like the one where I worked. At some point in the '90s, the superstores, and then Amazon, began dominating the market, and eventually the chain was liquidated. Wikipedia tells me it was in 2011, which blows my mind! I thought for sure they'd disappeared completely somewhere around 10-15 years ago. But my time at Waldenbooks in the 90s was during their heyday, when mall shoppers flocked there like a politician to a campaign fundraiser.

I spent countless hours working in one of these, trying not to get caught reading books in the science fiction section during my shifts.
The holiday season always reminds me of working at Waldenbooks because, and I kid you not, those weeks between Black Friday and Christmas were the most insane work experiences of my time there, and maybe of any job I've had since—scratch that, I worked in catering one summer and that has to take the cake (a future post will be needed to expound on that). People lose their minds during holiday shopping season. Even normally reasonable people devolve into the ape from the "dawn of man" scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey and we the booksellers are the frail bones being bashed to bits. It's a lawless time of year in the wilds of the mall, when everyone fights to snag as much product (sorry, "gifts") as they can find in stores while trampling any living soul who dares get in their way. We were absolutely slammed during the holidays, and that alone made for a stressful day at work, but add to that the constant stream of insults being hurled at us by festive holiday shoppers, and then you have a recipe for disaster. That's when the staff at my particular Waldenbooks started to find ways to make our own fun, to get through the holidays in one piece. Like most retail teams, we were a motley crew, made up of college kids like me, a stray high schooler or two, young mothers trying to balance work with parenthood, and bookstore lifers who started working there with the intention of it being a stop along the way only to find themselves still there, still selling books, too many years later. Our assistant manager was a riot. He had an urban planning degree and clearly wasn't thrilled with not being able to find a job in his field, so his years in the mall bookstore trenches had sharpened his sarcasm to the point where it could cut a man in half, I saw him do it once. He was the master of the snarky remark, the quick under-his-breath dig, timed perfectly to elicit maximum laughter from me every time. Usually he saved these for the moments when customers were the most rude and obnoxious. I'm sure when I burst out laughing at the counter after one of his remarks, customers must have been wondering "What the hell is this stupid kid giggling at? And is this on sale or not?!?"

It Came From The Mall, or, any Black Friday anywhere, ever.

This was how we got ourselves through the holiday rush at the store. Were we immature? Of course we were! We were all in our teens or twenties and it was the late 20th century after all, so arrested development was de rigueur (still is, I hear). I think the oldest employees were likely in their late twenties, which at the time seemed so old and now seems so damn young. While their ages might have seemed so far off in the future for me at that time (what young kid doesn't think he'll never be that old?), their skewed approach to the ludicrousness of life—straight out of the John Cusack school of sardonic hard knocks, which was all the rage back then, kids—was a revelation to me. Here were adults—people who didn't live with their parents during school breaks!—seeing life for what it was (insane!) and finding some solace in the insanity by mocking it mercilessly. They, ladies and gentlemen, were some of my first real-life examples of a new way to be an adult. Their sideways perspectives on life dovetailed perfectly with my own, which showed me that I too could remain a misanthrope well into adulthood! Hooray! It wasn't just a childish stance to take, it was aspirational!

It's at this time that we take a break from the bookstore action to reflect on whether or not this particular life lesson was indeed the best one for young Michael to learn. Has it lead to a worldview that can be most generously described as optimistically pessimistic? Affirmative. Does that mean I don't always enjoy things with the same verve and naivety that I did before my teen years, when the misanthropy first got it's claws in me? Sure, that's fair. But only sometimes. And this is a big "but"—I do still enjoy things with just as much passion and enthusiasm as ever, even if sometimes it's tempered with cautious optimism. So, to sum up, I think we can say with righteous certainty that yes, indeed, this life lesson was worthy of absorbing. And thank you, fellow Waldenbooks employees, for imparting your wisdom on young me.

I hope what you're getting out of this is that we were being extremely childish in order to make dealing with insistently yammering and complaining customers just a tad bit more tolerable. But sometimes you need to be childish. Children are known for having  fun, aren't they?? And children love the holidays! Adults could stand to be more childish. And we were never rude, unless a customer really crossed a line, but even then it wasn't being rude, it was just being realistic. Also, I've made it sound like we had nothing but nomadic Huns rampaging through our store. That's obviously not true. Plenty of customers were sweet and unassuming. But the vocal minority of holiday shoppers made the largest impression on us. Mostly because of the dichotomy: here it is, the most wonderful time of year, and people are literally fighting over the last copy of the hot Christmas gift book. One shopper has one end of the book, the other shopper has the other end, and they are tugging it back and forth in what I can only describe as an unhinged game of tug-of-war. If I recall correctly, we stood behind the counter, mouths agape, watching silently because words failed us, until finally one shopper emerged victorious. You can't help but start to see the holidays as just the slightest bit absurd at that point. Happy @%#&ing holidays!


Popular posts from this blog

RIP Chris Cornell

He was Louder Than Love.
When we were younger and knew nothing, people like Chris Cornell were our mentors, leading us down some interesting paths. They didn't have answers and they made that clear; they just made incredible, invigorating, heartbreaking, and memorable music that helped us get through most anything. "My Wave" was like a mantra:  Don't come over here
Piss on my gate
Save it just keep it off my wave I used to scour liner notes back then and when I discovered Cornell's music publishing name was "You Make Me Sick I Make Music" I thought, that's perfect. Take your defiance, your anger, your disgust with how cruel the world can be and channel it into something. Music, art, your friends and family, anything productive.

His death is devastating. To me, my friends, the world. Every time someone of his stature dies, people ask "You didn't know him personally, why do you care?" And I feel anger and a fury inside well up because t…

Even walls fall down

Memories rushing in, like waves crashin' on the beach.
I'm a bad boy, 'cause I don't even miss her / I'm a bad boy, for breakin' her heart
Young and selfish, unhappy and escaping to a brighter, better place, self-preservation conquers regret, self-loathing replaced by a tentative confidence. A perfect song, this was on constant rotation during those years, both on MTV and inside my head.
I'll be the boy in the corduroy pants / you'll be the girl at the high school dance
Summer '95, outside, evening air, then-girlfriend, me, and 25,000 other voices, singing every word at the tops of our lungs, as if our very existence depended on it.
Sometimes you're happy / sometimes you cry / half of me is ocean / half of me is sky
'96, then-girlfriend is now ex-girlfriend, but hearing this then-new song helps me remember, and appreciate, a heart so big it could crush this town.
The waiting is the hardest part
Must've included this song on every mixtape I …

It Came From the '90s: The Shock and Awe of Divinyls

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

Peeling out of the church parking lot after Sunday night religious ed class, Divinyls' "I Touch Myself" blasting from the car stereo. This makes the passengers giggle like the immature dorks we are, while the friend behind the wheel is grinning out the window at the religious education teachers. The rest of us, shy and non-confrontational, smile sheepishly from the backseat.

The teachers look extremely displeased. I think one shakes her head in disgust. Each generation looks at their successors this way at one point or another, it's unavoidable. The old timers, shocked and appalled, plus a little envious, when confronted with the temerity of youth.

While I'm just an accomplice in the car—I didn't know the driver was going to do that when he turned the ignition key and the song started playing on the radio—each of us has at least a little fun in…

It Came From the '90s: Not For You

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

Generation X. Alternative Nation. Slackers. Kids in flannels.

In the early and mid 1990s, teens and young adults of a certain age were given all of those monikers, and several others too. Full disclosure, I was one of those kids. Every generation goes through a period like that—when they're the up-and-comers trying to break free of the previous generation, A period of endless media and societal fascination leading to unfair stereotyping and marginalization.

Pearl Jam's "Not For You," from 1994's seismic blast of an album Vitalogy, seemed to be directly addressing this divide between the members of Gen X and their elders. Vitalogy was the most anticipated album of the year. Kurt Cobain killed himself that spring, leaving Pearl Jam alone at the top of the rock mountain, whether they wanted to be there or not. They were the biggest band in the world d…

Michelle Pfeiffer: Frankie and Johnny

Revisiting—or in a few cases, watching for the first time—and celebrating the work of Michelle Pfeiffer, the best actress of my lifetime.

And then there was the time my two favorites starred in one of the most starkly honest and mature films about grownup relationships this viewer has ever seen. Frankie and Johnny (1991) is a beautifully melancholic tale, laced through with rich and sincere humor aimed at adults—people who've lived long enough to have loved and lost and felt real longing and despair.
Al Pacino is fantastic as Johnny, the new short-order cook at the diner where Michelle Pfeiffer's Frankie works. Johnny is a good man who truly believes that he and Frankie are meant to be together. Johnny is fully alive now to the realization that life is short, so he's resolved to cherish every minute of it moving forward. Frankie is the cynic, the beaten-down diner waitress who masks the pain of previous relationship failures with biting sarcasm and avoidance. She's the…

Michelle Pfeiffer at 60: Still White Gold, Still the Best

Hard to believe it, but Michelle Pfeiffer will turn sixty on April 29th.

Not as hard to believe, I'm an enormous Michelle Pfeiffer fan, or pfan, if you will. I've written extensively about her work, and I will likely continue to do so until someone pries the keyboard out of my cold, dead hands.

Pfeiffer turning sixty feels momentous. Obviously, we could go on for days about how she doesn't look sixty, about how she's managed to retain her stunning, otherworldly, jaw-dropping good looks all these years. Certainly, when I first discovered her in the mid- to late-1980s as an adolescent, it was her captivating eyes and pouty lips that first made me sit up and say, "Whoa!" After all this time, she's still solid White Gold. Always has been, always will be.

Reducing Michelle Pfeiffer to her looks, however, is never a wise decision. She's so much more than just quite possibly the world's most pretty face. She's a true artist, an extremely talented, o…

It Came From the '90s: For D’arcy (Sail on Silver Girl)

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

Search any dorm room across campus, circa 1995, and you'd likely find a copy of Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits. Many copies would've been acquired through BMG's or Columbia House's music clubs ("12 Hot Hits for a Cool Penny"). "Cecilia" was always a hallway jam favorite, especially in the girls' dorms, but "Bridge over Troubled Water" was deep, man.

Sail on silver girl Sail on by Your time has come to shine All your dreams are on their way See how they shine Oh, if you need a friend I'm sailing right behind Like a bridge over troubled water I will ease your mind Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
That image of "Silver Girl" was particularly evocative to me—of what, I wasn't quite sure, but it was all so lovely and damaged in its own twee way. Who was this Silver Girl? Was I s…

Michelle Pfeiffer: Wolf

Revisiting—or in a few cases, watching for the first time—and celebrating the work of Michelle Pfeiffer, the best actress of my lifetime.

Mike Nichols' Wolf (1994) utilizes classic werewolf tropes to segue into a smart and slyly funny exploration of the crisis of masculinity. Jack Nicholson's character Will, in the midst of a midlife crisis, begins to feel like a much younger man again after he's bitten by a wolf. Plus he meets a much younger woman played by Michelle Pfeiffer, who becomes the symbol of all that's missing from his life, and so of course he must have her. The film flummoxed audiences and critics in '94, yet it holds up magnificently today. It's beautifully filmed, with a memorably vivid Ennio Morricone score, and terrific performances by all involved, especially from Pfeiffer.

Pfeiffer has a lot of fun being the object of Nicholson's affection here. She makes acting choices that help reinforce the film's harsh critique of the male ego. Thr…

Gonna make you, make you, make you notice: The musical constancy of the Pretenders

That's Chrissie Hynde's face staring back at you on this blog's header. I've written about Hynde and the Pretenders here on more than one occasion. So it was only a matter of time before I wrote at greater length about her music and influence. She's provided me with a lifetime of deeply personal music to which I can relate to and also be constantly surprised by. There are several other artists, writers, and musicians whose work I've been equally invested in over the years, but my affection for Hynde and the Pretenders goes back to my formative years and is so intertwined with my life that it's almost impossible to separate the two.

Their debut album, Pretenders, was one of the first rock albums I ever owned and, as I like telling anyone within ear shot, a stone-cold perfect album that I've been comparing other great records to ever since. It's a masterpiece and one of the most impressive debuts in rock history. It contains everything you need to kn…

It Came From the '90s: "I want to write her name in the sky"

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

It wasn't just Tom Petty's words and music that imprinted on us, it was also his videos that resonated, their images forever stored inside us, helping guide us through life. They seemed to originate within us, as if Petty was simply reflecting back our own lives and experiences.

We were the MTV generation, and for a stretch during the '80s and '90s, words and pictures melded together in perfect harmony, a perfect pop cultural storm. None more perfect than Petty's videos.

"Free Fallin'", from 1989—when the earliest and bravest explorers of the uncharted '90s first started beaming back messages to the mother planet— is one of Petty's more straightforward video-stories, yet it's still packed tight with an unassuming yet sharply wrought commentary on contemporary Americana—Petty's stock and trade, after all.

Our teenage hero…