Thursday, September 25, 2003

ODD JOBS #3--BOOK WAREHOUSE, 1990-91

As I become an old man, succumbing to sudden bouts of Halfheimer's, unable to distinguish day from night, as liable to leave my false teeth in the garden as in a cup in the sink, the misty veils of memory serve to deceive me. I held an odd job before Y Publications (as set forth in Odd Jobs #2), and managed to forget about it between taking the geritol and looking for my cane.

How could I forget Book Warehouse, in Gainesville, Florida? Thou fetid breath of stale air, thou cement strip-mall fixture, glassy face fixed on the dull gray lifeless strip that is Interstate 75, yearning for customers. Or something like that. I shall stop waxing poetic before I wax myself right into purpling prose. Too late.

Book Warehouse: a remaindered books bookstore. Or as I like to think of it, a remaindered bookstore. I worked there for six months, under certain constraints. Like, we had to accost the customer before they'd taken ten steps into the store, asking "How" or "What" questions so they could not simply answer "No" and continue about their business. Like, if someone asked for a book that we did not have--and the truth was: we did not have any books that anybody wanted; chastened, embarrassed authors of non-sellers clustered on the shelves, trying to hide--we should not tell them we didn't have the book; instead, we should immediately suggest an alternative book that was like the book they had asked for, in hopes they would buy it instead. Invariably, this failed with miserable frequency. "Do you have the novelization of Terminator?" "No, but we have a novelization of Monkey Boy Wonder Bus. Would that do?"

By day, our district manager worked in the prison system testing urine samples from potential guards. At night, he came by with his brilliant ideas. Under his guidance, we would desperately find new ways to sell the books. For example, we once changed the alphabetical order of the entire wall of fiction from A - Z to Z - A. Another time, we had to reorganize the Wall of Fiction so that it formed a pretty pattern of dark covers and light covers. Perhaps, in time, we would have played chess with the Wall of Fiction. It certainly wasn't going anywhere, and had nothing else to do.

Once, our district manager took it upon himself to show us the proper way to display the books. When he was done, he turned, started to speak, and a coffee table book he'd shelved improperly fell on his head.

Another time, he took me aside and asked, with a twinned tone of urgency and puzzlement in his voice, "That woman was just in here last week. Why is she here again?" I didn't really know how to answer the question. "What do you mean? She wants to buy more books." Him: "But she just bought one last week." And so the conversation continued, until it became quite clear that our district manager viewed books like the rest of us thought of toasters, microwaves, televisions, drill sets, end tables, couches, spatulas, egg whisks, tractors, cheese graters, porch swings, and other things one does not buy each and every week.

Customers added to the fun. Once, we discovered that someone had taped condoms inside each and every copy of a popular teen romance series. Another time, we caught a self-published author trying to sneak his book onto the shelves. In a remaindered bookstore.

Of course, I was not blameless. Sometimes, I did not make what one might call the "right decisions." For example, I once led a man to a book on airplanes when what he wanted was The Great Plains.

But my most horrible miscalculation concerned the young adult mystery section.

A girl came in asking for mysteries. I led her to the young adult mystery section. It was in the awkward silence that followed that I realized she was not a girl. She was a midget. I quickly led her to the right section and then went into the back room so I could bang my head against a wall for awhile. A blunder of legendary proportions. I couldn't bear to come out until after she was gone.

But it would get worse. The next day things were slow, so I was telling a co-worker in a self-deprecating way, about the whole midget-young-adult debacle. Suddenly, I hear a sharp cough from somewhere near my elbow. I look down--and there's a man, a dwarf, glaring up at me. Stunned, I asked him a "How" or "What" question and then tried to stumble through an explanation, before just shutting up.

Rather shaken by the confluence, I decided I'd stick to pricing the new books that were due to come in that day, and let my co-worker take the register. By that time, I had been made an Assistant Manager, which meant I got a five cent per hour raise and could tell the only other person who worked my shift to man the register.

So I go out back to the truck when it pulls up, to show the driver where to put the boxes...and it's not the normal driver. It's another dwarf. A midget and two dwarfs in a day and half. Someone somewhere was trying to tell me something--and I have to say, I was sincerely sorry for my lack of attention to detail re the young adult mystery section. I really was. It wasn't like I had a prejudice against little people--my tutor in math in college had been a dwarf, and if not for him I would have gotten an F rather than a D.

Nonetheless, the writing was clearly on the wall, as they say. These signs and symbols meant I could not be long for Book Warehouse, and so it turned out to be.

Having complained about the raise in responsibilities without a commensurate raise in salary--besides the five cents per hour, which, coincidentally, put me five cents above the minimum wage at that time--Book Warehouse fired me.

I'd soon regroup with Y Publications, and in the intervening two months of unemployment, I wrote "Learning to Leave the Flesh," about a dwarf, and "Bone Carver's Tale," two of my best pieces. (I wrote a story about a bookstore, but it sucked.) But I'd never forget my stint at Book Warehouse, workin' for the man.

Looking back, there are three things I learned from working at Book Warehouse: (1) pay attention to who you are leading to the young adult mystery section, (2) spreading a rumor that the owner of Book Warehouse has "changed her name to Mrs. Book Warehouse out of loyalty to the company" may not endear you to management, and (3) lighter fluid is the best way to remove price labels without leaving sticky glue on a book cover.

Now, I have to swallow down some more geritol and go take a nap. Please excuse me.

Jeff


Next time on Odd Jobs: A fist through a bathroom wall, making firearms in your basement, and a flying frog tile almost decapitates me. Or, "the joy of working on city ordinances."

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