punkwalrus (punkwalrus) wrote,

Tale of Weirdness - Working at the Book Store

I used to be manager at Crown Books #854 in Rose Hill, Alexandria back in the late 1980s. Crown Books is gone now, but I carry many fond memories of working there. And some that were not-so-fond. But many make good stories.

Selling Porn Mags
The previous manager HATED selling porn. Crown books didn't have a lot of porn, but we sold Playboy, Penthouse, Hot Talk, Penthouse Forums, Club, Velvet, and a handful of others. The previous manager had them behind the counter, which saved a lot of woes, but some men would beach themselves like seals over the counter to have a look. I had my regulars. Two of them were cops.

Back then, I had a pole up my butt about porn. I was so against it. I still don't enjoy it, but now I support the right of any individual to enjoy porn because hey, it's a free country. But I hated porn not only because I was a prude, but because of the trouble it caused when my district manager told me to "get them from behind the counter and out with the rest of the magazines so we can make money." Grrrr... Well, he was right, we went from selling just a handful of issues a month to well over a hundred. It quickly became my top selling series of magazines. But it had its problems.

The first series of problems were underage kids. Now, the magazines were in the direct line of sight from the register, and up high on the top row of the rack. But somehow, kids managed to grab them and sneak them to the back, where they'd hide them by putting them in large books to save for later. So frequently, they'd be saved in large art books, coffee table books, and even large kid's books. Not only did this piss off customers, but also would split the spines of the books, forcing me to return them. What a pain in the ass!

Whenever kids would crowd around that section of magazines, you knew they weren't looking at "Hot Rod Monthly" or "VW Custom," but as soon as they got a whiff of one of us coming, they'd ditch and scatter. One day, I caught some of them.

It was a bunch of boy scouts. I'd say 6-8 of them, aged around 12-14 or so. It was slow for a Saturday, and sure enough, these gaggle of brown shirts came in, and made a beeline for the mags. They positioned themselves in a tight cluster, with the taller boys serving as lookouts. I discretely removed my name badge, wandered to the back of the store, then slowly went up to the magazine area, pretending to be a customer. Sure enough, they were reading porn. One of the lookouts noticed me, and started warning the other kids, but they were too slow on the take, and when they saw me right next to them, they tried to put the magazine back so fast, they ripped it nearly in half. I grabbed two of them, one of them who had been holding the magazine. I told the rest to go get their scoutmaster to come to retrieve the others. They fled.

I took the two boys to my office, and made them sit on the stoop leading to the register area. And I waited. And waited. One was a small redhead, who started to cry the longer it got. The other was an dark-skinned kid (possibly Hindu) who was turning green with fear. Once in a while, I'd say, "If your scoutmaster doesn't come back, I'll have to call the police." Man, I was mean. But then an hour went by. Then an hour and a half. My cashier said, "I think they've been abandoned." My plan had backfired. Now what? I wondered if I'd have to get the kids to call their parents. At two hours, it was getting late, and the sun had set. Finally, just before I contemplated actually calling the police, a large dark-skinned scoutmaster ran into my store. Yep, it was his dad.

The man was large, like tall with broad shoulders. He was furious. But not with me, thank God. I explained what had happened, and he was very apologetic and humble, but as he screamed at the two kids, I heard his side of the story. They had been coming back from a day trip somewhere, and stopped at the 7-11 around the corner for some refreshments. There were two vans carrying all the scouts, and when they left and did head count, the scouts whom I sent to fetch the scoutmaster made up that the two missing kids were "in the other van." An hour later, at another stop, it dawned on the scoutmasters that two kids were missing (one of them being his son). After freaking out for a while, and sorting out who was with whom, they managed to get a mumbled confession from one of the scouts what had happened. So he had to drive all the way back to my shopping center (they got lost, too), and pray that he was going to the right one. Luckily, we were the first one they stopped at.

I recall thinking what JERKS those other scouts were. Damn, that is the worst kind of abandonment. The man had already assumed that the police were involved (he was told they had been caught shoplifting, nothing about porn), and he was relieved I had not "overreacted." He paid for the torn-up magazine, plus the wrinkled Spin magazine they had been hiding the porn with.

We also had other porn problems, and one of them was an employee at the Roy Roger's in our shopping center. It was obvious he was kind of slow, and on his lunch break, he'd read the magazines and ... sometimes masturbate to them. Like right there at the magazine rack. In his store uniform. The police had been called on him several times, be he always ran off before the police arrived. I had been lucky only to HEAR about him for months, but sadly, one weekday, he came in when I was alone in the store. He grabbed a copy of the magazine, started to flip through it noisily and quickly (like how an angry person might flip through a phone book), then he'd reach into his pants, and... flap flap flap went the Roy Roger's apron. EWWW! I was so mortified, that I screamed at him to get the hell out of my store. He instead ran into my back room, I guess, to run into the alley. But my door was locked. So he locked himself in the bathroom. With the magazine. I called the cops, but before they arrived, he ran from the back room, and fled out the front door with the magazine. When the police came around, I was in such a tizzy about it. I demanded they do something because, dammit, he kept coming in and wacking off! I even called Roy Roger's, and demanded to speak to his boss (that went nowhere). I filed a formal report for "lewd behavior" and they went to go find him. I don't know if they did, but he never came back. Years later, when I worked elsewhere, I was stunned to find out he rode my bus to work, and worked in my mall, too. I never made eye contact with him, but I never visited the Greek food place he worked at, either.

We had these "anti-theft" scanners in front of our front doors, but they were horrible things. First, they went off all the time. Like for people with strollers, umbrellas, or just any large quantity of metal. And if they went off for too long, they'd "burn out," and we'd have to have some 3M tech come out and replace fuses and stuff. The plastic that covered the scanners got bumped into and hit so many times, they split away from the metal, and they were SO ugly. Needless to say, they only worked about a third of the time, and finally, the company stopped trying to fix them.

I only stopped one shoplifter, and this was a girl, probably about 12 years old. It was the middle of a very slow day, a Wednesday, if I recall correctly. The store was empty, and as I was sitting in my office turret when she came in. Now, the first thought was, "A kid in the middle of a school day?" Alone? And she was looking nervously about. She was a kind of gangly girl, a bit on the tall side, with blond curly hair. She had this large, turquoise duffel bag slung over her shoulder. She headed towards the isles where we sold "Sweet Valley High" books (pap pop lit for tweens). She looked around, didn't see me, and started stuffing handfuls of books into her bag. She didn't even look at the titles. I thought, "She is so bad at this, I wonder if she's a decoy?" But no one else was in the store. So I busied myself near the entrance, and waited. When she got to the doors, I stopped her, and said, "Are you going to pay for those?" She immediately burst into tears, and I mean, bawled and bawled that she was so sorry, and would never do it again. I dumped out about 40 paperbacks from her bag and handed back her empty bag. Having learned my lesson from the scouts, I sternly told her, "Never... EVER come back in my store again!" She sniffled an agreement and quickly left.

I kind of forgot about it until winter. It was a busy night of the Christmas season, and there were a lot of people in my store. As I was counting out a register drawer, I heard a scuffle by the door. A woman was fighting with her kid, insisting she come inside. The girl said she'd wait out in the cold, even though she didn't have a jacket. The mother was upset, and demanding she come in the store. At first, I thought, "Some girl who doesn't want to look like an uncool nerd by being seen in a booms tore." Then we made eye contact. It was her, the curly-haired, sticky-fingered girl with the turquoise duffel bag. She got more and more urgent, I guess figuring if she didn't flee, I'd tell her mom. Her mom finally gave up, and went into the store without her. I never told the mother, but I'll never forget that girl's look in her eyes. Hey, she kept her end of the bargain! :)

The punchline to my shoplifting alertness was when my store got inventory that year. I nearly had a heart attack when they said, "We estimate you have lost over $20,000 of merchandise last year." But then was told, "That's 3% of revenue. Very good! That's way below normal. In fact, you're the best store in your district." Hee! I was later told a lot of the "loss" was also accounting errors and "employee drift." I didn't know what he meant by that, and he said, "Keep it that way." Later, I was told that meant employee theft, and several of my cashiers and assistants were, in fact, stealing from the store. How did I find out? Long after I stopped working there, they admitted it to me. Man... I missed out on a LOT of free books!

I heard it's different now, but Crown Books used to use distributors to count some of the titles, and then they'd come to me with an order recommendation. They were called book reps. They were super-nice people, always ordering too many things I'd have to pare down. One day, one of the ones working for Random House (one of the BIGGEST book distributors) asked me if I got my "titles?" I said I didn't know what he was talking about. Well, he took down my home address, and said there'd be a package waiting for me soon. Weeks later, I got a box of books. All really weird titles, too. I asked another manager about this, and he told me the secret.

Crown Books only allowed "best of backlist," that is, titles that sold well. Nothing obscure. They only wanted books people would buy and not leave linger, taking up shelf space for other better-selling books. I already knew that, but the reason I was going to get "free books" was that the distributors wanted to put some more obscure stuff on the shelves. So what managers did was if they got a book they didn't want, like some "History of Lint in Europe" for $14.95, you'd take it to your store, and take home a book that you wanted for $14.95. You got what you wanted, they got their titles on the shelves... and it was all under the table.

Soon, I was on a lot of those lists. I got a lot of books, and traded them in. I'd say 60% of my current book collection is from that period. I still got them after I quit, too, but then I couldn't trade them in. I gave away a lot of those books.

Also, if you wanted a new paperback, you tore the cover off and kept the rest. That was wrong, but we all did it. See, when you return paperbacks that didn't sell, to get credit, all you had to do was tear off the cover and send them the cover and throw the rest away. That saved on a LOT of shipping. But we weren't supposed to KEEP the books, see... or give them to friends... ... oops.

This entry was originally posted at http://www.punkwalrus.com/blog/archives/00000079.html
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