Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Tales from the Bookstore 2: Electric Bookaloo

Sometimes you come up with a title and you love it so much you just have to write something to accompany that title. This is one of those times. After writing about it once before, I realized I still had more to say about my experiences in retail bookstore hell back in the day (a.k.a the 1990s). I figured I'd simply turn this post into a sequel of sorts to the original. I've seen far too many bad movies in my life. Throw all of that together in a blender and here we are: Tales from the Bookstore 2: Electric Bookaloo. I'm sure what you're about to read won't be anywhere near as entertaining as that title. I don't care.

(If you're of a certain age, you probably saw Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo. Since then, any time you see a movie sequel called "[Insert Title Here] 2" you reflexively want to add "Electric Boogaloo" after it. That is a scientific fact.)

A Motley Crew
We were a ragtag group of nerds and geeks at my Waldenbooks. It was a fairly small group, maybe eight-to-ten of us on staff during my time there, with some combination of two-to-three of us working together on any given shift. Whenever I saw on the schedule that I was slated to work with Kari, I knew it would be a fun shift. She was a blast. When you're a teenager, you see everyone who's not a teenager as "old." They might be twenty-five or thirty-five or seventy-five, but to you they just fit into one category: old. Looking back, I'm going to guess Kari was in her mid to late twenties. She was a relatively new mom, married, and working at the bookstore. That's about all I ever knew about her, beyond some extended family stuff she shared with me every so often. Mostly she talked about her daughter (or was it a son? This was a long time ago) and her husband, and she was one of the first "adults" I was ever friends with. We had similar senses of humor, dry and acerbic, so when we were paired up on the register it was on. We were each other's best audience at the store, constantly trying to one-up each other with extreme snark and sarcasm. We laughed often, drawing sideways glances from uptight customers who clearly didn't think laughing on the job in a bookstore was appropriate. Bookstores are some of my favorite places in the world, but we've all been to ones that are dour and depressing. That's usually because the owner and staff are dour and depressing, and their store is reflecting that. Our store was a chain, so it wasn't all that eclectic or unique, but one thing we had in abundance? A fun staff. Low-key fun, of course. We were book nerds after all. We could geek out over books for hours, or spend an equal number of hours mercilessly skewering Disney's Aladdin, which ran on our store's television for what felt like six months straight at one point. When something like that runs on a loop for that long, even if you initially liked  it, you grow to hate it with a passion equal to the white-hot heat of a thousand suns. Kari and I had a lot of fun ripping on that movie. With her and our assistant manager James, I found examples of adults who thought like I did, except in more mature, fully formed ways. Their opinions and senses of humor, while similar to mine, were sharper than mine because they'd had some time to work out their worldviews. They were what I could see myself being like in five-to-ten years. They were a real-world example of the kind of worldview-filtered-through-humor that I'd been into for years: they looked at the world askew because the world itself was askew. I never saw any of them again after I left the job. All I hope for them now is that they're still fighting the good fight, with words and humor as their weapons.

Run for the Border
One thing that always springs to mind about that job is how poorly I ate during it. A huge part of that was directly related to being a teenager and teenagers eat way too much fast food to begin with. But working in a mall made going to Taco Bell (my preferred dining spot back then, donchaknow) so easy, and their Nachos Bell Grande and Seven Layer Burrito were so tempting every day. So I'm ashamed to admit it, but I ate a horrifying amount of Taco Bell while I worked at the bookstore. The fact that most items on their menu were 99 cents also made it extremely affordable. Is it any wonder people eat fast food? I'm grateful that I outgrew that phase and broadened my epicurean horizons, because I fear what that garbage would have done to me had I kept eating it into adulthood. But at the time? When I was eighteen and nineteen? It was delicious, a veritable cornucopia of taste sensations. And teenage boys are insatiable, so I would load up the stuff for lunch and dinner, eating more than any one person should and spending maybe $4 or $5, max. Around that time, I once ate a Big Mac and a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in the same sitting. And I still had room to spare in my stomach. When I think about doing that now I want puke. Chalk that up to one more thing you lose with age: a cast-iron stomach.

Obligatory '90s Seinfeld Reference
We had a customer whose name was Stephen and he was the spitting image of Newman from Seinfeld. He was also as persnickety and condescending as Newman. He was always trying to catch us in an error. You know the type: they take extreme pleasure in being able to point out other people's mistakes. Just our luck, the guy was a big reader so he came into the store a lot. Never fail, he'd stop at the register and small talk us for a bit, usually making sure to include a few digs about how we didn't carry some book he was itching to read and special ordering it would be an unacceptable amount of time for him to wait for it so he'd just pick it up at Barnes & Noble instead. This was in the era right before Amazon, but if we'd had that then, I'm sure this guy would have whipped out his smart phone to show us exactly how much cheaper the book was on Amazon. After a while, we all started to notice how much he reminded us of Newman. It got to the point where we couldn't see him without laughing. So he'd saunter up to the counter and one of us would greet him with "Hello, Stephen", saying it with the same tone of disdain that Seinfeld did whenever he said "Hello, Newman." And Stephen was far too self absorbed to even notice our taking the piss out of him. One time Kari did a spit take after I said it. I must have really nailed my delivery that day and she couldn't contain the laughter while taking a swig of soda. Again, Stephen was too caught up in his own blustering to pay any attention. That was a huge part of the beauty of it all—while this guy annoyed the hell out of us on a regular basis, at least we amused ourselves and each other during his visits. We even started to look forward to seeing him after a while. It was a chance to share some laughs.

The Deb Girl
Deb was a teens/young women's clothing store that was omnipresent in malls when I was growing up. I have no idea if they're still in business or if they've gone the way of Chess King, Caldor, and Waldenbooks. And I don't care enough to Google it and find out. But my Waldenbooks store was located near the mall's Deb store. One summer while working there, every so often I'd see this girl walk by who worked at Deb. "She's cute," I thought. And she smiled at me! So I started to notice her around during my shifts. Even started taking a different route just so I could pass by her and maybe catch her eye. Every time we'd walk past each other's stores, we'd smile and nod at one another. The first step in the flirting ritual of teenagers had begun. I didn't know her name, so I started calling her The Deb Girl to my friends and at least one coworker who I talked to about such things (Kari). Eventually she started coming into the store to browse on her breaks. Score! We chatted briefly over several visits. Then, one day, knowing that summer was entering its last month before we'd each head back to our respective colleges, I screwed up the courage to ask her out. There we stood at the edge of the Deb store, making small talk when I asked. She seemed pleased and said yes. During that date I discovered that I had also been given an alias: The Bookstore Boy. Seriously, are you gagging on cuteness overload yet? It would only be cuter if I told you we fell madly in love, but I can't tell you that because we never approached anything remotely in the general vicinity of love. After a handful of dates that August we realized there was absolutely no spark and we made better friends. We kept in touch for a semester or two, even writing each other letters, completely platonic at that point. So, The Deb Girl and The Bookstore Boy had a mutual flirtation for a while one summer, only to learn that some things are not meant to be more than that. As I write this now, there are likely hundreds or thousands of Deb Girls and Bookstore Boys out there today, reenacting this scenario in malls across America. Only today, they'd be Forever 21 Girls and Apple Store Boys. Doesn't have the same ring to it, does it?

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