Price Breaks And Heartaches
A journal of retail and failed romance
Remaindered, Rejected And Irreconcilable
A homeless man had once commented to me that Northway Mall looked a lot like Vietnam and perhaps in metaphorical way he was right. Northway Mall had become a retail quagmire where small local businesses that suffered high rates of attrition due to the failed strategies of the anchor stores.
I was about to find myself a part of that quagmire because I had just been hired by Ivanhoe Books Incorporated. It was a little shoebox of a store, crowded with shelves and decorated with 1970's era paneling. The carpets were faded and frayed, the cash register was practically steam driven.
But those things didn't matter because I was working in a bookstore now and that is every struggling writer's dream- aside from the dream of feeding editors to flesh eating badgers of course.
My first day at work I was shown the ropes by Frank McDaniels, like me he was a dashing young writer. Unlike me he actually pulled off the dashing thing surprisingly well.
“The back room is where we keep the stock, the safe and the cash drawers so of course we keep it locked. After your probationary period we'll give you a key.” Frank McDaniels had a kind of casual confidence and a smooth AM radio kind of voice. I hated him and had a man-crush on him all at once.
I had already been given my smock and hastily fashioned name badge, "I see there are a lot of price guns around here- is that for the special 'Chivalrous Discount' Ivanhoe Book gives to all books on the New York Times Bestsellers list?"
“No. It's for all the books.”
I looked around the store trying to imagine the numbers and price tags such an undertaking, “But why? All books have prices on them- they're on the back or the spines or the inside of the dust jacket.”
“Some guy from corporate came in to do an inspection and he couldn't find the prices so he issued an edict to all eight stores.” Frank explained.
“Well, I suppose he knows what he's doing.”
“Not really, we're owned by a chain of auto parts stores, they don't know the first thing about books. They make decisions on equal parts fear, rage and arrogance”
“Well...” I tried to think of something to say, “That sure is consistent with most of my other jobs.”
“Come on to the back.” Frank said, “I'll introduce you to Karla the manager, she should be here by now. You'll meet the rest of the girls as the week goes on.”
“Are you and I the only men working here?”
“Yes I am.” He paused and then corrected himself, “I mean we are. Sorry.”
“Interesting” We were alone near the self-help books.
“A word of warning Al, this place only has one bathroom and God help you if you get so much as a drop of moisture on that toilet seat.” He shuddered, “God help you.”
And that is when I got into the habit of peeing sitting down.
Counting me there were always six employees at every Ivanhoe Books Incorporated, the payroll budget couldn't afford more than that- truth be told it couldn't really afford what it had. Karla was the manager she was in her forties with a hairstyle that had gone out of style in the fifties. She mostly stayed at the desk in the back room but whenever she spoke it was to tell everyone to do what they were doing faster or their days were number. The assistant manager was named Gladys and she was about my age with an easy manner I instantly took a liking to unfortunately she also had a body odor that knocked insects from the sky- so I tended to avoid her whenever I could, or at the very least stay downwind.
Then there was Mary- a college student with an amazing figure and white-blond hair. She was a student at the State University campus, which meant she had gone to a high school with actual academic standards as opposed to one where the library with books that appeared to have been gnawed on.
And last but certainly not least there was Yasmin, she had a PHD in French Literature but all she ended up with was a job at a mall bookstore. She and I had instant chemistry, and what I mean by that is I was the only thing in the world she hated more than her job.
Tallulah was still looking for work so she came by to take me to lunch and that could mean having some fast food a slice of pizza or sharing something more substantial at the Woolworth's lunch counter. Sometimes we would stroll past the stores and talk about school, work or our parents.
“I'm telling you those guys are the wave of the future.” I had her hand in mine. We walked past the Shoe Warehouse- it had low low prices because it had low low staffing. There boxes of sneakers and heels everywhere, most were stacked in the aisles or shelved in the wrong spots. Most of the signage was incorrect or miss-hung. I thought to myself that this may be what women imagine the Apocalypse to be like.
“I don't think the Head bangers' Ball has to worry about Milli Vanilli Al.” She snorted dismissively.
“I don't know. Have you seen those midair chest bumps? I bet all the kids will be doing them soon.” I said, “Anyway…”
“…Yeah.” I regarded her oddly, suddenly self-conscious. I wondered, Do I really say anyway all that much? I searched her face for some clue to what she might be thinking.
Anyway, we passed a store called Lechmere that had the misfortune to be a department store in an era when no one wanted to shop in department stores. The store always seemed empty and the staff looked just plain bored. Even the shoplifters weren’t interested in the place. To the left of Lechmere’s main entrance was the mall’s public restroom to the right was the door to the mall offices and also the exit to the Dumpster. Make of that what you will.
“What were you going to say?” Tallulah asked.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, “You’re being kind of bitchy.”
“WHAT?” She rounded on me, “You just called me a bitch.”
“Uh… no… my little honey plumb I said you were acting bitchy. I didn’t actually call you a bitch.”
“It’s the same Goddamn thing!” She started walking again. I ran after her, humiliated but determined to straighten this all out before she got to her car.
We passed the children’s clothing store, a jewelry shop, an arcade and the McDonalds. There was a group of old, ragged looking men gathered around the bench in front of the restaurant each nursing their own cup of coffee as gossiped toothlessly. I think watching us was the highlight of our day.
“I did not call you a bitch.” I said again, “I said you were acting bitchy.’
“Yes acting like a bitch which is the same thing as calling me a bitch.”
“No it’s not.” I almost whined, “If you’re acting sleepy does that mean you’re actually asleep? If you’re acting crazy does that mean you’re actually crazy? If you’re acting stupid does that mean you’re actually stupid? Plenty of smart people do stupid things? You think Carl Sagan never locked his keys in the car?”
Tallulah stopped and turned around again, her eyes flashing, her arms crossed over her chest, “Are you really this much of an idiot?”
“Ah. Don’t you mean acting like this much of an idiot? The nuance is subtle I admit…”
She threw up her arms in frustration and started walking again, “Can’t you be serious ever?”
“You like my jokes. Don’t you?”
“Do I?” The Woolworth’s was doing brisk business as always- the place was chock full of bargains- of course by this time in its life it was what you kid’s would call a dollar store. My best girl and I turned to the right, passing the pizza parlor and the bank, the hippie jewelry store and the hair salon, the bicycle shop and the toy store. We were almost the exit and Tallulah was raging at full steam, “I’m so glad I have you to do my thinking for me Al.”
“Hey.” I grabbed her arm and she pulled away, “Don’t leave like this. Let’s talk.”
She wouldn’t look at me, “Your break is over. You better get back to work.”
“Will I see you later?”
“Maybe later. I’ve got school things to do.”
She left without leaving me a kiss goodbye or a smile.
“What the Hell is going on here?” I wondered aloud.
“I guess you shouldn’t have called her a bitch,” a middle aged man in a beret said.