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On Working at Barnes and Noble

It had been twelve years, and I swore I would never work retail again.

On Working at Barnes and Noble


It had been twelve years, and I swore I would never work retail again. There was $11 left in my wallet. I had no food. I had a couple cigarettes. The plan wasn’t working. I went to the bar and found Kelly. I told her everything. That I smelled because a hair clog in the shower backed up filth water. I told her about the dog magazine paying me $75 an article. I told her about my parents and why I couldn’t move home.

“Write more dog articles,” she said.

“I’ve already written about every dog I know.”

“Write about my dog. She does this thing when I come home. It’s so cute.”

I asked Kelly what kind of dog she had. It was a Pomeranian.

“I can’t write about a Pomeranian,” I said. “I’m trying to build a reputation.”

“What’s wrong with a Pomeranian?”

Pomeranians. Bichon Frises. Evil hamsters standing guard at every ex-girlfriend’s apartment.

“They are the perfect companion for the general idiocy of this country.”

Kelly disagreed. She said I had to see “this thing” the dog does when she comes home. I was out of beer. Out of friends. I said why not.

Kelly lived in the row houses close to the interstate. We passed Barnes & Noble. Michaels. Best Buy. PetSmart.

“You want to be a writer,” Kelly said. “Why don’t you work at Barnes & Noble?”

“I wear clothes, too. Maybe I should get a job in a sweatshop.”

We walked up Kelly’s driveway.

“OK,” she said, “be really quiet. She’ll only do it if she thinks I’m alone.”

I stood to the left of the door. It was a glass door. Kelly opened it up. “Sophie. Sophie. Mommy’s home.”

I could hear little feet tapping against marble floor. Heading towards us.

“Sophes,” Kelly said. “Come get mommy.”

A Pomeranian ran through Kelly’s legs and lunged at me. I climbed up onto a porch table. I knocked an ashtray off of it. The dog circled the table, bouncing on its back legs. It had a bark like knives being sharpened.

“Oh, damn,” Kelly said. “She never acts like this.”

Kelly got the dog in the house and came back. We sat on the porch and watched the police set up a speed trap on the interstate. It was getting dark and I was about to start walking home.

“What does the dog do?” I asked.

“She gets really close to the ground, then she does a backflip.”

“A backflip?”

“Yeah. She lands it every time.”

I gave Kelly my iPhone and asked her to get a video of the dog doing a backflip.

“Are you going to write about it?” She asked.

“I don’t know. If the dog can flip there’s a way to make cash.”

I paced around the porch waiting for Kelly. Thinking about my fate. I looked up into the trees and said, “What is my fate?”

A blue Volkswagon pulled into the driveway. It was Kelly’s sister. She was twenty-one or twenty-two. She got most of the family’s looks. Jenny Lewis bangs. The sweet Appalachian drawl.

“Gina,” I said. “What’s up?”

“Same shit. Always the same shit.”

“You’re too young to say stuff like that.”

“I’m going back to college. I hate my job.”

“Where are you working?”

“Barnes & Noble.”

“Barnes & Noble?

“Yeah. On the interstate.”

I started to rethink this. Being locked up with Gina eight hours a day might not be so bad.

“Kelly said I should apply. Should I apply?”

“If you want to hate your life.”

“I already hate my life.”

“I know we’re hiring seasonal.”

It was September in Maryland. There were only two seasons there. Summer and winter.

“What season?” I asked.

“Christmas.”

Kelly came outside with my iPhone. She said she recorded a perfect flip. We gathered around my phone. Kelly held a biscuit in front of the dog’s face and taunted it. The dog whined. It ran around in circles. Finally, it sort of crouched down and sprung up into a barrel roll. It wasn’t clean, but the dog landed the trick.

“Maybe I was wrong about Pomeranians,” I said.

Kelly told her sister she needed to get her car out of the driveway. They argued like sisters do. About stolen clothes. Something terrible Kelly said after Gina’s new haircut. Gina said she had to go back to Barnes & Noble, anyway.

“I’ll go with you,” I said. “Might as well apply.”

“You’re such a dick,” Kelly said to me. She knew the score.

We drove to the Barnes & Noble on the interstate. Gina went into an office to find Craig, the store manager. I walked through the fiction aisles. Fifty Shade of Grey had a special booth at the end caps.

It was a job. You’ve sold your soul before, I thought.

Gina came out with a man in a brown polo shirt tucked into brown khakis. He was wearing a white t-shirt under the brown polo shirt. Gina did the introductions.

“We’re only hiring seasonal,” Craig said, “but Gina says you’re a good worker. Maybe we can put you on full-time after Christmas.”

“That’s, like, five months from now,” I said.

“The economy is bad for everyone.”

“Not everyone. But definitely us.”

I filled out seven pages of paperwork. Listed my college degree. Gave them three references who I knew wouldn’t pick up their phones.

“Alright,” Craig said. “I’ll give you a call in the morning. If everything checks out we can start you tomorrow afternoon.”

The next day I got the call.

I loaded the video of the Pomeranian doing a backflip onto YouTube. I named it “Pomeranian doing a backflip.” I clicked “Yes” to load the video with as many advertisements as they could fit onto the screen. I looked around my room. I checked my email. I couldn’t find any excuse not to show up.

Craig met me at the door.

“We just have to get you set up in the computer,” he said.

I sat in the break room. A girl told me it was a good job and I was lucky to have found it. She said you got 10% off of every book you purchase. Her mother worked there, too. She said they were both at the community college and wanted to be English teachers.

Craig came back. He handed me a brochure that said it wasn’t illegal but severely unethical to ever blog, Tweet or Facebook about this interviewing process. Then I watched a video on corporate theft. I fell asleep during a video about a Member Program.

Craig came back.

“Do you have any questions?”

“What’s the pay?”

“$7.25.”

I did some quick math. I would have to work 82 hours to even make my rent.

“I have a degree,” I said. “Can’t we up that a little?”

“Everyone here has a college degree.”

Craig paired me with Peggy for training. She was sort of new but understood the computer system. Every employee in the store was having a meltdown. The Barnes & Noble in the next town over had sold more Member Programs last quarter.

“What you really want to remember,” Peggy told me, “is push the Member Programs.”

Peggy had just moved to Maryland, too. She had found God. She drove a Harley and lived in Taos, New Mexico. But her mother died and she was atoning for all her past sins. God sent her to Maryland to start a church. Did I want to make a donation?

“I’m getting paid $7.25 an hour,” I said. “Ask God to raise the minimum wage if he needs money.”

“You’re a Catholic. Aren’t you?”

“I guess.”

“I can tell. That’s why you’re so angry.”

We went over the computer again and again. It was impossible to screw up. You scanned a book and the computer did the rest.

“Do I have to clock out for a bathroom break?” I asked.

“No. Just tell someone you’re going.”

“I’m going.”

I grabbed a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey and went into the bathroom. I spent twenty minutes reading and had an issue with some of the grammar.

In the next stall someone was on a cellphone. “I’m never going to make my quota. I have to sell 100 more Member Programs by next month.”

I went back to the register and read more. An old lady asked me if I was enjoying the book. I said the writing was rotten but the descriptions were right on. Peggy came back.

“You didn’t ask that woman if she was part of our Member Program.”

“Oh yeah,” I said. “I’ll get the next one.”

“We’re not supposed to be reading at work.”

“Look Peggy, how much of an incentive is there to sell these Member Programs?”

“Incentive?”

“Yeah. Like, if you sell the most do you get a pizza party?”

“No.”

“Do you get a free book?”

“No.”

“What is it then?”

“It’s just … what we’re supposed to do.”

The woman had a brain. And if she didn’t have a brain she at least had a heart. Where was her self-worth? We were working at a bookstore. She could’ve picked Wal-Mart, but she chose Barnes & Noble. The last home to literature. Between these four walls sat all the tomes written in basements and bloodshed and love and death. The carefully crafted words the world thought important enough to immortalize between bound pages. That had to mean something.

I began to feel like an asshole. Peggy needed this job and she was playing by the rules. I decided to play her game. We were the ambassadors to these books, after all.

A family came up to the counter with a college chemistry book.

“This is the wrong book,” the woman said.

“Do you have the receipt?” Peggy asked.

“No. I went online to BarnesandNoble.com and they sent me the wrong book.”

“That’s not true.”

“Are you calling me a liar?” She looked at her husband. “Did she just call me a liar?”

“No,” Peggy said. “I’m calling you a thief.”

Peggy reached down and pulled the woman’s pocketbook out of her hand. She put it on the counter. The inside was lined with aluminum foil. Peggy pulled out two children’s books. The husband grabbed the kids and they made for the door.

“Stop them,” Peggy screamed. “Stop them. Robbers! Thieves!”

No one moved. Craig looked at the family but he didn’t go after them. He came over and asked what happened.

“First they tried to return a book they didn’t buy,” Peggy said. “Then they tried to shoplift.”

“What did you do?”

“I reached down and took the girl’s bag.”

“Did you put your hand on her?”

“I think I touched her arm. But Craig…”

“Peggy, this is the third time I’m telling you this. You can’t touch a customer.”

“But they’re criminals.”

“Peggy, I told you this last time. You can’t touch a customer.”

“I’m sorry Craig.”

“Peggy, I have to fire you.”

I worked one more hour by myself. Gina never stopped in to see how I was doing. Craig approached me with a clipboard.

“What’s good, Craig?”

“It says you didn’t sell any Member Programs.”

“Bad economy, Craig.”

“Gina said you were a hard worker.”

“I am.”

“Day two of training tomorrow.”

I clocked out. Three and a half hours. $25.

I went to sleep that night and had a dream. I was a Barnes & Noble Member Program card. A thick plastic credit card. An expensive green color like new currency. I was in a box with a thousand other cards just like me. It was always my turn to be next. To be sold. It was what all the other cards wanted. But every time the box opened I’d jump far back into the pile. Watching all the other cards get plucked by peasant hands.

I woke up ten minutes before I was supposed to be back at work. I went on the Internet to check YouTube. “Pomeranian doing a backflip” was up to 120,000 hits. I wrote down some numbers and figured my pay from YouTube ads had to be about $25. I went through my e-mail. I looked around my room, at the shirt I picked out to wear to work. I went back to sleep.