Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Music though the Ages


You know, I am not a vindictive person. When I'm a working as a Grunt at Booth and Noble, I don't normally have the desire to leave the store and follow the annoying brigade down the street. Occasionally, though -- and admittedly, this is only on the rarest of occasions; the ones that call for immediate action -- I want to follow my music customers out into the world. I am curious to see what happens when they leave our music department. Do they wander aimlessly through life, as they do through my department? Do they go into their car and sit for a few minutes, wondering why it isn't already running? Do they get that same quizzical look in their eye -- the one when they're asking me to look up George Lucas's film Schindler's List, and are just so surprised when I tell them that it doesn't exist -- when they look in the mirror? ("Hey, that looks just like me, and that looks just like my room! But backwards! Where is that strange, magical world? This is astounding! I should go tell the Grunt at Booth and Noble about this!")

I am curious about this, because I have no idea how some of these people function in their daily interactions in real life, outside Booth and Noble. On the one hand, I'm sure they have figured out a way -- much like a pianist with no hands can play with his/her feet, or a blind person uses a dog to help him/her see. They must have the ability to function in the real world, simply because they DO exist, and we DO close the store, so they MUST go somewhere outside of the hours of 9am and 10pm. On the other hand, I can conceive of no way that, using the same formula of interaction that they use with me, they can possibly have any sort of functional interaction outside in the real world.

For example, a customer calls me the other day. He asks what appears to be a pretty common-sense question, especially for someone calling on the phone:
"Do you have Atom Egoyan's film Exotica?"

I think that we do, and as I am out on the music floor anyway (and not behind the cage-like counter), I decide to go check. I walk over to the drama section and say,
"Just to confirm, you wanted Egoyan's Exotica?"
"No," he says, and I stop in my tracks. He continues: "I wanted Egoyan's Exotica."
"Yes," I respond, "Egoyan's Exotica."
"No, listen to me. Egoyan's Exotica. E-G-O-Y-A-N."
"YES, EGOYAN. Exotica."
"Do you have it?"
By this time I was at the drama section. We did have it, but I was getting so annoyed I nearly threw it out the window. "Yes, we have it," I sighed. "Do you want me to hold it for you?"

"No, thank you, I was just checking."

Checking? CHECKING? He is that curious in our stock count that he needs to check every so often. I imagine he calls up all the other stores in the area:
"Hello, Target? I was wondering if you had Green Towels?"
"Just to confirm, do you mean Green Towels?"
"NO, I mean GREEN Towels. G-R-E-E-N."

Sometimes, I'm immensely curious to see if people share the types of information they share with me when they go into other stores. Do you remember Who Wants to be a Millionaire? When they were going to answer a question, a contestant would often explain how they knew the answer. It might be a minute long story. Imagine that, only without the dramatic music of the show or the wackiness of Meredeth Vieira. Oh, and it's deathly dull.

For example, yesterday a woman comes up to me clutching in her hands a CD of Mozart music. She remarks as I scan the CD in that "I love Mozart. He is my favorite." I grunt. She continues:
"I think that Mozart is hot."
I want to ask...I want to ask so badly, but I also know that if I ask I will be stuck talking to this woman forever. So I don't.

Thankfully, I didn't have to ask. She continued:

"I am going to get a tattoo of Mozart next week. It won't match my other two tattoos, but it will still look good."

Still, I continue the transaction: "That will be $15.62."

But she ignores me and instead of paying, decides it would be a good idea to explain to me further about her decision to get a Mozart Tattoo:

"Well, I want to get it, but I will only get it if I get good news..." She pauses, expecting me to respond with the only appropriate response. I do not, and respond with the only possible response:

"That will be $15.62"

She is not fazed. "I mean, in a few days, they might be pulling the plug on my mother. We'll see about the tattoo then."

At this point, I really want her to pay. I want her to take her CD and leave. In fact, I am very insistent upon this. "$15.62," I repeat. What I want to ask, though, is which is the good news in that situation? Does she get the tattoo if her mother is off the machine? Or does she get the tattoo if they don't pull the plug? Is death or recovery the good news?

It are these questions that keep me up at night.

Other customers aren't quite as intriguing. One woman comes up to me carrying five Pop Standards CDs -- you know, the Michael Buble, the Tony Bennett, the Barbra Streisand. She comes up to the counter and says, "I found everything I wanted, except for one thing." Thinking she wants to order it, I open up the computer. "What can I find for you?"

"No," she says, "you have it, but I don't want a used CD."

Now, Booth and Noble doesn't sell used CDs. So I tell her this. She responds, "but the CD is open!"

We've had problems with shoplifting recently, so I am immediately concerned. Rarely, however, are our Pop Standards shoplifted (you don't find many 80 year old people looking for the five finger discount. Mainly they look for the bathroom). I ask her to show me. We walk over to the section and she points out the CD -- the plastic wrap is slightly peeling at the corner.

"You know this is still new, don't you? That the CD is fine, never been played? That this is just the wrapping?"

"Yes, but I don't want a used one. I want my own one."

I have learned by now not to argue, so I just nod and say, "alright." She watches me take the CD back to the counter, remove some scotch tape from the black dispenser at my side, and tape the slight rip. I set the CD aside and scan in her merchandise.

Like I said, what does she do when she leaves? Does she walk into her house, sit on her couch and stare at the blank television, unsure if she should turn it on, because if she does, she will be watching a TV show that (shock!) others have seen?

I wonder these things, and more.

Friday, May 25, 2007

The Eternal Dance of the Optimist


You know, every time I enter Booth and Noble, my heart sings a little song. Sometimes it sings a happy song, like "Heaven is a Place on Earth." Other times, it sings a more dour song, like "Enter Sandman." Yesterday, when I walked into Booth and Noble, my heart sung "Que, Sera, Sera."

See, despite all my misgivings, all my misfortunes, all my mis-steps, I still enjoy working at Booth and Noble. I am ever an optimist, hoping against hope that one day someone will walk in with a surprisingly urbane, decently well-thought out request for a book, DVD or CD that doesn't make my toes curl with shocking horror.

Yesterday was not one of those days.

Part of the problem was that I just kept overhearing some of the most painful conversations imaginable. You can't help but overhear conversations when you work at Booth and Noble: the trouble is, people are just too loud in a bookstore. Because there are chairs and tables, perhaps they think it is their home , so they don't feel like they need to be quiet. Or buy anything. Or flush the toilet.

For example, it's not long ago that I overheard a mother and her child having the following conversation in the children's department:

Mother: Perhaps we should tell Stephen that we're going to get ice cream.
Child: But we don't like Stephen!
Mother: I know, but he might want to come.
Child: But we keep our ice cream a secret from Stephen!
Mother: Well, I'm not the one who tells Stephen about the ice cream after we have it.
Child: It's not my fault!
Mother: But you do tell him our secret.
Child: But I like ice cream and I hate Stephen!

I don't know who this Stephen fellow is, but believe me, he is much happier not knowing that this runt and his mother are going to get ice cream. Perhaps Stephen will live out his life happy, living in peaceful ignorance that Mother and Child are two rotten people who deliberately keep ice cream away from other children, hoarding it for their own consumption, not realizing that soon, all too soon, they will die from a stupid ferret in a hat.

But that overheard conversation was the least of my problems. The most? A racist baseball fan.

One thing that disturbs me about baseball fans is that many of them assume that you, as well, are a baseball fan. It's like going to a foreign country and assuming that everyone there speaks English. Sure, it's a pretty good bet that they do, but to assume it is to show your complete lack of manners.

It's the same with baseball.

A man came up to me at the information kiosk and asked for a book. He was an old man, with thinning hair covering a pulpy mound of scalpy flesh. His ears jutted out like the sides of a gothic goblet, but because he was only five feet tall, he resembled one of the rejected dwarves who didn't get to hang out with Snow White (see, there were originally 12 dwarves, but only seven of them passed the test: Happy, Sleepy, Doc, Grumpy, Sneezy, Bashful and Dopey. The fact that Dopey made it through the test tells you something about the other 5. Basically, each of the other five dwarves were just horrible victims of fate. Angry the Dwarf was cursed with a short temper and huge, sweaty feet. Hungry the Dwarf was as round as he was tall, and had no friends because he couldn't fit through the door to leave his dwarf house. Flappy the Dwarf literally had no bones and one day was eaten by a tortoise . Freebasin' the Dwarf grew up on the wrong side of the dwarf train tracks and eventually OD'd. And then there was Hobbley the Dwarf, who had a bald head and nothing else. This is all that was found of him).

Anyway, um, where was I? Oh this old dwarfish man with the thinning hair comes up to me as asks,

"Yankees or Sox?"

But what I hear is,

"Yank up your socks."

Now, I was standing behind the Information Kiosk, and there was no way he could see my socks. So I asked him to repeat himself, stunned that this dwarf would tell me how to wear my stockings. He repeats himself and I understand this second time. Because I don't want to admit that I know nothing about baseball, I arbitrarily guess that the answer he wants is "Yankees."

It was not the answer that he wanted. He got this pained look in his face like he was passing a kidney stone the size of a truck.

He starts to yell at me about why he hates the Yankees. Turns out, the reason he hates the Yankees is because they're run by Jews. Yup, gotta love them greedy Baseball Jews! .

But when I asked him about the Boston Red Sox, he replied that the reason he liked them was because they had just hired a "great new Jap pitcher," who can "throw a ball" even though "he has short Jap arms."

That's not even a racist stereotype I know! I know Japanese people are fond of sleeping with arms , but as for having proportionally smaller arms? That's just confusing.

Anyway, I politely extricated myself from the conversation and walked over to another stack of books. He left me alone, but I watched him leave the story. He started singing "Que, Sera, Sera."

Monday, May 21, 2007

Information Day = Overrated


Working as a Grunt at the information desk has its ups and downs. With every customer that comes up with a rude question or a muttered curse, there is a customer that arrives with the type of question that just makes you smile.

Booth and Noble is full of wonderment, juxtaposed with complete bafflement.

Let me give you an example of this dichotomy. We Grunts have very few duties to perform when we are working at the information desk, other than working with customers. One of these few duties is to pick up the piles of books that litter the tables and walkways of the store. As one of my fellow Grunts pointed out, customers feel that it is our job to clean up after them. We are there, after all, to babysit. It is not our job to put new fixtures of the latest Oprah book. Instead, we are on clean-up duty.

So imagine my shock when first thing in the morning I discovered a large pile of books on a table. No one was sitting there -- no one was close by whom I could ask if they were the possessors of this book.

The timing of this discovery matched almost exactly the time when the children's reading hour ended. Every Monday we have a children's reading hour, where a storyteller comes in and reads a book or two, a cartoon character or two arrives, and little children scream and shout for an hour.

So, the children and their mothers exit the children's department at the same time as I clean up a pile of books.

I place the books at the information counter.

Children walk past me, oblivious to the world because they have their fingers up their butts.

I put the books back on the shelves.

The mothers tell the children to stop picking their butts. The children scream.

I arrive back at the information desk, only to see a woman on the other side of the store, where I just removed the books. She looks around: obviously, they were her books. She had decided to leave for a little bit, and did not take the books with her.

I start to feel bad. Perhaps I shouldn't have moved those books. Perhaps I should have left them. Then I hear it:


Children stop picking their butts and stare, slack jawed, at the woman. Mothers cover their ears and weep. I don't know the best way to deal with this situation, so I simply walk over to her and say, "I put your books away, and please don't swear in front of the children." I give her the books back.

As the children and their mothers file out of the store later, I hear one of the children yell, "Mom, what's a fucking book?"

This terrible incident was offset by the amusement of the phone call I received a little bit later. One woman called and wanted to order a book. I placed the book in the shopping cart and started to ask the questions that were necessary: name, address, etc.

Then I ask, "do you have an email address?"

She replies, "Yes."

And there is a long pause.

"Do you want it?" she asks. No, no ma'am I don't. I was just curious to see if you were in the 21st century.

Perhaps what was the most rewarding experience of the day came towards the end of my shift. I had been answering the phone an exasperatingly high number of times. It seemed to ring continuously from the minute the store opened to the minute I left.

This call, however, was amazing.

"Thank you for calling Booth and Noble. This is Paul speaking. How can I help you?"

"Hey Paul, this is Jimbo." Why do they insist on telling me their name? Are we buds? Are we friends? Do we go out for drinking buddies ?

"Hey...Jimbo. What can I do for you?"

The voice on the other end of the phone spoke like a man rising from the grave. The gravel in his voice betrayed his age, but this sprightly effervesce of his tone revealed a hidden jauntiness.

"I'm looking for a book on how to win the lottery."

" want a book that tells you about the history of the lottery?"

"No, I want a book that details the way that I can win."

I go to the computer and type in the words "win" and "lotto" in the keywords box. Surprisingly a number of books come up, including one in the New Age section.

I look at one book and ask, "is this what you're looking for?"

He responds, "no, no I read that one already. It didn't work."

Needless to say, I ordered him another book and barely hung up without laughing. I didn't quite succeed when a customer ordered a book and claimed his last name was "Buttz."

Friday, May 18, 2007

Advice at Information


Working at the information desk is a double-edge proverb.

On the one hand, you have the freedom to wander the store at random, and appear to work. For example, if I am bored at the information desk, I might wander over to the magazines and straighten them a little bit. Lord knows they need it. It's one of the sad truths of our culture that people, when given the opportunity, will completely mess up a neat and orderly magazine stand. Trust me: there have been tests. They ("scientists") injected monkeys with a drug that gives them the ability to read (it's called Literox). These monkeys are then released into various book stores across the country, and they are dressed in top hats and given canes to disguise them so we Grunts won't know that they are really monkeys and not small hairy gentlemen.

Anyway, these reading monkeys are sent into the magazine departments and are encouraged to pick apart the periodicals. Invariably, these simians rip out the comment cards and the subscription cards. These cards make these reading apes Very Angry ("Great Apes of Wrath").

But, and this is the important part, THE MONKEYS DON'T TAKE THE MAGAZINES OUT OF ORDER! They will always put them back in the same place. This is a trait of the great reading monkey, but not the human (most of whom are probably illiterate anyway).

So what happened during my time at the information desk, you ask? Besides putting away the magazines, I had the pleasure of helping a number of people.

I do want to point out that many customers come into Booth and Noble that are very intelligent. They know what they want, they know (approximately) where that thing is, and they don't have to deal with having me cock an eyebrow and sigh, exasperatedly.

But these are not the customers that come up to the info desk. No, the customers that come up to the information desks are the ones who say "I'm looking for the non-fiction section." I reply, "Every section that isn't labeled 'fiction' is non-fiction. Can you be more specific?"

One of the first customers of the day was a woman who was looking for a romance novel. Now, I have nothing against people who read romances. I think it's perfectly fine. I myself enjoy a "beach read" that is just fun and doesn't really take too many brain cells to figure out. There's nothing wrong with this.

She, however, decides that what she's looking for is too complex for her to deal with on her own. So she comes up to me, who is foolishly stationed right in the center of the information desk.

"Can I help you," I ask, my heart sinking when I see the cat-shaped broach on her cat-themed sweater.

"Yes, I'm looking for a romance novel that I haven't read yet."

I pause.

"That's a good idea," I say. "What have you read before?"

She doesn't answer that question. Instead, she looks at me and answers a different, unasked, question.

"Because they all look different, but aren't."

"Excuse me?" I ask, quite understandably. "I don't know what you mean."

She clarified: "The covers change. They have the same book, but different covers! It makes it so hard to find a new one!"

Now, this does happen. Occasionally, when a book is really popular, or turned into a movie, they will release it with a new cover. But this doesn't happen too often. More often, they will release a book with the same plot as another book, but call it something different and claim it is by the same author. Romance novels do this all the time. She was calling them on it, without even meaning to call them on it. It was a blow for the common reader, albeit without foreknowledge of the blowing.

I had to clear my head from this conversation and so went to the restroom. I walked into the men's room and was immediately greeted by the oppressive stench of the men's room. All men's rooms have it. There's no amount of urinal cakes that can disguise this scent. It is oppressive, but oddly comforting, like it's the only one constant in one's endless stream of dynamic lives.

There's already a man at the one urinal at Booth and Noble, so I decide to use the stall for my urination. I ease myself out and let myself go...but when I look down I notice that a steady stream of liquid is pooling on the floor next to me.

"Oh no!" I think to myself. "What have I done?" But then I notice. It's not me. It's coming from OUTSIDE MY STALL. Outside my stall from the direction of the urinal.

It's too late for me to stop and move to a different stall. The liquid inches closer to my foot. I try to move away from it, but there's only so far for me to go. The liquid on the floor moves ever steadily onward, like the soldiers from The 300 .

Eventually, I am completely perpendicular to the toilet bowl. Instead of facing it straight on, I am facing it at a right angle. Still the liquid comes closer. How long has this man been standing there? I quickly finish, flush, and flee.

Completely unrelaxed, I walk back to the information desk. Standing there is a tall man with thin, wispy gray hair. One of them. One strand of hair is plastered across his spherical, bald head. Like a dying man's face, the rest of his skin lays shrunken against the outline of his skull. His bones protrude through the thin, translucent membrane of his skin. Teeth at odd angles jut out of his mouth and create a specter of death. With a shockingly deep, slow voice, but haltingly, he asks me a question:

" books?" The last two words he spits out like half-chewed tobacco.

I direct him to the proper section and quickly back away. The stench of the unclean is upon him, and I am afraid that, like the homeless demons that haunt the under bridges of the area, I too will be sucked into his whirlpool of dismay.

Later, after he has left, I return to the section to clean up the books. I notice that the only books laid open are ones full of photographs of young children.

My day is largely uneventful at Booth and Noble after this. Uneventful, save for the final customer of the day.

She comes up to me with a note clutched in one chubby paw. I ask her, "is there anything I can help you find today?"

She looks at me like I just vomited at her feet.

"Yes." She snarls. "I'm looking for a book by a man named Wambam."

I start a little. "Wambam? W-a-m-b-a-m?"

"Yes. Wambam."

"Ok," I say, and type it into the computer. Nothing comes up, and I tell her so.

"Nothing is coming up, ma'am."

"Well, you must be typing it in wrong."

"Ma'am," I say, "it's four letters. 'W.' 'A.' 'M.' 'B.' You want to type it in yourself?"

"No, I," she hocks, "trust you," she spits."

"Do you have the title of the book you're looking for?"

She does, and gives it to me. The author's name?


She was very close.

And I was very close to pushing my way out the door the minute my shift ended. My advice from the information desk at Booth and Noble?

Run away. Run far, run fast.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Music time!


So it was an active day today in the music department at Booth and Noble, one fraught with troubling danger and rabid adventures. It was a stormy Tuesday today. It has been said that the rain washes away the grime of the city. What they don't say is that this grime is then washed straight into Booth and Noble, where it sits and mingles with the books and CDs and DVDs and gift cards.

The first person to walk into the music department, the first customer, as I recall, to walk into the store, the person standing outside the doors waiting for the store to be unlocked at 9am (because it's just THAT IMPORTANT to get your book/CD/DVD/card): this was the conversation that occurred between us. Try to imagine yourself in my place: try to picture yourself hunched over a notebook with scribbled instructions in them, the instructions that detail your tasks for the day, the tasks that will consume your every thought for the next eight hours. Picture yourself looking at those tasks, concentrating with your every fiber, understanding the complex instructions in front of you. Now picture, coming at you like an injured bird, a tall woman with black hair and more fake gold than Mr. T . She approaches you like a guided missile approaching its heat-creating target.

She opens her mouth; the wind rushes past your ears and you wonder how it got so windy, so far from the windows.

"Excuse me," she starts, "but do you have..." and then she spies your nametag. Her jaw drops, and her eyes reflect the confusion in her heart.

"Oh my..." she begins. "Did you know that you have the most unique name?"

I look down at my name tag. Did I accidentally wear Philip Q. McUni-Que's nametag again? was mine.


"Um, ma'am, are you sure?"

"Paul," she reminds me, "is very uncommon."

"Paul is a Biblical name."

"Yes. Yes it is. Think about that."

I stop and think about it. "Ma'am, can I look up a CD for you? Perhaps the uniquely named 'John Smith?"

"Think about this," she says as she approaches me behind the desk, coming closer and closer. Soon, she is close enough that I can see into her gaping mouth, the thin white spittle creating a harpstring between her upper and lower cuspids. "Think about this. How many 'Paul's' where there in your high school?"

I think.

The first thought that comes into my head is to call the police. Then I think about getting my high school yearbook. Then I think about what I'm going to have for lunch, and decide on Sweet and Sour Chicken.

"Ma'am, there were 1500 students in my high school. I'm sure at least one was named Paul."

"YES!" She exclaims, happiness exuding from her like sweat from a go-go dancer. "Yes there was. YOU!" She cackles, and leaves the department.

A few minutes later, a man walks into wearing a baseball cap. He spoke barely above as whisper and I had to strain to hear every syllable. I leaned in close, tilted my head to proffer forth my ear.

"excuse me" he said. "do you have the secret?"

The Secret is the biggest DVD to hit stores in a long time. A supposed "self-help" DVD, it offers, for a mere 39 dollars, to grant you your every single wish. All you have to do is think really, really hard about it, and you will get it. There is testimony (I am not kidding here) in it where a man declared that his fondest wish was to date three women at the same time. He wished really hard, and BAM he became an asshole.

Mission Accomplished!

Anyway, the scary man asked again. "do you have the secret?"

"Yes, yes we do." I hand it to him.

"how much would this be if I sent it straight to my house?"

I look it up for him. It's a full 10 dollars cheaper, and I tell him this.

He stops and thinks. Wishes really hard.

"how long would it take to get to me if you sent it?"

I strain, but catch the gist of his meaning. "It would be about a week to get to you."

He stops, again, and thinks further. He closes his eyes and wishes really hard. Then, he opens them and sighs.

"I'll take this one now, then."

I sell him the DVD and wish him well.

A short time later, a strangely old woman walks in. I say "strangely old" because, honestly, all things being equal, this woman should probably be dead. Her skin was so saggy, she tripped over it. I doubt she could walk in a strong wind without being sailed away. She wasn't wrinkled: she was one giant wrinkle.

Plus, she was about four foot tall.

She glides over to me, sailing on the wind, and touches lightly down on the ground like a graceful swan diving into the water. Landing delicately on her toes in front of me, she lowers her wings and looks up at me. I smile, charmed by her avian antics.

"Can I help you, my swan princess?" I ask.

"Yes," she replies, her old body sagging under the weight of weariness. My heart goes out to this old bird. "Yes you can. I am looking for belly dancing DVDs."

Suddenly, the record needle went scratch. The sound stopped and the entire store looked over at us. People peeked over the top of the music department wall to see this old, saggy woman and her dancing belly. I lead her over to the DVD section and hand her a DVD. She looked at it, and with one quick flick of her wrists, arose in the air. She circled over me like a cloud and then darted towards the sun. As I stared at her, a single tear fell down my check and splashed on the ground.

"Good luck, my dear swan princess." I whispered.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Lessons Learned from Info (Desk)


There is a moment in every Grunt's life as a book clerk when he or she raises one eyebrow (or, if he or she cannot raise one eyebrow, he or she raises both; unless he or she has a unibrow, and then he or she raises his or her eyebrow-band) at comments that are made.

It is not something that usually occurs in the first few weeks of work, because one is still getting used to this thing called "Booth and Noble." No question is too idiotic in your first few weeks (unless you get a "Do you have any Charles Dickens?" and you answer 'Yes, we have many, including A Tale of Two Cities' and then the reply comes "No, I meant CHARLES Dickens.").

In fact, I would venture to say that the old axiom "There are no stupid questions" was not invented by a book Grunt.

No, the cocked eyebrow (or brows, or brow-band) comes later, after you've mastered the delicate art of figuring out what the customer wants.

(Minor diatribe here: this is not the same as figuring out what the customer asks for. What the customer wants and what they request are very often not the same thing. For instance, a customer will come in and ask for "Oprah." What they want is the latest "Oprah book club book," which is usually to be found in the bestsellers, or the trash. If they come in and ask for a particular book by a particular author, you can usually be assured that they have either the name of the author or the title of the book wrong. Flags of Our Fathers was not written by Peter Jennings, as one customer recently asked).

The cocked eyebrow/s/band comes after you've discovered that you have reached your full level of customer antics. Customers, it must be said, should never ever ever try to be funny. There are a number of reasons for this:

1) Customers, like most people, are not as funny as they think they are; in much the same way as drunk people are not as good at dancing as they think they are, middle-schoolers are not as old as they think they are, and Creed is not as talented as they think they are.

2) Chances are, we Grunts have heard this joke before. The book doesn't scan the first time past the laser? If you think it's original to claim "if it doesn't scan, it must be free," then you should take a long, hard look at yourself in the mirror and then beat yourself over the head with it.

3) There is no reason why we Grunts will laugh. We barely have the energy or desire to take our plates from the breakroom to the Cafe, and we don't even have to clean them. Laughing just saps us of our energy. No joke is that funny.

4) Even if we do find your joke amusing, we will automatically look at what books you're holding in your hands, and chances are, that will kill the joke for us. You make us laugh and then we see that you have the latest Dan Brown? Then the joke's on us. And that ain't funny at all.

So you see, there should never be reason to make pointless jokes to us humorless Grunts. (Much like there is never any reason to make pointless conversation with us weary Grunts).

I will give you a pertinent example from my day today at the Information Kiosk. It is Mother's Day, and on top of that, it is a beautiful day outside. There was almost no one in the store. It was like a ghost town, filled only with the decaying laughter of a thousand empty hearts. A child ran past the Information Kiosk with her father close behind her:

Father: Do you want to get Harry Potter?
Child: No, Harry Potter is boring.
Father: Oh.
Child: ...and scary.

I didn't want to point out that it's rather contradictory to be boring and scary, unless (as was pointed out by another Grunt), it is algebra class. Besides, it was just a child, and they are notoriously stupid.

Then, another customer comes up to me. She is crinkled, and seems barely able to move her joints. She is like the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz before Dorothy can give him the "Oil Can" to lube him up. She licks her dry, cracked lips with a sandpapery rubbing and coughs.

"Can I help you?" I ask, momentarily taken aback by this animalistic visage.

"I am looking for a book about Pysanka. P-Y-S-A-N-K-A. Pysanka."

"Ok, ma'am I'd be happy to help you look for that." I looked in the computer. Nothing came up. "There's nothing with that name in the computer. What is this? Can I look it up by a different name?"

"No, it's just pysanka. P-Y-S-A-N-K-A."

"Yes, I spelled it correctly," I checked. "But there's nothing. What is pysanka?"

"Ukrainian Decorated Easter Eggs."

" looked that up and nothing popped up either."

"Ukrainian Decorated Easter Eggs. Are you sure? U-K-R-A-N..."

"Yes, I know how to spell Ukrainian, ma'am. Are you interested in a book about decorating them?"


"In a book about collecting them?"


"In a book about their history?"


"Then I'm afraid I don't know what to look for, ma'am."

"But you have so many books here. People can find anything here."

"Obviously not pysanka, ma'am."

"Oh," she said, gearing herself up for The Joke. "But I thought there were books about everything. People collect Dinosaur Crap!"

There was a stunned moment of silence. Even the soft tinkering of someone's cell phone was silenced. I slowly raised one eyebrow, as she turned and walked away, smiling the inner smile of one content.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The emptiness of music


Yesterday I had the pleasure of working at Booth and Noble, in the music department. I must say, Wednesday night is not a particularly busy night at Booth and Noble -- perhaps people are staying at home to catch up on their weekly fix of Lost.

Not everyone, however, decided to stay home last night. I am unsure as to what compels these people to come to the store on a daily basis. Perhaps it is loneliness. Or, perhaps it is an innate desire to torture me. Instead of watching Lost, maybe these people watch 24

I say this because, what greeted me on my way into the music department was something so appalling, so disgusting, so generally vile that I hesitate to even talk about it in a blog.

The walk from the main office to the music department is filled with twists and turns. Around each of these corners a person, or persons, could -- and do -- sit. In one corner, for instance, we Grunts can almost always find some teenage ne'er-do-well flipping through the various pages of the near-pornographic manga magazines (seriously, we have real porno in the magazine section, what are they doing looking at pictures of underage Japanese women?).

Yesterday, I walked through that labyrinth and discovered two people wrapped in the throes of passion. I am not kidding.

Well, when I say "passion," I don't mean "love." These were not "lovers," although there was "lovin'" going on. The two people, a young boy with a trial mustache and a teen girl with an illegal belly ring, were wrapped together like slugs mating . They weren't kissing -- that would imply a sense of love. No, the word I would use to describe their action is"GROPING." As I watched, the thinly mustached boy cupped both the illegally-ringed girl's breasts and gave them a little squeeze. She, in turn, emitted a short squeak. Startled, I jumped back a little bit and they both looked up at me.

There was a moment exchanged between us. The three pairs of eyes locked onto each other and we couldn't help but decide, right then and there, that we would not ever, ever discuss this. They turned back to the book they were looking at and I continued on to the music department.

One of the most interesting things about Booth and Noble's selection of music is the immense variety of CDs we have. Sure, has more CDs, but in terms of physical CDs, Booth and Noble keeps a decent selection. One of the ways we manage to do this is to receive massive quantities of a title the first week or so that it is released, and then immediately return to the vendor all but one of them. In effect, we have a surge and then a recession.

And when we have that many CDs at once, we have to do something with them -- they obviously can't all fit into the main section. Thus, we have "promo" areas: these are probably the areas that you go to first. The walls that highlight a few CDs in a large waste of space: these are the promo areas. We dump scores of CDs there, which rest there for a few weeks until they are ready to be returned.

This changes on a weekly basis.

Yesterday, a gentleman who smelt of talcum powder came into the music department and wanted a CD that had been on one of these promos...four months ago.

He said, "It was by an artist who's first name was George."

I replied, "Do you know his last name?"

"No I don't. But the CD was on one of these walls. And it was white."

"Um...Do you remember what genre of music it was? Rock? Jazz? Rap? New Age?"

"No, I don't remember."

"So, we're looking for George's white CD from four months ago? If I help you look for this, will you help me look for my lunch, which I left back in the sexuality section with a thin mustache?"

Later, the man decided to purchase, instead of the mystery CD, a copy of the sixth season of Murder She Wrote. As he was writing a check, I informed him of Booth and Noble's check policy:

"I will have to see an ID with this check."

Most people, most NORMAL people, then offer their identification, which I then scan and copy down their ID number and expiration date. It's just a method of verification, in so far as if there is an issue with the check actually clearing. When I ask him, however, he cocks his head and asks:

"Can't I just use yours?"

My eyes widen in horror. Is he serious?

"Um, no sir, I believe you have to use your own ID."

"But in the last store I went to, I used the clerk's ID number."

"Well, I don't know what they do at Old Navy, but here we have to use your ID number."

He finally handed over his ID; but it took my heart several minutes to stop pounding in my chest.

After my break, a total of about four people came into the music department. One person, though, set off the alarm system as he walked through it. I thought he must have been carrying a tagged book, but there were no books clutched in his hands. He was sweating, extremely overweight, and obviously in need of a shave - or at least a bath. When I looked at him quizzically about the alarm going off, he gave the loudest, most audible sigh I have heard in my life -- I think Old Navy heard it, in between giving out ID numbers -- and exclaimed in gruff tones, "IT'S MY PACEMAKER, OK? ARE YOU HAPPY?"

I almost replied with my standard, "Oh, it's ok. We're more concerned with people leaving rather than coming in," but then realized it just wouldn't be appropriate. I honestly had no idea what to say. Do you say, "seeing you sets off my heart alarm?" 'Cause that's what I was thinking...

Towards the end of the evening, a diminutive woman walked into the store and came directly to the counter. I wasn't there, however, and didn't notice for a few seconds. When I heard her loud "A-HEM!" I darted over.

"Yes, can I help you find something, ma'am?"

"My granddaughter is going to be the ballet later. I would like to find a DVD of a ballerina. I have the title right here: Follows Her Dreams."

Now, I have never heard of Follows Her Dreams, so I went to the computer to search. What I found was a DVD for a relatively famous children's cartoon character. We did not have any DVDs of Angelina Ballerina, the dancing mouse, in the store, but we do have a ton of books in the children's department.

"Ma'am," I said, "we don't have any of the DVDs in the store, but we do have a ton of the Angelina Ballerina books in the children's department, if you would be interested."

"Oh," she replied, matter-of-factly, "I don't buy my granddaughter books." And with no further explanation, she turned around and left the department.

Yes, you come to a book store to buy a non-book gift for a new ballerina. I can totally see the thought process on that one. It's like going to the grocery store to buy a pet.

Anyway, maybe it's the slow days that bring out the worst in customers. It certainly felt that way during the slow emptiness of the music department.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Info and Receiving: a double whammy!


I must admit I have been slow to blog these past few days. It is not because I have not been at work (far from it -- I have, indeed, spent a good deal of time at work!), but because, to be honest, not much interesting has happened.

On Sunday I worked my usual opening shift. Booth and Noble doesn't open until 10am, but the opener gets to come in at 8 and do chores. This means that for two full hours, there are no customers. Stretch it out, and you could spend the whole time just putting the newspapers away.

Then, at one comes in. It's 10 o'clock on a Sunday. Would you be in a bookstore?

Then, at 11, the opening Grunt gets a break. It's only the last two hours, the toiling hours of 12-2, during which the Grunt really sees any sort of customer. And if the day is as nice as Sunday was, then, well, then there just aren't very many people.

It is sad that the only interesting story from Sunday was the woman.

She was old, say about 245 years. She hobbled over to me, clutching a hardcover book in her scrawny hands. With the eyes of an eagle, she had spotted me from across the store, but it took upwards of twenty-five minutes for her to approach me.

She came up close to me. I could smell death leaking from her. She turned her crooked nose towards me an inhaled. "Ahh..." she let out. "I like your soap."

I replied, "thanks. Is there anything I can help you with?"

She twisted her head, cocking the neck so loudly people nearby ducked, expecting a Wild West-style shootout. "Is this," she held out the hardcover book, "a new book?"

I looked at the cover. There was only one place she could have found that book: Hardcover New Releases. She had picked up a book from a stack of identical books that all were sitting on a shelf labeled "New Releases." And she asked me if it was new.

"Yes, ma'am, I do believe it is," I replied, watching her lick her crunchy lips.

"Excellent. I do so enjoy," she smiled like a dog panting, "Harlan Coben."

But alas, that was the only story from Sunday. Today was even worse -- I was in receiving working on a project. I interacted with no customers!

See, the management, quite rightly, decided that we needed to rearrange the store. So, two weeks ago, we did. A group of people stayed up very late and shifted thousands of books. Now, where there once was Science, there is now Cooking. Where once there was Shakespeare, is now Mythology. Where once there was Health, is now...well, Health stayed pretty much the same.

But, if you will recall from an earlier post, Welcome! , there are a bunch of carts in the back receiving room. These were now out of order. So I, in order to get some more hours, volunteered to come in and fix them.

And they are now fixed.

Of note, however, was one time when I left receiving to grab my Diet Coke from the breakroom, and I passed a small boy wearing the exact same outfit as me. Down to the socks. Besides the obvious height difference (he is about ten and about 4 foot 6, I am older and taller and therefore more virile), the only difference was that he wore one of those white rapper's caps.

He obviously was quite a bad ass.

A bad ass, I might add, who shops at Old Navy and Target.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Cafe-hey ho!


I should preface this blog with a short description of the glorious weather we are having. Without a doubt, this is the most fantastic day that has ever existed on Earth or in heaven since time began. Imagine, if you will, the best meal that you have ever eaten. It has tasted better than anything before, and you will never taste a meal as good again. It is a meal that will last in your mind, every detail recorded and remembered, until the day you expire. This day was that meal.

For me, it was a delicious baked potato.

But I digress. The day was beautiful indeed -- the sun was shining, the temperature a delicious 68 degrees. Not a cloud in the sky.

Of course Booth and Noble was full of customers.

Thankfully, I was working in the cafe, and for whatever reason, it was not very busy. I am not doubting the fact that people wanted their iced caramel coffee frappaccino delicious venti-sized vanilla bean java beverage, but simply saying that they might have gone elsewhere.

In the stretches of time in which no customers appeared, I kept busy: I rearranged the cafe stockroom (now, there is FRESH frappaccino mix, and not the old stuff), I cleaned the fridge (did you know that in the back of the Booth and Noble fridge there is a family of tiny people named The Edwards?) I also used three straws and two coffee lids to construct a googly-eyed pair of glasses, which I then wore, and promptly walked into a pole because I forgot to cut holes in them for me to see out of.

It was not all fun, games, and cleaning products, however. No, we had our share of fun customers as well.

One of the first customers I had today was approximately 245 years old. He had beady eyes, like a character in a comic strip. He wore the standard "Old Man" uniform: sweater vest (striped), shirt (solid), pants (soiled). He strode up to the counter like a man half his age (122.5). He slammed his dollar bill on the counter and announced, quickly:

"I need a cup of coffee."

"Ok," I replied. "What size can I get for you?"

"Make it a..."

We eyed each other. What would he order? What size cup should I get? The ironically named 'Tall'? The less-ironic, but still annoyingly termed 'Grande'? Or the absurdly titled 'venti', which translates as twenty, a number that does not complete the "tall/Grande/_____" triumvirate?

"...A Tall," he finally answered.

"Fine," I grumbled and walked to the coffee pots. I started to pour his coffee into the cup and then he stopped me.

"Leave some room for cream in there, son!" he yelled, like poison.

I left a small portion of the cup empty and handed it to him. He stared at it like I had shit in the cup.

"What is this?"

"The coffee that you ordered."

"Can you fill it up, please?"

"But you asked...ok, no problem," I took the cup back. And I filled it with a few dribbles of coffee.

"This is still not full."

"Did you want me to leave room for cream?"

"Yes, but I also want you to fill up the cup."

"So," I questioned, "you want room for cream in a completely full cup?"

"Yes. I want a full cup of coffee."

"Very well." I filled the cup to the brim and gave it to him. He seemed happy as he sauntered over to the cream section. I don't know what he did next (it was out of my eye-line), but I have a vivid mental image of him taking a sip of coffee and then pouring some cream into his mouth, swishing them around like mouthwash, and then swallowing the entire bundle.

I bet it didn't taste nearly as good as my baked potato.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Music department shenanigans


It was an interesting day at work yesterday, not least of which because one of the "Head Honchos" in our region came to investigate the store. This meant a number of things: my boss's boss was in the store, so she was tied up for most of the day and little things (like authorization to log into the computer) went unnoticed for upwards of two hours. This also meant that every time he would walk into the music department (where I was working), I had to drop whatever I was doing and talk to him. Here's how our conversations would usually go:

Me: "Hi."
Him: "Hello. What do you think of the classical music sale we're having?"
Me: "Well..."
Him: "Uh-huh. And the DVDs? Do you know how we can better sell DVDs?"
Me: "Yes, I think..."
Him: "Uh-huh. Ok, thanks for chatting."

And he would leave. He asked me, no kidding, four times for input into something but would then not actually wait for an answer.

But he was really the least of my concerns in music, mainly because when you work in the music department, you become a pariah of sorts. You're enclosed in an environment completely foreign to most of the people that work at Booth and Noble. Usually, the only contact you get with other employees is when they punch in or out for their breaks, because the "timekeeping" computer is at the front of the music department.

The exception to this is when someone comes to relieve you and give you your break. It usually occurs about halfway through a shift.

When I came back from my break yesterday, I arrived midway through a conversation between a woman and the employee who had relieved me. Here is what I heard:

Woman: "....directed by Francis Ford Coppola"
Employee: " I'll check the computer." She types on the computer for a little bit and then comes up with nothing. "Ma'am, the only The Black Stallion I have coming up on my computer was directed by Carroll Ballard. Is this the one you're looking for?"
Woman: "I don't know. Maybe. I know what the cover looks like."

The employee found the right movie, but the woman left without ordering it.

Later, I received a phone call from a customer who disliked, intently, the fact that he had to talk on the phone. This I know because he made it abundantly clear:

"Hey!" He yelled this into the phone the way old people still refer to the digital clocks as "The Machine" ("What time is it, Granddad?" I don't know, Paul, why don't you check The Machine?"). "Hey there, son. I want to know if you have a movie."

"Ok, I can check that for you, sir. What title are you looking for?"

"Wishmaster 4. Make sure it's Wishmaster 4. The last time I called I was told it was Wishmaster 4, but they ordered me Wishmaster 3! If I'd wanted Wishmaster 3, I would have said, 'Wishmaster 3'!"

"Ok, I've got Wishmaster 4 on the computer, but I don't have any in the store. Can I order it for you?"

"Yeah. I got Wishmaster 1, Wishmaster 2, and Wishmaster 3 all at home. I just need this one to round out the trilogy."

"Uh...sir..." I think better of it. "No, that's a good idea."

I put the movie in the shopping cart for him and start to place his order.

"Can I get your phone number, sir?"

He gives me his number. Since he's ordered something from us before, his name pops up.

"Ok, I see you've ordered from us before, so I'll just place this order for you..."

"WAIT!" he screams. I wait. "What name comes up?"

"Um..." and I tell him his name. Let's call him Earl Smithery.

"No!" he yells. "My name is Earl F. Smithery."

"Wait, you want me to put Earl F. Smithery?"

"Yes! My mama gave me an F, so damn it, I'm gonna put an F there."

"You can put an F anywhere you want, sir. Ok, I've changed your name to Earl F. Smithery."


I read him the address we have on file.

"That's fine. That's fine."

"Do you want me to mail you the movie directly to your home, sir?"

"NO! That FUCKING UPS always leaves it on my doorstep. Anyone can take my Wishmaster if they wanted to."

"Ok, so I'll order it into the store." I suddenly saw a vicious gang of DVD thieves wandering around Schenectady, pilfering UPS boxes, gleefully opening them up, and staring wide-eyed when they saw Wishmaster 4 before them. Their eyes would widen, and their mouths would slacken, for they had never beholden such a wonder. "Wishmaster 4" they would whisper to themselves. "Can it be? Can it possibly be?" They would look at themselves, see the horror they represent, the death of society and the scourge of humankind. Slowly, ever so slowly, the would put the DVD back in the UPS box and back away from the doorstep, whispering so that only the dead can hear, "thank you Earl F. Smithery. Thank you."

I order his movie to the store and Earl F. Smithery hangs up without saying thank you. Just wait until he sees Wishmaster 4...then he'll think about his poor ways and become, just like those before him, a hero. A hero with a machine.