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.
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!