I've written quite a bit, maybe too much, about my brief loser phase - the years working video game retail and going nowhere in life. That changed in 1996 when I decided to take things seriously and went back to college. Of course I still had to work and wasn't qualified to do much other than retail. So I took a job as a "2nd assistant manager" for a Super Crown bookstore. The job sucked but at least I had the right attitude this time.
When working at Electronics Boutique/Waldensoftware I mistook the job for being something important.. the horrible paying job with bad hours that anyone on the planet could do. Now I was liberated, I knew this bookstore job was joke and I'd quit the second I had a degree. I saw it as a four-year sentence. My goal was to just do the time and not cause any trouble. I wasn't going to do a bad job, but I wasn't giving it one extra second of thought or effort either. With good behavior I got out after only 18 months.
If you enjoyed reading loser phase then I have some marginally bad news: there is no video game content here. From 1996-2000 I basically gave-up games. I recognized them as a distraction that could sink my academics again. There'd be plenty of time for games when I was done with school.
Alright so then who is this article for anyway?
Summer-Fall 1996: The Setup
I was hired at Super Crown in late summer 1996 but the store I was to work at wasn't opening until November. At first it was little vague as to what I'd be doing until then. They said I'd be "training" at another nearby location. The thing is, you can pretty much do the job of a retail manager on the first day if you've ever done it before.. heck, even if you haven't. What "training" really meant was helping two other stores open up first.
Before a store can open it needs an inventory. Guess who was responsible for packing it? There was a distribution center located in Addison Illinois, it was essentially a giant warehouse with 2-4 permanent crew members. When new stores opened their full-time (salaried) staff had the pleasure of packing boxes of books for 8 hours a day. The regular warehouse staff did the day-to-day distribution tasks but extra hands were needed for new setups. It was a terribly monotonous job. A shipment of books would come from a vendor and we'd organize them into categories and repack them. The actual store setups went much faster if all the biographies were together and so on. It goes without saying that a lot of heavy lifting was involved, something I'm not exactly qualified for but I got by. The heat and complete lack of mental stimulation was worse than the physical labor.
The thing that made it the most unpleasant, but far, was the dude who ran the warehouse. He had obviously been doing work like this since ~1988, I'm sure he still is today. He had a loud stereo system there and played the entire Metallica catalog every day. When I say "the entire Metallica catalog" I mean at 8:00 precisely "Kill 'Em All" would start, by the end of "Master of Puppets" it was lunch time. And by "every day" I mean at least 9 out of 10 days. Once in a while he'd mix in some Type O Negative, never thought I'd feel relieved to hear them. I wasn't a big Metallica fan at the time, didn't dislike them but didn't own any albums either. By the end of summer every song made me nauseous. On the plus side, I was more motivated than ever to finish college.
Mercifully I was out of the warehouse by September. Since my college schedule didn't gel with an 8:00-4:30 shift I started going out to new locations to unpack the hundreds and hundreds of boxes. I worked at three locations including the one I'd be at full-time. That effort ran from 8:00 AM to 10:00 PM seven days a week. People were generally there during the hours they were originally hired to work. I'll admit this setup work wasn't all that bad. It's great how people who've never met can form this kind of natural order when presented a large task they have to accomplish together. It was a very self-regulating thing where everyone just implicitly seemed to know what to do. In the future I'd be lucky enough to work on some software development projects that functioned like this.
The other reason it was alright is that I was in charge of the computer books by nature of the fact that I knew the subject. Let's face it, most of the bookstore staff didn't know the difference between Visual Basic and C++, Windows NT and Windows 95, or PC and Mac for that matter. So I could just work away at this section for hours and get it into perfect order.
My store was the third, and last, I setup. By then it was November which meant we had to scramble. We absolutely had to be open the week of Thanksgiving and worked some zany hours to meet the deadline. Even on opening day things weren't perfect. For example, against the back wall we had a giant section to spotlight the books on the New York Time's Best Seller list. One 'e' was broken so we settled on "New York Tim's Best Seller List".
Christmas 1996: The Opening
Overall this Christmas was a complete blur. Adjusting to the new college+work schedule went better than expected, so well I don't even remember it happening. I racked my brain for anything that stood out about this holiday season and kept coming up blank.
Organization & Responsibilities
I assume all bookstores of comparable size are organized roughly the same way. There was a store manager, assistant manager, two 2nd assistants, 3-4 full-time employees, and a handful of part-time staff. The store manager spent most of the time checking payroll, making schedules, reviewing orders, and general bureaucratic things. She didn't spent too much time on the floor and worked a pretty standard 8-4 schedule. The assistant manager was basically in charge of tracking the inventory and also managed to avoid customers and keep a fixed schedule.
The two 2nd assistants, which included me, did most of employee supervision and customer resolution. We also were the ones responsible for closing the store which involved counting down money and making sure everything was put back in order. It was basically what I did at Electronics Boutique/Waldensoftware only bigger. Each of us 2nd assistants were also responsible for one section of the store. The assistant manager handled most of the inventory but we were each given one section to manage. It ended up being two for me, computer books and something called "remainders".
Remainder books were a mix of dusty old hardcovers, overstock, and books by discount publishers. Basically it was the clearance section. Go to any Borders or Barnes & Nobles today and you'll see this mess towards the front of the store. I suppose it was better than working in a shoe store but was still painfully dull. About once a month I'd have to go through a catalog of remainder books and place orders. It was something of a balancing act because there were restrictions on what you could order. If you wanted remainder books that would fly off the shelf you'd also have to order ones that would collect dust for a while. Want 20 copies of Tom Clancy's "Executive Orders"? Guess what, you have to buy 40 copies of "It Takes a Village" to get them.
Another part of the job was packing and returning books that didn't sell. This was common for hardcovers when the paperback edition was on the way. During my brief tenure at Super Crown there was a UPS strike. Business had to go on so we resorted to using third-rate carriers often with unlabeled white trucks. One of these carriers came to pick-up a few boxes of returns one afternoon. The exchange went something like:
Truck Dude: Yeah I'm here to pick-up boxes or something.
Me: Yeah these over here, they're kinda heavy.
Truck Dude: Whatever. Say, do you know where some lighting store is? We have some stuff for them.
Truck Dude: That's cool.
[Throws our boxes onto pile, sound of glass breaking]
Truck Dude: Later.
How to Balance School and Work
High Horse Warning
I don't believe there's such a thing as being "too busy" to work and go to school. I'm a very, very lazy person and managed to juggle both. The reality is it's entirely possible to work a 40-hour a week job and take a full course load. It's all a matter of balance and sacrifice.
If you're considering going back to school full-time chances are you're already working a service sector job. That's good, it means you can work evenings and weekends. If you can arrange to get Mondays+Wednesdays or Tuesdays+Thursdays off then you can dedicate those two days to school. That's 24-36 hours per week right there. You just have to make the commitment to focus for two days. Over on the left I have a link to a copy of what my schedule looked like from 8/1996-1/1998. I went with this two-day approach and it worked perfectly. I also took 1-2 early morning classes on M/W/F. Yeah it sucked, yeah I lost a lot of sleep, yeah it was totally worth it. My first programming job paid more than double what Super Crown did. It's not hard to see how the four-year investment pays off quickly.
Now for the sacrifice part... to make this work you obviously have to give-up something, maybe several things. I gave up:
My three favorite shows of the time would "jump the shark" in the not too distant future. Here's my blowhard opinion on when each of these shows would start their irreversible downward spiral:
The Simpsons - Alone Again, Natura-Diddly (2000-02-13): When Maude Flanders was unceremoniously killed-off I thought the Simpsons officially became unwatchable. It went from a smart comedy to one filled with nonsensical plots, arbitrary/pointless celebrity guests, and pious political statements. I absolutely loved the first nine seasons. The tenth was OK and the eleventh just plain bad. The previous episode in this season, Saddlesore Galactica, was the worst episode of the show at the time. I thought things might have bottomed-out though. After Alone Again I realized it was not going to get any better. The Simpsons jumped the shark and would never return to it's classic form again (although I haven't watched in 4-5 years so maybe it has).
X-Files - Requiem (2000-05-21): Mulder written-off the show + Scully's pregnancy = jumping the shark.
WCW Nitro - Fingerpoke of Doom (1999-01-04): The whole "nWo Wolfpac" vs. "nWo Hollywood" was bad, it marked the beginning of the end for WCW. Still, they had a chance to turn things around. Goldberg was hugely popular and could have carried the league back to it's previous heights. Instead, politics won out and the belt was given to Kevin Nash. For a brief moment it looked as though they'd come to their senses when the Goldberg-Nash rematch was announced. Instead we were "treated" to an idiotic stalking storyline to write-off Goldberg and a "replacement match" of Hogan-Nash. Hogan won the WCW title after the infamous fingerpoke and the entire organization would ultimately fail because of it.
I've always enjoyed the show "Married with Children" but didn't really understand the Oprah jokes until she started her reading club. We didn't see it coming. One day there was a sudden rush for some book that we never heard of, I think it was "Deep End of the Ocean". Finally we found out the reason for the madness, Oprah told her audience to buy the book and they did. They'd continue to unquestioningly rush to purchase every book she recommended. The hysteria grew and grew. I suddenly witnessed the cult-like mentality that surrounded Oprah.
After a few cycles we starting getting her book recommendations in advance. Well, we got boxes labeled "Oprah's book club, do not open until xx/xx/1997". Opening them in advance was a big no-no, some severe penalty or whatever. I saw what happened to the guy that made-up his autobiography in 2006, I assume Oprah would give the same treatment for revealing her book club titles in advance. The contents of the boxes didn't matter of course. It could have been filled with "A Night Without Armor : Poems by Jewel" and it would have sold-out so long as it was Oprah-endorsed.
Oprah also published a diet & exercise book called "Make the Connection". It sold some at some unfathomable rate. I suppose it's too easy to make fun of her weight problems. Although not a fan of hers by any stretch I can't go after someone who's actually trying to control their weight though. I guess those that struggled with weight problems related to the book or whatever. I've always thought diet books were a joke, including this one. "Eat less, exercise more" seems to be all you need. The books are more like a placebo.
Cat in the Hat
I thought the warehouse was the worst part of the job, man was I wrong. Our store had a sizable kid's section, nothing compared to what Borders is doing today but big at the time. To promote the kid's section they decided to have a "Cat in the Hat day". See, we (as in "the entire Crown Books corporation") owned a Cat in the Hat costume. It was circulated around stores for events like this, who knows what parasites were living inside that costume.
When we unpacked the costume it was obvious you had to be over 6'2" and under 200lbs to fit inside it. I was boned.
Sure the outfit was unbearably hot but it was the head that was the physically painful part. It was a gigantic metal structure with a metal harness that went down your back. Your head was actually inside the neck, where the breathing hole was. So you were supporting this heavy structure with your neck and shoulders, this had to be an OSHA violation.
The day of the event was fairly miserable, several hours of kids pulling on the tail or attaching themselves to my leg. It took serious effort not to tip over with that massive head.
A few months later we did a second "Cat in the Hat day" and it was equally as miserable. So long screwy.
I didn't think things could get worse than the Metallica warehouse or Cat in the Hat costume, but they could, so much worse... At Super Crown we carried an assortment of adult magazines. I don't mean Playboy, Penthouse, or even Hustler; I'm talking hard-core pornography. I wasn't even sure it was legal given that no other store in town carried anything close (as far as I knew at least). Towns usually regulate what can be sold but I doubt anyone checked. The fact that a substantial portion of our staff were in high school and/or female just made the situation even more uncomfortable.
Look, I have zero against porn, whatever you're into dude. I'm just not sure a store like Super Crown was the best place to carry it.
We used to keep them behind the counter but then every customer saw them at checkout. Enough complained that we just moved them onto the top shelf of the magazine rack. Even I could barely reach them so it seemed safe. I know what you're thinking and "no" we couldn't just leave them in the backroom or not sell them. This was one of these things out of our control, all the stores had to sell them. (There are many reasons why Crown Books is out of business)
Since most stores left the magazines out in the open we were given these metal clamps to put around them. The mags themselves were wrapped in plastic and these clamps locked around them. We had gun-shaped gizmos behind the counter to remove them. The clamps were virtually worthless though, they were essentially clamped onto plastic which meant they could be forced off with minimal effort. At best they were a deterrent to the truly brainless.
We first learned how easy these clamps were to remove one night when we found several "used" magazines that someone tried to flush down the toilet. You read that right, someone took the magazine into the men's room, "used" it, and flushed it. Soon it became a semi-weekly ritual. Sometimes they were flushed, other times just crammed into the tank. Someone had to clean that up and many times that meant "me". My choices often were: a) clean it up or b) have someone quit. Occasionally b) was the better choice but a) won out too many times.
Did I mention I earned about $12 an hour?
We didn't make any real effort to catch whoever was doing it. We figured they'd get bored and eventually they did. He was certainly some voyeur perv who got off on the idea of being caught. After not being caught he moved-on (or was arrested for indecent exposure somewhere else).
At least I have some funny stories about selling porno magazines. My top three are:
3) A very nervous guy comes up with a porno mag wedged between two newspapers. He was trying to be very discrete and I decided to have some fun. I rang up the newspapers then eyeballed the magazine and yelled to the nearest employee "Hey Garry, how much for Swank magazine!?" Yeah, I was an a-hole but it was pretty damn funny.
2) An obviously underage kid comes up to buy a porno mag and does the whole trying to act older bit. You know, the fake deep voice and such. I ask for an ID and he hands me a speeding ticket that's clearly been altered to make him 18, or maybe mid-20s, I didn't do the math. I laughed and said "You've got some balls. Get the f' out of here."
1) It's about two minutes before closing time and three guys in the their mid-20s come up to the counter. One of them buys a stack of adult magazines while the others loitered. Our exchange ended something like:
Me: Alright, thanks.
Guy: Do you have a bathroom?
Me: Uh, yeah, in the back.
Guy: OK thanks. [Heads for the bathroom]
Me (to the other two guys): Yeah, so, we're closing up now, maybe you want to go get your friend?
Other Guy #1: No way am I going in there.
Other Guy #2: We're not going to buy anything so you can go ahead and close.
Me: Sounds good, just let yourselves out.
At least he paid for the magazines and took them home, better than our bathroom bandit.
Bookstores get most of their calendars for the following year in September. The problem is that no one buys a calendar in September. Everybody knows they go 50% off the day after Christmas. What, are you going to keep it in your closet for four months? Of course not, you're going to wait until they're cheap. The bookstores, on the other hand, are stuck sitting on massive stockpiles.
September 1997 rolled around and the 1998 calendars starting pouring in. We put out what we could but still had a good 20 boxes that were going to collect dust for months. So some poor chumps had to get them out of the way.
Our orders were simple, stack the boxes in the far corner of the backroom - on the high shelf that no one can reach. No one except the 6'4" dude I guess. I enlisted one of our high school employees to help. He was one of these types that wasn't too bright but was a good worker, never gave me a moment of grief. He climbed up to the top shelf and I hoisted boxes up to him, 30-50lb boxes of calendars. I'm in miserable shape but after the 3rd or 4th I just kinda went numb and didn't notice the weight.
The next morning I could barely move, like how you feel the day after getting rear-ended. Somehow I forced myself out of bed and to an 8:00 class. For the next 3-4 weeks my back was in tremendous pain, I'm not a doctor but knew it was a torn (or severely pulled) muscle. It'll still act up after a day of heavy lifting, I suppose I could sue except the company is out of business and it really was my own dumbass fault.
Besides stacking calendars I had to spend a lot of time in the backroom - placing orders, counting registers, and unpacking shipments were all part of the job. We had a radio that was permanently affixed to the local "top 40" station. Don't know why they're called "top 40" stations when their song rotation is about 20 deep. There are several songs that I must have heard 200-300 times while working at Super Crown. Let's call them the "top 10 most overplayed songs of 1997":
10) Quit Playing Games (With My Heart) - Backstreet Boys
9) Bitch - Meredith Brooks
8) Sunny Came Home - Shawn Colvin
7) You Were Meant For Me - Jewel
6) Fly - Sugar Ray
5) MMMBop - Hanson
4) Wannabe - Spice Girls
3) Where Have All The Cowboys Gone? - Paula Cole
2) I Want You - Savage Garden
1) How Bizarre - OMC
The biggest news story of 1997 was the death of Princess Di. I'm largely ambivalent towards the story. My opinion is the paparazzi involved in the accident should be shot while at the same time the story received way too much attention. The amount of coverage was semi-nauseating. Once someone's been dead for over a week it's pretty much not news at that point.
Fully-nauseating was the deluge of people looking to cash in on the story. Within a month of her death our shelves were plastered with hastily written biographies. I really can't recall how many different titles there were, it was a lot. They all sold regardless of quality, the non-fiction best sellers list had 3-5 of these books on it throughout the fall. It was quite lecherous, these overnight biographers weren't much better than the sleazes that chased her to her death. Both were looking to feed off the accomplishments, and suffering, of others.
Locally we experienced a similar phenomenon when Chicago Cardinal Bernadin passed away in late 1996. His book, "A Gift of Peace", sold in incredible quantities after his death.
Oh Yeah, the Books
Didn't think someone could write so much about working a crappy bookstore job while barely mentioning any book titles eh? So what were people reading from 1996 to January 1998? Well, besides Princess Di biographies, pr0n mags, and whatever Oprah told them to. My memory isn't perfect but a few items stand out as being especially popular.
"Cold Mountain" was the top-selling fiction book we had in that time, it was on the top of the New York Time's Best Sellers list virtually uninterrupted. The "Green Mile" series from Stephen King was also hot for a few months. Otherwise it was new releases from the same 4-5 authors you'll see on the best sellers list today. Like the video game business, things don't really seem to change that much. I'm sure Madden '98 was the top selling game of 1997, or maybe Final Fantasy VII.
On the non-fiction side, I recall "Demon Haunted World" by Carl Sagan having a nice run. He had died recently so his final book received a lot of attention. It was also the only non-school related book I read over this 18-month span. "Into Thin Air" was another title that racked-up sales. Johnny Cochran released an autobiography that sold surprisingly well. Two years after the "trial of the century" OJ books practically had their own section. There was an assortment of fad-diet, pop-psych, and psuedo-religious books that sold steadily too.
For those looking for a nugget of computer/video game related content (which is what 99% of my site is about) here's all I have.. We sold a healthy stack of Windows 95 and some Windows 98 preview books, usually the "Dummies" variety to new computer owners. Java programming books were very popular for those looking to try their hand at the emerging web development scene. They all went on to create crappy applets on their crappy Geocities page. We had some video game hint books but the magazines always outsold them. I barely followed the gaming scene at this point (and still haven't really caught up).
Of course we sold the usual stuff. People bought a lot of Bibles, high school kids bought "To Kill a Mockingbird", cheap romance and sci-fi books were constant sellers. I imagine that hasn't changed in 10 years either.
I missed the Harry Potter fad by a year. I suppose the first book wasn't a mega-sensation like the later releases but I have a feeling it would have annoyed me terribly all the same.
Christmas 1997: Triple Duty
A year of college was under my belt and things were going great. Doubling-up during summer school put me ahead of schedule. Everything was wonderful except for the financial situation. With Christmas approaching I decided to take a temporary job.. back at Electronics Boutique. The only flaw in this plan is that since I was a former manager (at a different location) they gave me a ton of hours. They knew I obviously wouldn't screw anything up too badly so I was more valuable than the average stroke-off they hired for seasonal help.
I was now working 71 hours a week (since 31 qualifies as part-time) in addition to studying for finals. Once I got past finals it was mostly bearable but the first 2-3 weeks were rough. By the end of the year I was worn out, somewhere between exhaustion and insanity. It was good practice for later in life when I took on graduate school while having a kid.
Hey, at least the bookstore was running more smoothly than the previous year. Yeah we had some duds on the staff but most had been around long enough that we avoided any major catastrophes.
Despite the fatigue I was taking things in stride, a light began to shine in the distance. Maybe I should have called this section "quadruple duty" because I also dedicated a lot of time to finding a non-retail job...
I only had a year of computer science education, largely C++, but I was fluent in Visual Basic from independent study. I talked to the head of the computer science department at school about internships or part-time work. In 1997 less qualified programmers were being hired left and right so I figured I'd find something. He hooked me up with a few referrals and I managed to score a couple interviews.
In late December I interviewed at a company called TSI Software. I remember the date well because there were Christmas decorations strewn throughout the nearly vacant office. "Last night was the holiday party so almost everyone is out today" the perky receptionist informed me. Already it seemed like an alright place to work. The interview went well and I was offered a job pretty quickly. They'd even let me work 2:00-10:00 Monday-Friday, there was another college student already doing the same. It was a whole different attitude in the mid-late 90s, if you could crank out code they didn't care about anything else. I had to shift my school schedule around a little, classes from 8:00-1:00 five days a week now. The week would now be brutally long now but I had weekends off for the first time in 6 years.
January 1998: So Long Suckers
We agreed on a late January start date at TSI Software due to my prospective boss' vacation schedule. The manager of our store knew I was quitting when I walked in sporting an ear-to-ear smile.
Manager: You got another job.
Me: You called it.
Manager: Two weeks?
The next two weeks were the most fun I've even had at a job. Nah, I didn't do anything too crazy, illegal, or otherwise immoral. I did screw with our less intelligent customers more than usual though.
When I started at Super Crown I figured I'd encounter brighter customers than at Electronics Boutique/Waldensoftware based on the literacy requirement. Couldn't have been more wrong.
One problem not present at Electronics Boutique/Waldensoftware was senior citizen shoplifting, well I suppose I witnessed a slight variant once. At least once or twice a month I'd see an octogenarian walk right out the front door with an unpaid book in hand. I know this is usually considered a tired stereotype but it really happens. I never once made any effort to stop them nor did anyone else on the staff.
I only returned to the store to collect a final paycheck. It's not like I had anything against Super Crown though. All things considered it was an OK job and they worked around my school schedule. I just never had a reason to shop there. I didn't really frequent bookstores prior to working there and with something called "Amazon dot com" arriving on the scene the whole bookstore idea felt obsolete.
In early 2001 Crown Books went out of business. All locations were liquidated by summer, obviously including the location I worked at. A Tweeter store moved into the location and also closed, I think the building is cursed.
Christmas, car driving photos from http://www.freefoto.com. Princess Di photo from Wikimedia Commons, see http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Princess_diana_bristol_1987_02.jpg