When I ran a this store (late 1980s), we had about 10 months of general book store craziness with 2 months of intellectual sewage pouring through the front door in thick rivulets of Muddled Class America. Most of our problems from mid-January to mid-November were mild. The range of people who frequented my little slice of suburban shopping strip heaven were usually soccer moms buying cookbooks and best sellers, kids buying Holy-Fuck-Sweet-Valley-Teens-Volume-806,
"I need a gift for a friend of mine who LIKES TO READ!" they would say, as if the very concept warranted a complaint to the management. "Do you have that Sally Jessy Raphael book?" What Sally Jessy Raphael book? "THE ONE ON SALLY JESSY RAPHAEL LAST YEAR." What was it about? "I... DUNNO THAT! WHERE IS THE SALLY JESSY RAPHAEL SECTION?" Folks, in 1988, Dewey Decimal did not have a category for "YOU KNOW, BEEN ON A TALK SHOW!" as said by a Monty Python actor dressed in drag. While we did not categorize books as such, we sorted books by subject, author, and whether they were on the New York Times Best Seller list. We did not by color, either, which was the second descriptor if we were lucky. "IT'S A PINK BOOK!" Sorry, Mrs Pepperpot, you've just described half the self-help section.
"DO YOU HAVE THIS IN PAPERBACK??" The concept that publishers wanted a book to be out in hardback for a year before they sell the paperback version was a concept hard to get across. Some tried to bargain with us, like we had Johannes Fucking Gutenberg in the back room, to make a paperback copy because "I HAVE TO SHIP THIS TO MY SISTER IN POUGHKEEPSIE!!" I think most of them were just cheap. They did not want to pay $20 for a hardback when a paperback would have been a mere $4.95 back then.
The school year had already drained us of, "MY DAUGHTER NEEDS 'TEQUILA MOCKINGBIRD' FOR HER 'ENGLISH LITTER-CHER' CLASS!!" and who can forget, "YOU HAVE THAT BOOK ABOUT SOME GUY NAMED JONATHAN LIVING WITH SEAGULLS??" Both usually said the same thing right after, "WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU'RE ALL OUT, IT'S A CLASSIC BOOK AND MY PRECIOUS SNOWFLAKE NEEDS IT BY FRIDAY!" But Santa's Little Helpers were extra special with requests for classic novels like, "HOW MANY STATES DID THAT MICHENER GUY WRITE ABOUT, ANYWAY?? YOU HAVE ALL 50 IN A GIFT SET??" and "MY SON LIKES FRAGGLE ROCK BUT DOESN'T LIKE TO READ; DO YOU HAVE ANY OF THOSE FRAGGLE ROCK BOOKS WITHOUT WORDS?" You mean a video? “THAT’S THE ONE!”
“WOW BOOKS HAVE SURE CHANGED SINCE I WAS A KID, HOW TO YOU READ THIS??” Sir, that’s a book on tape. For your cassette player. “WHERE DO YOU SELL THOSE KASHYYK PLAYERS?” In the Wookie section, sir.
"MY DAUGHTER-IN-LAW NEEDS HELP, YOU HAVE ANY SELF-HELP BOOKS TO HELP HER GET RID OF BODY ODOR?" I thought about suggesting a book on how heroic people escaped persecution and moved to a new country to start a new life, and combining with a travel book about some island in the Pacific.
Then there's my favorite, "Ma'am? This is not 'The Secret Garden,' but Frances Hodgson Burnett. This is 'My Secret Garden' by Nancy Friday, and is NOT recommended for your ten-year-old niece." In her defense, the covers looked similar. “Story of O,” also had a similar cover with “The Missing Piece Meets the Big O” at the time, but nobody ever made that mistake.
Book stores have changed a lot. I do see a “as seen on TV” section in many book stores these days, usually with Oprah’s selection. The web changed everything, and “brick and mortar” bookstores are going away not only because it’s easier to buy books online, but the Kindle, iPad, and Nook are making paper books obsolete. And oddly enough, the Internet has forced more and more people to type and read text.
The last story I will tell is about Mrs. Bibble. Yes, that was her real name. Mrs. Bibble was an old woman who was one of the less fortunate to have purchased a Betamax player in the 1980s. Betamax tapes were very hard to come by very quickly when VHS won. At some point, JVC decided to dump their entire inventory of Beta tapes on my book store chain, and when I opened the box from the warehouse, I was dismayed to see black and gold 3-packs staring back at me with their orphaned Sony logo. It was like an empty apology from a sign on a closed childhood amusement park that, due to the changing times, the park is officially closed and no trespassing. Betamax people had hardcore fans, and I was not aware of this until Mrs. Bibble saw them in stacks around my remainder section.
I am not sure what a 70+ year old woman needed with so many Beta tapes. But she bought ‘em. I think I sold 80-90% of my entire inventory to that one woman which was, no lie, over 450 tapes. When I ran out, other stores gave me their inventory. Maybe she was running Betamax porn studio, I don’t know. But when the Betamax Tape Pipeline finally dried out, Mrs. Bibble became dangerously unstable like a heroin addict.
At first, it was simply innocent questions of when I would get more in. “I don’t know,” I told her. “They come from warehouse, and warehouse just gives us what they think we need whether we want it or not.” Crown Books bought “remainders,” which were often out-of-market or strain-to-discount-bin books that were sold by weight, not title. I am not kidding, my bill of landing always had the gross weight on them. “150lbs of travel picture books @ .20/7.95” which meant I was selling 20 cent books for $7.95. Remainders were how book stores made money, which is how they can afford to discount the bestsellers so cheaply, and why they have them in the back past the remainders. Places like Borders now have them up front in a few shelves here and there, but Crown Books were up to half remainders. So Betamax tapes were sold the same way. I was selling the 3-packs at $9.95 and they cost my store maybe a dollar. Thus, I wanted to sell them to her. But as they ran out, and I didn’t have control whether they came in, eventually, I had none.
As the weeks went by, she came in every few days to check. Each time, she got more and more angry about it. Nobody was selling them anymore, and it was quick like one year they were 50% of the tape market, and the next year, small colonies of Betamax fans were trading through the Pennysaver like classic car parts. You know things are bad when people are selling PARTS of players, like “I have a belt of a EDV-9500 and the gear assembly of a SL-7200. $200. Or will exchange for the entire season of ‘Manimal.’”
One day, my assistant manager Tim was working the register. Tim was a nice college boy, working for me during the summer, where he played movie soundtracks on the boom box. Mrs. Bibble came in, and we assume she was off her medication. “I WANT MY GODDAMN BETAMAX TAPES!!” she screamed at him without really introducing herself to him first. She shook her wrinkled fist of fury in his face, and pounded it on the counter. Her screeching, I was told, was like a pterodactyl in heat. Tim tried to assess the situation. He later told me, “I couldn’t tell if she was dead serious, or half joking but wanted it to be taken seriously.” Hell hath no fury like a format scorned. Tim explained that they don’t make Betamax tapes anymore. Again, she repeated her demands. She wanted someone from the head office to speak to her. The head office had heard of her, because once they called to find out if we were REALLY selling those Beta tapes or just junking them out the dumpster in the back as one store got caught doing. “No,” we assured them, there’s this one lady buying them 3-4 at a time!” This woman was not pleased Tim did not pick up the phone to call other stores. We had already done this for her several times, and the other stores, like us, had no more tapes. She demanded to speak to the manager, but I was gone for the day. Corporate office was closed after 5pm. She then left, ranting to people she passed outside that she wanted Beta tapes like a crack addict going through heavy withdrawal in the middle of the County Fair.
Tim’s story gripped us all with a kind of uneasy fear. Would she come back with a gun? Suddenly, this quirky old lady had bared her furious fangs at us, turning on her food source like a family dog gone feral. It was the first time I had to have an “all hands meeting” about something dangerous since they found our 3M anti-shoplifting scanner “may” be cancerous. “Beware of Mrs. Bibble, my son. The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!” Here we were, grown men and women, all scared to face a woman who probably weighed less than our Harlequin Romance Spinner rack, and was probably about as easy to tip over as well.
The first day Mrs. Bibble came back, she prowled the store. She dug through the stacks of VHS and Cassette tapes in the remainder section, inspecting every spine in case she could find one last drop, one more morsel of Betamax goodness to carry her over. Her face was screwed up into a scowl as her polyester pants suit layered over her withered frame like plate mail. A fake Gucci purse hung over one arm as she got down on her hands and knees, and just started knocking stuff over to look at the bottom of the stacks. She searched the surrounding area, even under the shelves as if she was a pest inspector looking for evidence of vermin, and when people looked at her on her hands and knees to see if she had fallen, she looked up with a scowl that sent them on their way. Leathery wrinkled hands
I silently cleaned up after her, too cowardly to confront her. Eventually, she saw me cleaning up and asked me if I had any tapes in the back she could look through. I lied and said no, because I knew I had stacks upon stacks of VHS tapes, but I didn’t want her to go through those and turn my back room into a pile of tapes like a video rental place after an earthquake like she was doing right in front of me.
Eventually, she got up, and asked for a complaint card. We didn’t have one, but I gave her my corporate office info. She wanted my full name. She wanted my district manager’s name, and the name of HIS boss. Her face was dark and focused like I would rue the day I crossed her wants and needs.
I never saw her again. But whenever I think of someone who is a fan of a drying up pool of technological obscurity, I think of her. The from the Sega Saturn folks to those who still insist on cane sugar in their soda. I am not sure if Mrs. Bibble is still alive or not, but I hope she found eBay if she is.