Sunday, May 22, 2011

Closing Chapter 3 - Madcap

Closing Chapters
Reflections on my Time as a Bookseller
Chapter 3 - Madcap

“Got mad?”
photo: Bill West
His eyes were brimming with glee, this perfect devil fallen from my shoulder now before me, full size, confronting me eye-to-eye. The Pigman was a manager cut from the same cloth; loyal to his staff and his local clientele with the uncanny ability to interject levity into the most menial of tasks. Instead of the printed word he hawked B-B-Q and if smoked meat were books his would be on the New York Times bestsellers list.

I paused, then replied with a tone as confused as his, “No, not really.”

I suppose I should be. Our bookstore was closing by no fault of its own. While many of the stores in our district wallowed in the red during the recession, we remained profitable. Heck, it is rumored that Dennis Lehaine announced at a national mystery writer’s convention that we were the best bookstore in the country. When our company decided to celebrate Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight franchise with première edition parties (klieg lights included), they funded three stores; Los Angeles, natch, Ann Arbor, the company’s hometown, a given, and yes, or lowly store on the South Shore.

Was I dismayed? Yes. But mad… ?

While waiting for the best smoked chicken wings this side of Tennessee, I explained to my inquisitor what you may have read already, about being there for the staff and consoling customers. 

“Then  ya got mad, huh?” my impish Beelzebub prodded.

“No.” I replied too quickly.

Perhaps I was repressing some pent-up anger that was simmering just below the surface. It’s not like I was moments from turning into a crazed, disgruntled employee, climbing onto one of the library stacks, holding my employees captive until they each purchased a copy of Wicked Appetite by Janet Evanovich and America by Heart by Sarah Palin (both titles which I had an excess of two hundred copies.) Still, for the sake of my mental health and my innocent patrons, I decided to list some of the annoyances I observed during the past two weeks in hope that by doing so, I will ferret out my inner mad woman.

THE STACKS: To the best of our ability we struggled day and night to keep the titles in each section in order, alpha by author, the more tempting titles faced out to attract potential readers. Before, when a customer asked for a certain title, we could strut briskly to its shelf and procure said title as if my magic. We no longer had smoke and mirrors. Due to bargain hunters filling their arms with books only to discard the titles that didn’t make the cut anywhere they happened to be, and the sneaky shoppers who squirreled away titles hoping to unearth their little chestnuts a week later when the discounts increased, the store was a shambles.  The only assistance we could offer was informing the customer that a title might be in house. Then their scavenger hunt would begin. No more hand holding, no more suggestive selling. So much for the magician’s reveal.

 THE QUESTION: Everyone is inquisitive when a store closes, I get it. A series of answers are scripted by the home office which each bookseller is expected to know by rote. One question however eventually comes up in every conversation, “Soo, when are you closing?” Even the loyalist of patrons ask, the tone changing from Sméagol to the Gollum. One of my veteran employees, a good quarter century of bookselling in his rear window, tapped into his anger and inserted a sheet of paper into his lanyard tag. The plastic pocket was reserved for ‘Hello my name is…’ , current promotions and announcements of personal merit. Now it held a sheet of paper with the coarsely scratched words WE DON’T KNOW all in capitols, accented with an exclamation point. The manager in me went ‘No, No No’ but my off-the-clock, soon-to-be-unemployed self went ‘way to go.’ The liquidator was cool with it and so it stayed, dangling from his neck, point made, anger abated.

SIGNAGE: We play by the liquidator’s rules now. Attention to merchandising standards has been thrown to the wind replaced by the tree depleting overkill of posted flyers and garish signage turning the bookstore from a streamline of maple shelves and cover art into an imploded piñata. Old standards served a purpose when we were a bookstore; the current signapalooza has been proven to work for what we are now, a clearing house. It takes a while to understand that you are no longer a bookseller.

FIXTURES: Everything must go! Nothing held back! That means every display, every tool of the trade. The desks, the shelves, even the paperclips were up for grabs. Understandable, it’s what a liquidator does, liquidate. No harm, no foul. Still, rectangles of neon orange stamped with FOR SALE and an indiscriminate price tagging every square inch of where you spent the majority of your waking hours gnaws at the bottom of your stomach. That was a good six years for me.  The first day price tags were put on my past I exclaimed, “You’re selling my trident!” which I used to help bring Rick Reardon’s words to life. “You’re kidding, my cauldron too!” referring to my mystical bowl where I conjured up countless celebrations of all things Harry. Thankfully my vampire cape and fright wig were at home, now made powerless, no longer able to entertain young and old customers enamored by the sparkling undead. Some things, like my costumes and this store are fixtures, fixtures in this community you can’t put a price on.

THE VOID:  As product dwindles, we consolidate the titles; migrate the remaining stock closer and closer to the front door where it is expected they will past with all-sales-final receipts. Two things happen in result. First, sections move every other day, shrinking like puddles after sun showers. This means the location of a certain category you could walk to in your sleep was no longer there. God forbid if you took a day off. This made it near impossible to guide a customer where a desired book may be hiding. Second, as the categories constrict, they leave the back empty, sanctioned off by yellow caution tape. Walking the back of the store surrounded by bay after empty bay, walls ribbed by vacant shelves, you feel like you are in the belly of a beast. The ghosts of retail past reside there. Each day the hollow grows. One day soon all there will be left is this whale carcass with a padlock in front. I don’t like to go there.
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I head home, battled commuters, stopping and starting my way towards my humble abode. I may soon lose that as well as my job if fate doesn’t intervene. The devil’s burning question and this burgeoning list buzzed in my head.
Once home I opened my to-go bag to discover that the tray tipped to one side in my car seat and the hot ‘n sloppy sauce had leaked away from the wings, pooling in the bottom. I let out a series of expletives that would make a longshoreman blush. Coughing through a well of tears I salvaged my guilty snack that I soon would not be able to afford.

At work I wear several hats; bookseller (always first and foremost), manager, teammate, friend, consult, liquidator, confidante, custodian but only in the confines of my home, surrounded by a menagerie of inanimate objects all in need of a good tongue-lashing, will I wear my mad cap.

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