Friday, January 02, 2009

Borders/Waldenbooks



Well, that's it. The saga that began with Lana Turner (see http://booksteveslibrary.blogspot.com/search?q=lana+turner+changed+my+life+and+never+even+knew) in 1982 has now officially ended. Today was my last day working at Borders/Waldenbooks after more than 26 years in the book industry mainly at 5 different locations (as well as a three year sidestep to Barnes and Noble and the Public Library). The picture above is the cover of an edition of Thoreau's WALDEN that appropriately hangs over my mantle. Ironically, it was obtained from Barnes and Noble when the store in which I was working turned out to be the second smallest B&N in the country and thus closed a year and a half after I went there.

Bookselling was never intended to be a career. It was, in fact, a dinky little Christmas help job that got out of hand! My very, very first job had actually been as the youngest manager (age 11) of the school bookstore! I was let go after two weeks for consistently returning customers the wrong change! Spent the rest of the year as a cookieseller at recess!

Ultimately, however, managing bookstores is what I did for more than two decades. During the course of that, I met various women who played important roles in my life including the woman I would marry. I made a number of relatively deep friendships, also. Within the past month alone, I've had email or phone conversations with a girl who worked for me in 1995, a guy from 1989, another guy from 1998, two girls I worked with in 2003, two customers from 1985 and 2003 (!) and the boss I worked with at three stores for a total of 13 years.

Amongst the more memorable events over the years:

Being invited to a "staff meeting" at my original manager's apartment in 1982 only to have the whole thing degenerate into a pot party...with the district manager present!

Appearing on the front page of the newspaper when the company first started carrying audiobooks. Note the clueless newspaper headline writer (markers? TV tapes?). My manager here (in spite of what it says, I was her Assistant, not simply "a clerk") had been off on maternity leave but I thought she'd want to be in on this so I called her. She brought her new baby who was being held by the reporter and screaming at the top of her little lungs as the photographer climbed a ladder to snap this shot.

Being interviewed on TV about the Vanessa Williams PENTHOUSE issue...the day before we were told not to comment to the press!

Being confronted by two MEN IN BLACK-style FBI agents who demanded to know the names of everyone who had ordered THE ANARCHIST COOKBOOK. Being a firm First Amendment fan, I refused in spite of their intimidation which left me physically shaking before I was able to call our legal department and pass the buck to them.

Receiving a letter from the Commonwealth of Kentucky county attorney saying that it has come to his attention that our store violated Kentucky statutes for obscenity and that we needed to pull the obscene merchandise. We called and left a message to the effect that if he told us what was in violation we would do so. He responded with another letter that essentially said, "You should know it when you see it." and threatened arrest if we did not pull it immediately. We chose to ignore it. Said attorney was later convicted of embezzling millions of my taxpayer dollars!

We set up a table selling books at a Korean war veterans reunion and I made a point of thanking every vet who came by our table for all they had done for our country but they were all so drunk they really didn't notice or care. I'm sure they considered it a great reunion.

For Cincinnati's Bicentennial, I arranged an elaborate district-wide contest (much to the consternation of my district manager!) which led to me actually having to attend meetings at the Bicentennial headquarters.

Our store twice won science-fiction display contests, once getting written up in the company newsletter and earning my boss a trip to Disneyworld AND our home office (guess who did nearly all of the work?) and me getting a pencil sharpener that looks like a spaceship. The second time we won when I suggested dressing up an exotic-looking Korean-American employee as a Vulcan only to find she couldn't do the "Live long and prosper" finger spread. No worries. I simply taped her fingers together and took the contest winning photos!

How about the time a few years back when a woman had just returned from England and asked if we had that bestselling book, HENRY (sic) POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER'S STONE. I searched all of our sources and finally had to give up, suggesting that it might only be available in the UK. "I'm sorry, ma'am," I said, "Perhaps HARRY (sic) POTTER...isn't published in this country." "HENRY!" she corrected (she thought) loudly, adding..."It will be! It will be!"

Author James Alexander Thom was one of my first autographings. His books were meticulously researched historical pioneer fiction so, as a gift to him, I bought and gave him a then-complete run of William Messner-Loebs great JOURNEY comic book!

I believe I've mentioned here before the time I met SESAME STREET's Gordon (Roscoe-WILLIE DYNAMITE-Orman) sneaking a cigarette out by the trash compactor at the mall.

Probably the most fun booksigning we did was with country/pop legend Skeeter Davis in 1993! It all started when her ex, Ralph Emery had totally dissed her in his autobiography. I thought, "Wow. I wish she'd write a book. I'd love to hear her side of that!" She did. One thing led to another and I ended up promoting a full-fledged two hour concert on stage in the mall's center court with Skeeter and her band hot off a tour of military bases in Germany! After the busiest day we ever had, we sat in the back room for hours listening to her tell tales of Elvis, the Beatles, Chet Atkins, NRBQ and her dog, Jack (who was present) to a pair of Texas DJs who had come all the way to Kentucky to interview her. When she died a couple years back, the local paper said that she had not performed in this area for decades. They published my letter setting them straight.

Another favorite booksigning was with the nicest man on Earth, George Clooney's dad, Nick! We also had Richard Simmons, Robert Schuller and scores of lesser known and local authors including two of my own former employees who ended up publishing books!


More recently met authors include Stephen R Donaldson, Tess Gerritson, Gregory Maguire and Ron Jeremy.




Of course, there were the creepier incidents such as the girl who was shelving and found a note addressed to her that said, "You have a beautiful body." How about the time we found dozens of the SWEET VALLEY TWINS children's books where someone had felt comfortable enough to neatly cut the faces of the pubescent girls off the covers without being caught. That was similar to the guy (I assume) who had neatly sliced the naked fourteen year old girl's picture out of a line-up of unclothed women from birth to age 80 in OUR BODIES, OURSELVES. Ew!

Amongst the stranger things found in our stores: a solidified half-eaten hamburger, lots of dirty diapers, feminine hygiene products and lots and lots of Jack Chick comics! One church actually went so far as to thoughtfully stamp their name, address and phone number on them so we could call and complain!

When my son was born, I kept photos of him taped to the cashwrap as conversation starters. When I left that store, I had customers who gave me presents for him and insisted I keep them up to date as to how he was doing.

Just before I left for Barnes and Noble (Hey, it seemed like a good idea at the time), the Loss Prevention guy from the home office came by one last time and I thanked him for all the stuff I'd learned from him over the years. He told me if I ever needed anything from him going forward to give him a call and he gave me his card. I reminded him that I was going to a different company and he said, "I don't care. I just like catching the bad guys."

One of the ones he caught just after I left was my very pregnant Assistant whom we had been investigating for possible returns fraud. I couldn't prove it on my watch but I recruited my Senior Bookseller to help keep an eye on her. I had been chastized by the Home Office for doing so but soon after I left, it was HER work that led to the culprit being caught and dismissed.

Oh, can't forget this guy! I came out of the back room one day and passed a nicely groomed bearded older gentleman with a greeting. I saw he had a couple of PLAYBOY specials in his hand but thought nothing of it. He was probably pushing seventy. He was old enough. When I got to the front I glanced back and he was nowhere to be seen. Thinking the poor older gentleman might have fallen, I rushed back only to find him with his pants unzipped stuffing the magazines down inside them! BUSTED! He was all apologetic and I escorted him to the front and told him I was going to have to call the police. At that point, he bolted, pants still half unzipped! A helpful customer looking at magazines yells, "Hey, that's my dentist!" HAH! This enabled us to track him down and identify him as, in fact, a rather prominent local dentist! The authorities visited him later that day.

In the early nineties, one of my employees was working at a college radio station and talked us into buying cheap commercial time out of petty cash. I wrote three commercials and he, my lovely wife and myself starred in them. The outtakes were hilarious!

My lovely wife (aka the company auxilary) also helped out when the company set up a table at a STAR TREK convention in Louisville with guest George Takei. When we arrived, however, the folks who had been manning the table all day were so eager for a break that they handed my wife their cigar box full of money and left...even though my wife was NOT with the company at the time!

One winter there was a deep snowstorm. I called the mall and they said that yes, they WOULD be open so I had to find a way in. Dug my car out and took nearly two hours for what was normally a twenty minute trip but I made it! I opened the store but there was no one there. No customers, no other open stores, note even the ubiquitous mallwalkers! After an hour, I called the mall office again asking if the mall was open. I was assured that it was. I explained to the young woman that I was IN the mall and that it was NOT open and that I was going home!

One year we were putting up our annual calendar kiosk and we had to have a number of employees there at 5 AM to assist. One of my employees suggested we have a pajama party and stay up all night! Strangely, my wife agreed to host this at our house. Said young lady arrived with popcorn, caffeinated drinks and I LOVE LUCY VHS tapes. One by one, the others cancelled. My wife headed upstairs early leaving my 18 year old female employee and my 40-something self watching Lucy and Desi...until she conked out on my couch leaving me too hyped up on Coca-Cola to sleep! Aaargh!

There were so many memorable employees. Here are a few--

A girl I hired because I liked her English/Portuguese accent. She not only worked out well, she ended up managing a rival bookstore for years and later became the editor of a local arts paper.

The same day I hired her, I hired another young woman who later became a University professor.

I hired one young lady because she had a rather obvious cool STAR TREK tattoo. She turned out to be one of the three best employees I ever worked with!

Then there was the young woman who was having an affair with a very married member of the Cincinnati Reds. Nobody believed her until he started calling her at the store and we all recognized his voice from television.

One young lady quit and told off the boss in no uncertain terms! The next day when I arrived for work midday (I was Assistant Manager then), she was waiting for me outside the mall and said, 'What did I do!?" It took all of my diplomatic skills but I negotiated getting her job back.

I interviewed one young lady but didn't hire her. Now normally, the next day I would have forgotten her name simply because there was no reason to remember it. For some reason I couldn't forget hers, though, and six months later when I was hiring again, I dug out her application and re-interviewed her, this time hiring her. She worked out so well that when I returned to the company after my three years afield, I hired her all over again! The economy being what it is, however...her position has been eliminated and tomorrow is her final day, too. Sigh.


When they decided to open the Borders store in the Cincinnati airport--the first such christened--I put in for the manager position and was told I was ineligible because my own rural store had been downtrending for three years. Although dissappointed, I volunteered to help on that first day. I met the manager in a parking lot at 3 AM and she had to escort me through airport security. We opened at 5:30 that day and she and I worked alone until 4 PM. Between rushes, I spent much of the day labeling things with a brand new fresh-out-of-the-box-labelmaker. Eventually, 4 years later I did finally became the manager of that very store and this morning I used that labelmaker one final time.

A lot of good times. Good memories. I'm not hurting right now. The bills are paid off this time and there's still some money coming in. I still donated money to feed the homeless at the grocery store earlier today because there are plenty of folks worse off than I am. Gonna take a brief winter vacation and catch up on my reading and my writing. Then it's time to look ahead. This is, as our soon to be President has said, a year of change...and ALL change has the potential for good! One immediate thing is that I can start training my cats to stop getting me up at 4 AM to get to the airport by 5:30 and open the store at 6 AM!

9 comments:

Jamdin said...

Thanks for sharing the memories, both good and bad, of your work experience. Good luck in 2009.

Rich D said...

Condolences on the job loss. Perhaps with all the former employees who have gone on to greater things, one or two will be able to offer you a new opportunity.

Anonymous said...

Those cats are never going to learn to wake you up later. You might as well resign yourself to it. Or take my advice about putting them in the basement at night with their food and litter boxes. :P

Anonymous said...

Sounds as if you had a good, memorable run at a job with lots
of interesting people and stories!
Between your "day job", your old
time radio hobby, your other fan
fixations AND your blogging, you
have the makings of a fun, readable
book covering your so far amazing
life!
BookSteve writing a book! Ironic?

Constant Reader Sam Kujava

Lisa_mynx said...

you forgot the booksigning where you didnt even have the author's latest book in stock...

Mike Church said...

Thanks for sharing your memories, Steve. Best wishes to you and Rene in 2009.

BTW- I went back and re-read the original Lana Turner post - it definitely has the makings of a lost Twilight Zone episode!

Becca said...

AS a career bookstore employee myself (Waldens, B&N and Borders most recently) I can relate, smile, laugh and grimace with alot of what you say here! Hope wherever you end up next it's just as interesting and rewarding!

Anonymous said...

Steve,
You ought to consider writing and/or consulting.

Hope your 2009 goes great.

JE

Nick said...

WOW! What great stories! As a former B. Dalton manager and Borders part-timer, I can relate. I laughed, gasped, nodded, and shook my head as I read. I also found dirty diapers, had all sorts of crazy customers, met my share of celebrities and had a few famous shoppers (Richard M Daley and Howie Mandel.) Hope all is well with you.