Monday, December 7, 2015

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!

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