True stories from a retail newbie.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

During my first few weeks at the store, I spent a lot of time standing glumly behind the info desk while my co-workers stood in a knot hunched away from me, whispering and laughing uproariously. Between waif-like girls asking for the South Beach Diet, teenagers looking for SAT guides, and anyone and everyone requesting the Da Vinci Code, I caught snatches of what they were saying. "Did Lisa really...?" "And she slept with....." "Knocked over a whole....." I realized these things weren't exactly headline news, but I couldn't help but want to be a part of it. I felt left out, and pretending to myself that it was my sterling work ethic that was keeping me apart had quickly wore thin. As the days went on, I realized what I needed was an in.

One of those sad early days found me leaning listlessly at the desk watching S, Deborah, and Steve merrily engage in an orgy of gossip. It was only eight in the morning, so there were scarcely any customers to help, and the phone was strangely silent. The desk was organized, the books on the shelves in my vicinity still neat and upright. In short, there was nothing to distract me from my isolated boredom, and I was quickly reaching my breaking point. As I fantasized sidling up to my coworkers and inventing some fodder, the phone rang. I picked up, and said in my highest, sing-songiest, robot-on-crack like voice, (the voice I always use when I answer the phone at work)-

"Good morning, Barnes and Noble, this is Rachel, how can I help you?" The voice that answered was a mature, an older woman, and all business.

"Hello, I'm looking for quill pens. Would you happen to sell them?" I scanned my still shaky mental inventory of the store. I was pretty sure we had some calligraphy pens with decorative feathers on the end, but the question confused me. Did she want a genuine old-fashioned quill pen, or would one of those silly gift items do?

"Well..." I stared, "We have some pens with feathers on the end..."

"Perfect!" She paused, then asked, "Could you bring some over to the phone?"

"Um, of course, just hold for a moment." I put down the phone and pushed past the still chattering S, Deborah, and Steve, casting them a mental evil eye. I rushed over to the gift department, and scooped up three different versions of "quill pens." One was bronze, with a bronze feather on the end. The other two had "real" feathers. I pushed past my coworkers again with my armful of pens. They didn't seem to notice.

"Okay," I panted into the phone, "I got those pens for you. Now, this one is $12.95 and it's-" She cut me off.

"Do you know what I want to do with these pens?"


"No. I want to stroke them along the bottom of people's feet."

"Oh, I...." I was taken aback, but for the sake of customer service, I tried to normalize the comment in my mind. She continued,

"Do you know what that's called?"

"Errr.." I cast around for eastern medicine-esque names that could fit, "Reflexology?"

"No, no. Now Rachel, what would you feel if I was to run a feather up and down the bottom of your foot?" Rachel? RACHEL?! Then I remembered I'd said my at the begining of the call. I cast a desperate eye towards my coworkers, but they were still engaged, completely unaware of the strange turn my phone call had taken. I ventured, "Ticklish?"

"Yes!" She seemed exceedingly pleased. "Now, Rachel, this is what I want you to do. I want you to take off your shoes, take off your socks..."

"I'm sorry," I startled, "I can't do that!"

"Rachel, I know you're behind that desk.." OH MY GOD, COULD SHE SEE ME? No, it was probably a lucky guess. Most of the phone at the store were behind desks... But still! "I... I..." Then it came to me. I could hang up. I dropped the phone into the cradle and stared at it like it was a snake. After a shaky moment, and a quick look around the store for 60 something females with cell phones, I had a revelation. A broad grin breaking out on my face, I turned to my coworkers, "Um guys?" As they turned, I declared joyfully, "I just got propositioned by a female foot fetishist!"


Friday, June 11, 2004

Ok, so I guess I could explain a little more about the promotion. The store hierarchy is as follows: There is one store manager who has three assistant store manager(S, for example, is an Assistant Store Manager). After that comes the Department managers- one for the Cafe, one for everthing else that's on the first floor, and two for upstairs. (Mary is the first floor manager, which is where the information desk is located.) Within each department, there are sections. Downstairs we have New Releases, Travel, Gift, Magazines and Bargain. Each of these has a Lead Bookseller. The lead bookseller is in charge of their own small section, and gets to boss around the booksellers who work within it. I am now the Lead Bookseller in (Fanfare Plese!) Bargain.

There are a few things that made Bargain unique. For one, the books are arranged in broad sweeps- they have amorphous categories like Mind Body & Spirt, or Cooking, House and Home, Psychology & Humour. Anything that falls under the vast heading is put in one section, and once there, it is neither alphabitized by author, nor restrained by it's subcategory. You tend to find books on bathroom humor wedged between Betty Crocker Recipe binders and books on Jungian dream interpretation. Another bargain novelty is its lack of geographical consistency. Bargain is only nominally on the first floor. In reality, there are bargain displays in almost every section. The last thing that sets bargain apart (although it is not the only section where this is true..)is that aside from the lead, there aren't any booksellers who work exclusively in Bargain. So when I say leads get to boss people around, I really mean that I will get to boss myself around, which truth be told,will be a nice change from being bossed around by others. So the lack of organization, the scope, and the solitary nature of the section taken together conspire to bring about the most terrorfying truth about this promotion: The bargain lead is the only person who can find any given bargain book. Whereas if a bookseller insisted that they didn't know how to find a cookbook, they would be given a firm talking to, it is accepted that no one can find the bagain books except the bargain lead. Even the managers don't try. Layla, the current lead, is leaving in one week, and from that point on, I will be expected to remember the location of every bargain title in our inventory.

In preparation, I have begun spending my days skulking around the store staring at displays, willing my memory to become photographic. Yesterday was Layla's day off, and although my ascension has not been officially announced, every one who has one ear to the store gossip mill (which is pretty much everyone) knows that I am at next at bat, so in Layla's abscence, they started paging me with questions. It was horrifying! The only thing that saved me was that Layla had explained to me which bays contained which general category, so instead of looking at every book on every bargain shelf in the store, I could just look at every book on two or three shelves, and maybe a small mission table or two. The first thing I plan on doing during my reign as bargain queen is to teach everyone in the store this litte trick. I don't know why it isn't common knowledge that bargain is split into categories. It seems a very inconvienent secret to keep.

Oh well. Say goodbye to your friendly neighborhood info girl, and get ready for frazzled bargain maven........

Well, it's happened.

I've been promoted.

I know I now stand even less of a chance of fighting the dark forces that would suck me deep into the Bookselling world.


Wednesday, June 02, 2004

In the interim between this post and the last, I’ve been trying to decide what I should post about. Of course, there have been plenty of new crazy customer incidents. Friday alone there was that French tourist who crouched dramatically in front of the info desk then sprung up again, crying out, “Peekee-boo!”, and then later that same afternoon there was the woman who swaned importantly through the store cornering employees to ask them how they felt about the topic of “good touching and bad touching” as it relates to preschool-aged children. I thought about writing an entry about these women, and those that came in the days that preceded them, but honestly I couldn’t see what would be gained by it. I think I’ve already demonstrated beyond refute that the mentally instable make up a large portion of our clientele…………………….

As I racked my brain for other things I could blog about, while keeping within the bookselling domain, it occurred to me that I’ve met lots of authors. As my manager told me when I was hired, “This is New York. Everyone is a local author.” And seemingly, he was right. Everyday someone come in, either to cheerfully sign copies of the new cookbook they put out, or to gripe about why we only have one copy of their three hundred page tell-all about clipper ships. Sometimes people who are quite well known, (or about to be) come in. Ron Chernow, author of the new best selling biography Alexander Hamilton , came in right after his book was released. He told me he came by to sign his books as a productive way to kill time between interviews. The day the newest Da Vinci Code-esque novel, The Rule of Four, came out Dustin Thomasan, one of it's two authors came in to sign books. (He actually thanked me for helping to sell his book. I told him I doubted he was going to need much help. I was right. It’s been firmly routed just under the Da Vinci code for best selling hard cover fiction ever since it debuted.) In addition to these lucky few who are actually going to clean up from being writers, I’ve met countless other mid-level, backlist-y type authors, like the guy who co-authored the Lilly Pulitzer book, the man who wrote Vast Right Wing Conspiracy, and the woman who wrote The Right Address. Generally though, these encounters don’t make very good stories. The authors are usually courteous and friendly if we have stock on their books (whether it be three or three hundred copies) and either irate or pleading if we don’t. I sometimes wish I could whisper to the successful, “Tell me how to become a writer,” but I never do. I should probably try it sometime though. Most of them, the moderately successful ones anyhow, like us bookseller types. They see us as playing for their team.

Aside from the crazy people and the authors, most of the other people who come in the store are normal in the general sense- meaning there are plenty of others walking around behaving just like them. My days are filled with nannys asking where the children’s department is, mothers on their lunch break running in to pick up a copy of Ten Real SAT’s, business men looking for Managing Human Resources, and middle-aged women on their lunch break looking for the latest Mary Higgins Clark.

So with all those coming in and out of the stores doors accounted for, that leaves me with only my coworkers left to detail. When I first started blogging, I thought that my entries would be filled with scathing remarks about them. I pictured myself detailing the cruelty of my managers, mocking the pettiness of the “cool” girls, and tracking the mistakes that any fool on the outside would know not to make. It’s been less than two months since I started this blog, but somewhere in the intervening weeks I’ve negotiated that awkward terrain between new girl and old hand. Where the new girl may have been able to write mean and petty things about those she worked with, the old hand feels protective. It makes me realize: “They” aren’t “they” anymore. They’re me. So I guess that begs the question- if I’m them, will I have anything left to say in this blog, or am I too far indoctrinated into the B&N world??

Wow. That is a terrifying thought. Cross your fingers for me……. And hope you hear more soon.

As for Reading Recommendations:

For one, definitely check out Michael Faber’s Crimson Petal and the White if you are into sexy Victorian historical fiction (Sarah Waters fans will love it, as long as they aren’t too attached to the lesbian theme. Crimson Petal is fairly het.)

My hero, David Sedaris, has just released a new book- Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. Sadly, at least half the stories had already been published in the New Yorker, but it was still well worth reading! I especially recommend the story Six to Eight Black Men.

Also, reread Prisoner of Azkaban in preparation for this weekend. Every time I reread a Harry Potter book I marvel at just how engaging they remain. If you haven’t read the Potter series, you’re probably living under a rock, but GET THE HELL OUT FROM UNDER THERE AND READ THEM, DAMMIT!!


Monday, May 17, 2004

Work has been leaving me cold lately. First of all, I’m missing two of my favorite coworkers- S, and Lisa. S is in France for a couple of weeks visiting with his estranged wife and signing off on some real estate deal involving a house that has both their names on the papers. In the days right before he left, I felt that I was a true, possibly even vanguard, member of the harem. He’d even started calling me “my love.” I didn’t realize how much I would miss that extra little boost.

As for Lisa, she is in the Caribbean with her family. Unlike with S, I knew in advance I would really miss her. She is one of the “lead” booksellers on the first floor, and, due to our mutual admiration of one and others competence (a skill too often lacking among B&N booksellers), we hit it off right away. There was a brief interlude during which I was dubious- after I learned that she was a Mormon and before I decided it was okay to like her anyway- but now I unabashedly love her. So what if she is a pro-lifer that believes that gay marriage is unnatural? She’s fun, she sees a lot of cool theatre, and she likes talking smack about people. Plus, she admits that most of her view points are faith based, and readily agrees that religion should not inform the law. I make it my policy to tell her at every opportunity that I am a bleeding-heart liberal, and then allow myself to enjoy her fully.

With them gone, the days drag on just that much more slowly. I had hoped, after attending an (exclusive!) work-people party where heavy drinking was involved, that I would become closer to some of the other booksellers who I didn’t know as well. Although we bonded very well when there were beer and cigarettes to be had, (I even got a kiss on the cheek from a manager!) I found that the feeling of intimacy didn’t last. Once my manager had a tie back on and was snapping at me to pay attention when the phone was ringing, it didn’t seem like such a good idea to tease him about his taste in music. And my at-work crush remains as remote as ever, though we spent an hour talking at the party, and even hugged good-bye.

Even the crazy customers seemed to have conspired to make my days feel longer and duller. Skolnick hasn’t ordered Wiring and Electricity in over a month. She just sits in the Café and reads! The Tweeter hasn’t done much more than ask me if I’m from Long Island (I’m not, but she knew a girl who looked like me who is). And the Glove Lady, there from open to close every day for a week and a half, has disappeared as mysteriously as she came. Only Burton, my favorite Albino hunchback, is there without fail, always pleased and surprised to see me, as if finding my at my desk was something of an oddity, as though he’d never seen me there before.

Although my work life has become routine, the books are still good!!!

Definitely check out Tom Perrotta’s Little Children. Election, also by Perrotta, is good too, but honestly, I preferred the movie. See the Rotten Tomatoes review!

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

There is a great article in the NY Times today about the records kept by librarians over the past 95 years at the Seward Library on the Lower East Side. It is a wonderful human/book interest story. Read it. Although this is not strictly related to Bookselling/Barnes&Noble/Me, I thought I would share it since it is about books, and in the end, that's what really counts, right?


Sunday, May 09, 2004

It’s 2:30 in the afternoon on Monday, and I have been up since 5:30am. In front of me stands a short, round woman, wearing medical scrubs and black fleece gloves (It’s 70 degrees outside). We have been at odds with each other since 7am when she came up to me and asked if she could borrow a “pen or pencil.” I handed her a pen.

“Um,” she eyed me nervously, pressing her (gloved) hands together as if in prayer. “No, I need a pencil.” I looked up at her, willing my eyes not to roll, and pulled open my drawer to rifle around for one. When I handed it to her, she looked at it disapprovingly.

“Do you have a sharpener?” I didn’t. She pursed her lips together and furrowed her brow, but didn’t say anything. I went back to stickering books with 20% off labels, but she didn’t walk away. I tried not to look at her, but finally gave in.

“Yes?” I asked.

“Well,” she told me, “I need some paper,” as if this should have been clear to me all along. Then I did roll my eyes, as I handed her a sheaf of scrap paper from the printer tray. She took the paper from me but was clearly distressed, “Um…um…um….” she started huffing.

“Is there a problem?”

“It needs to be blank on both sides.”

Twenty minutes later she was back. She needed more paper. Blank. An hour later, she wanted me to search for a book called From Sane to Crazy (wouldn’t she want to go the other way?) The book didn’t come up. Five minutes later she was standing in front of me again asking me to search for a book called From Sane to Crazy. I snapped at her,

“We already checked.”

She narrowed her eyes at me and started breathing heavily through her nose. After a moment, she walked off in a huff. An hour later, she stood in front of me again. She’d decided to try a different tack. She asked me to search for From Sane to Crazy again “just to see what other books come up.” I did, and seven items appeared on the screen. Without even looking at the list, she asked me to order them all. I told her that orders over $100 have to be paid in advance. She assured me that it wouldn't be over $100. She was right. It totaled $99.87. Dumb luck. She hadn’t even looked at the prices. I felt mad. For no real reason, I hated this woman. I knew she was mentally ill. I knew she (probably) deserved my compassion, but for whatever reason, I could not muster any. I informed her that I had to ask a manager before I could place the order. I found S and told him the situation. Turns out he’d already had a fight with her about something, and was as eager as I to foil her plans. (S gets in fights with the customers all the time. He’s very protective of the store and the staff.) He told me to just pretend to order it (Ha!) but when I got back to my desk, Sophie, unknowingly, was finishing the order. There was nothing I could do. Crazy gloved lady smirked at me, and I felt rage boil deep within.

Now she is standing in front of me again, asking for more paper, and I am distractedly refusing. It is hard to focus on any customer right now, even one that I am eager to smite, because to the right of me, in the café, is the Tweeter. She is not tweeting today, but rather spinning with her arms outstretched, shouting, “The New York Times is predicting my abortion today!” Customers are giving her a wide berth, and I can see Yolanda in the café going to the phone to call S. But that is not all. To my left, Skolnick is scuttling through the bargain section, hiding her treasures beneath stacks of marked down pictorials of India and clearance baby name books, literally snarling at anyone who gets in her way. All the while, in an almost soothing, melodic undercurrent, Carlton is predicting showers for the rest of the afternoon. As the Glove Lady begins to keen, I give in and shove a handful of pristine, white paper into her fleece covered hands. I snap, “You know, next time you need to bring your own paper and pencil. We’re not an office supply store.” She actually looks chastened. And a little scared. I glare at her, and she waddles off.

What I’m Reading Now:

Just finished Chang-Rae Lee’s Aloft. It was “aw’ite” as Randy Jackson might say. For a more detailed review, check out what AO Scott has to say about it.

I just started Karen Joy Fowler’s Jane Austen Book Club. It’s a book about a book club that reads only Jane Austen. Six chapters for six Austen reads and six members of the book club. At this point, it seems to be v. much chick lit, but a relief none-the-less since it does not feature bitchy single women in Manhattan/London worrying about their weight and trying to find Mr. Right. Read the NYTimes review.


Sunday, May 02, 2004

My B&N works with a school for mentally challenged adults on a job skills training program. The students come to the store with their mentors to learn a skill, and once they are comfortable the mentors come with less frequency until the students are functioning independently. In the time since I’ve been hired, three such students have started. All three are working as busers in the Café. There’s Violet, a petite, middle-aged woman who proclaims at the end of every shift, “I’m daaaawg tired!”, Teresa, a youngish girl with a massive crush on Johnnie Depp (she heard me mention him once in the break room and now takes every opportunity to sidle up to me and report on her latest Johnnie viewing experience. Oddly, it’s always Chocolat.), and, last but not least, the irrepressible Carlton.

The first thing about Carlton which caught my attention was the rate with which he learned everyone’s names. Here I am, 3 ½ months into my employment, and I still sometimes need clarification. (“Wait, that’s Leila? FUCK! I’ve been calling her Gale!”) Not so for Carlton. Day Two found him greeting us all by name, “Hey Serena, how you doin’?” and “Debbie! Debbie! What’s happening?” (I should also add that although he learned everyone’s name without prejudice, I quickly divined that Carlton is a breast man, since it was the bustier girls whose names he called out the most frequently. My name was a chart topper, since I not only work directly in his line of sight, but am endowed with the qualities he most enjoys.)

One of my most memorable conversations with Carlton took place shortly after he started working at the store. It was a Sunday in the break room, and since there is only one shift on Sundays (the store being open just under eight hours), it was packed. Most everyone was absorbed in their books or copies of the Post or whatever, but a couple of people were chatting in Spanish. Carlton, looking around the room for an audience, announced,

“I love it when they speak French.” John, one of the guys in receiving, a know-it-all with a severe personality disorder, felt the need to coldly reply,

“They’re not speaking French. They’re speaking Spanish.” Trying to be supportive, I glared at John and smiled at Carlton reassuringly.

“It’s an easy mistake to make,” I told him, “A lot of the people here do speak French.” Carlton shot me an exasperated look, and proudly stuck his chin in the air.

“I KNOW,” he frowned at me. “I speak French. I know two words: ‘Ma cherie’. It means ‘my love.’” I agreed, although I was silently correcting him- ‘mon amour’ means ‘my love,’ ‘ma chere’ means ‘my dear.’ Carlton was still grumbling. He turned from me and announced to the room,

“Rachel (me) is my love…. NO SHE ISN’T! I can do better than Rachel!” It stung. I have to admit, it stung.

During Carl’s first few weeks, his mentor, a shy, gangly girl in her twenties with a soft British accent followed him around wanly, urging him to put soap on his sponge. I preferred Violet’s mentor, Scarlet, a sleepily sexy girl with a sassy, almost cockney accent, and low-slung, mid-riff baring pants, who cheerily urged Violet on while gulping down coffee and leafing through the latest Vogue. Disappointingly, Violet was a fast learner, and Scarlet started showing up less and less often. Not so for Carlton. Around week two of his tenure, Carl’s attitude seemed to change. His happy greetings stopped, and they were replaced by angry grumblings that varied in volume and tenor depending on the day. As he weaved among the Café tables grabbing magazines and empty coffee mugs from frightened looking customers, he could be heard saying things like, “She never gives me any respect,” or “I don’t need her. I don’t need anyone!” When he did acknowledge us booksellers, he would say things like, “What are you looking at, Rachel?” or, even more to the point, “Shut up!” He would also use us as launching points for his own brand of bitter comic monologues. “I don’t know what Debbie’s smiling about. She says ‘good morning,’ to me… I don’t know what’s so good about this morning…. or any morning!” or “Look at Lisa with her curly hair. She thinks she’s so special cause she’s got curls. I know she isn’t special! Stupid Lisa.” It was at this point that customers started to complain. They would come over to the information desk and guiltily tell us that he was making them nervous. Most mornings we had already called S two or three times to tell him, “Carl’s acting up again..,” but we’d call again for show. S would come down, talk to Carl’s mentor in hushed tones, and she would talk to Carl in turn. This usually led to Carl yelling, “What do you know?” or, “I don’t have to take this!” and on one memorable morning, his mentor actually ran off crying.

The sad part is, I know exactly what changed Carlton’s attitude. It’s the same thing that happens to everyone working in dull, monotonous jobs, only most of us hide it better. Working in retail is difficult. It can be mind-blowingly boring and incredibly stressful at the same time. You don’t get much respect. You don’t get much money. There aren’t a lot of perks. I think Carlton got depressed because he realized that rather than being in school with his friends, learning and having fun, he was going to have to be at the same place every day doing the same boring tasks. I’ve certainly been there, and Carlton’s job is even more mind numbing than most. Honestly, I can’t think of a much duller way to spend ones days than sponging off sticky tables and retrieving empty coffee mugs. So I understand his rage. Sometimes I’d like to yell things about my co-workers- maybe it wouldn’t be Lisa’s curly hair that worked me into a lather, but her constant bickering with Debbie is certainly something I could say a few choice words about. And as Carlton said so eloquently of his mentor, “She never gives me any respect,” so I could say about the manager who told me that my co-workers wouldn’t like me if I wasted my time instead of doing my work. (She said this to me because she saw me skim the inside flap of a book jacket. I did it right in front of her. I was unaware that interest in the books was something we should hide from management.)

For a while, I was worried that Carlton would be fired. I watched with a morbid fascination as he grew more and more surly and unmanageable. Then one day it stopped. I don’t know how it happened. The only way I have of explaining it is to imagine Carlton as the subject of a successful trial on behavioral modification. Where he once spent his days shouting things like, “Why should I have to do this?,” or “Who does SHE think she’s looking at?” or the ever popular, “Go away!” he now chants the weather report. “62 degrees and sunny all day. All day. Just slight winds. 62 degrees and just slight winds.” It’s all very Rainman. I’m just waiting for someone to drop a box of toothpicks so he can astound us with his miraculous counting abilities.

But maybe it wasn’t psychologists in white lab coats poking and prodding him into submission. Maybe Carlton just got used to the daily grind. Maybe he’s come to accept the level of dullness, and the level of control over his actions. I mean, at first, I railed against the notion that I couldn’t sit down all day. Now, it just seems inevitable. I suppose Carlton, like me, has adjusted to the idea that wiping tables is what he has to do for 8 hours a day, five days a week. In a way, that’s unspeakably sad. I know I’ll move on from the store, but Carlton could be there for years- decades even. So I hope the fight hasn’t gone out of him completely. I think he’s going to need it.

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