June 22, 1995. The first day on the job.

“Hello, Greg,” Jane said as I walked into Books & More.  Jane sat on a stool at the cash register. She wore a long-sleeve blouse, a blue-gray color, with black pants.  She was slightly shorter than average, with dark hair and wrinkled skin. I never did know how old Jane was, or if I did know, I don’t remember now.  I would have guessed around sixty.

Jane had kind of a rough appearance, but she tried to make herself look classy.  There was a popular movie from a few years ago called Kindergarten Cop, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger played a police officer working undercover as a teacher.  One of the students in the class had a drug dealer father who was planning to abduct him, and the drug dealer had his creepy mother working with him.  Three days ago, I had been to the store for a sort of job interview, although I had been told that the job was already mine. Jane probably wanted to make sure that I was responsible and trustworthy.  The first thought I had that day when I first saw Jane was that she reminded me of the drug dealer’s mother from Kindergarten Cop. I didn’t dare tell her this to her face, of course.

“Hi,” I replied, hoping not to give away the fact that I had no idea what I was doing.

“Are you ready?” Jane asked.

“Yes.”

“I was thinking I’ll start off by showing you around.  Then I’ll show you how the microfiche reader works, so you can take orders for customers from the catalog.  When someone comes in, I’ll show you how to use the cash register.”

“Sounds good.”

Jane then showed me around the store, so I could become familiar with what books, magazines, newspapers, greeting cards, and other items were on which shelves.  I tried my best to pay attention. Books & More had exactly three employees: Jane, the owner; me; and Paula McCall, the connection through whom I got this job. My family had known the McCalls for a few years now; they had a middle school age son named John, who played basketball and baseball with my brother Mark.  With school out for the summer, and John home all day, Paula wanted to be home more and cut back her hours at Books & More. She had told this to my mother, who mentioned that I was going to be home for the summer and that a job would be good for me. Ordinarily, I would not be happy with Mom intruding in my life like this, setting up a job for me without consulting me at all.  However, I had no plans for the summer, and looking for a job on my own, having to interview and make a résumé and a good first impression, sounded kind of terrifying, so I was okay with it.

“May I help you?” Jane said to a well-dressed middle-aged woman who entered the store a minute ago.

The woman handed Jane a list.  “My son is in honors English at St. Luke’s, and he has to read these books over the summer.  Do you have them?”

“We do,” Jane said.  She gestured for the woman to follow her to a shelf near the front of the store to the left; I followed them as well.  “For all of the high schools that have summer reading assignments, I have all of those books here in a special section.  I spoke to English teachers at all the schools in Gabilan, and Plumdale High, and St. Luke’s.”

“That’s a really good idea,” the woman said as Jane pointed out the specific books on the woman’s list.  She brought the books to the cash register, and I watched carefully as Jane rang up the sale and handed the woman the receipt.

After that customer had left, Jane showed me how the microfiche reader worked.  This was the most interesting thing I learned that day. Books & More ordered its inventory from two different book wholesalers.  Apparently, the standard practice at the time was that these companies would send their catalogs to bookstores on microfiche. If we needed to order a book for a customer, or if we needed to order more inventory for the store in general, we would look it up in the wholesale distributor’s catalog and use that to place an order when we had enough items to order.  I knew very little about microfiche, except that libraries kept archives of things like old newspapers on microfiche. A microfiche card apparently consisted of very small printing on film, so that the entire catalog of the thousands of titles supplied by these companies could be listed on just a few cards. A microfiche reader was basically just a giant fancy lighted magnifying glass.  Within a few years, the Internet would emerge as a commonplace consumer technology and make microfiche all but obsolete. So far, Books & More was not connected to the Internet.

For me, making an order from these catalogs was simple.  I just had to write down the book title and International Standard Book Number on a clipboard that Jane kept next to the cash register, and Jane would make the order when we had enough items to order.  That seemed simple enough. If I noticed we were out of something, particularly a book that was a top seller at the time, I also needed to write that on the order sheet when we ran out.

For the rest of the morning, I essentially shadowed Jane as she rang up customers, dusted shelves, and took special orders for customers.  I ate lunch in the office in the back of the store around noon. When I finished, Jane said, “I’m going to take care of some things back here and take my lunch break.  Do you think you’re ready to be by yourself on the cash register?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“Let me know if you need anything.”

“I will.”

As I left the office, I noticed Jane getting a pack of cigarettes out of her purse and stepping out the back door into the back parking lot.  As I walked back to the cash register, I had a sudden realization. Jane reminded me of a female version of the Smoking Man from X-Files, one of the show’s primary recurring villains.  Her mouth and lips had the same shape as those of the Smoking Man, and seeing her with a cigarette triggered this association in my mind.  Maybe the bad guy’s mother from Kindergarten Cop and the Smoking Man had an affair sixty years ago, and Jane was their love child.

I looked at the rack of hardcover bestsellers at the front of the store.  The Rainmaker, by John Grisham.  Rose Madder, by Stephen King.  Beach Music, by Pat Conroy.  Jane told me that I could read when things were slow in the store, as long as I did not damage merchandise that I did not intend to buy.  I also got twenty percent off everything in the store. I had read a few Stephen King books before, and I was about to pick up Rose Madder when a man walked in.

“Hi,” I said, walking back to the cash register.

“Can you help me?  Where might I be able to find Rising Sun by Michael Crichton, in paperback?”

“I’ve read that book.  I liked it.”

“I did too.  It’s a gift for my father.  Did you see the movie?”

“I didn’t.”

“The book was better, to be honest.”

“That’s what I heard,” I said as we walked to where I thought the Michael Crichton paperback novels would be.  I looked around… they were not there. This section had mystery and horror and romance. I turned the corner… one side of this aisle had science fiction and fantasy, and the other side had nonfiction.  I checked to see if Rising Sun would be filed under science fiction; it was not.  It was not really science fiction, other than the fact that it involved a technology corporation.  I walked the entire length of that aisle and turned back up the next aisle, past greeting cards. I let out a resigned sigh.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I’m new here. Let me go find out.”

I walked to the back of the store and opened the office door slightly, peeking inside. Jane looked up from her desk.  “Yes?” she asked.

“I’m sorry.  I still don’t know my way around the store, and a customer is looking for Michael Crichton.”

“That’s in Fiction.  Let me show you.” I followed Jane, thinking to myself that I knew that Michael Crichton was fiction but too embarrassed to admit that I had forgotten where the fiction section was.  I said nothing. Jane pulled the book off the shelf and gave it to the customer, who had followed us.

“I’ll ring him up,” I said, hoping to redeem myself after forgetting where to find fiction books.

“Okay.  Let me know if you need anything else.”  Jane returned to the office as I typed the amount and figured the sales tax on the cash register.

“Do you take Visa?” the customer asked as he got out his wallet.

“We do,” I said.  Another test for me: did I remember how to use the credit card machine?  As he swiped his card, the machine printed a receipt; I tore it off and gave it to him.  “Sign this, please,” I said. As he signed it, I pressed another button on the credit card machine.  A second copy of the receipt printed, which I gave him to keep as I stored the signed copy in a drawer of the cash register.

“Thank you,” I said.  “Have a great day!”

“You too!” the man replied, as he walked out of the store with his book.  I could not help but feel discouraged. Sure, I had been successful with the cash register, but I still had not learned such simple things as where different kinds of books were located.  My first test on the new job, and I felt like I had failed.

I was still curious to start reading Rose Madder, or at least see what it was about, but I had something more important to do.  Rose Madder would have to wait.  I walked up and down the shelves, learning where everything was located.  Fiction. Children’s books. Magazines. The books on school required reading lists.  Cliffs Notes. Nonfiction. History. Greeting cards. Art. Reference. Humor. All of the other things I had found when I was unsuccessfully looking for Michael Crichton.  

As I walked around, I was surprised to hear a familiar song on the radio, since the station that played classical music was always playing in the store.  It fit the kind of upscale image and clientele that Jane was marketing to. I knew very little classical music; most of the classical music I knew were pieces used in commercials, movies, or as the case was right now with this familiar song, old-timey cartoons.  It was the song that goes “da-DUN da-da-DUN-dun, DUN-da-da-DUN-dun, DUN-da-da-DUN-dun, DUN-da-da-DUN,” and there was an old Bugs Bunny cartoon where Elmer Fudd sang “Kill the WAB-bit, kill the WAB-bit, kill the WAB-bit, kill the WABBIT!” to that tune. I think it was actually called something about valkyries.  I hummed along to the part I knew, which wasn’t very much of it, as I walked up and down the aisles again, learning where to find things.

Another customer came in shortly after the Valkyrie song ended.  “I’m looking for a really old science fiction book,” she said. “Where would that be?  Do you have a science fiction section?”

“Yes,” I said, confidently walking toward the back to the right, where I saw the science fiction section.  “What is the book you’re looking for?”

Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein.”

“Wait,” I said, turning around.  The customer did not realize it, but it felt like life was asking me a trick question, but I knew the correct answer this time.  “We have a separate section for books that are on reading lists for schools that have summer reading assignments, and Stranger in a Strange Land is there.”  I walked up to the shelf of summer reading books, in the front left of the store, and pulled out a copy of Stranger in a Strange Land, handing it to the customer.

“Thank you,” she said.  “I’m going to look around a bit.”

“Okay.  Just come up front whenever you’re ready.”

I walked back to the cash register, satisfied with myself.  Sure, I wasn’t able to help the customer who was looking for Michael Crichton, but I knew exactly where to find this other customer’s book.  The customer came to the front desk with two greeting cards (I knew exactly where in the store she found those) to go with her book; I rang her purchase on the cash register, she paid cash, and I gave her the correct change.

Working in a bookstore was new to me.  Working in general was new to me. I was still learning, but I shouldn’t beat myself up for making one mistake on the first day.  I would figure things out eventually. Paula was not working that day, and I was scheduled to work until 2:30; Jane would run the store by herself until it closed at 6:00.  When it was time for me to go, Jane told me that I could go home; I filled out my time card and said goodbye. I stepped outside; the sun had long since burned off the morning coastal fog, but a cool breeze kept the air from being too hot.  I walked back to the car, feeling optimistic about the new job, and I began humming that Valkyrie song again.

 

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