Every once in a while I think of ditching it all and opening a record store. You know, quit my job, sell my kids for cash and set up a nice little store somewhere selling old punk rock vinyl and being more smug than a Nick Hornby character.
And then I remember. I worked in a record store for a while. Why in the hell would I ever want to do that to myself again? Maybe it would be nice for a while, just sitting behind the counter chatting it up with the other people who are stuck in the past, reminiscing about the glory days of vinyl and punk rock while my bank account slowly bled out. But then Christmas would come along. Surely, my little record store would be a major success by then and I’d have to deal with something I said I’d never deal with again: The holiday crowd in a record store.
1983 was my first holiday retail experience. It was a baptism by fire, as I landed a job at the busiest record store at the busiest mall on Long Island. On my first day – two days before Thanksgiving – I was handed the requisite blue vest, a name tag and a few whispered words of advice: don’t let them get to you. My co-workers were referring to the barrage of customers that were at the gated entrance to the store fifteen minutes before opening and still clinging to the cassette racks as we were trying to close. You have not seen a whirling dervish in action until you have seen someone hell bent on getting everything on their kid’s Christmas list.
I, however, was no wimp. I could handle any customer, any crowd, any cash register breakdown or old woman sobbing over the Julio Iglesias albums. I immediately volunteered to work the irons – the opening to closing shift – nearly every day. From Thanksgiving until Christmas, I would not have a day off, and most of the days would be the full shift.
In the beginning I had superhero powers. I never got tired from the long hours. I manned every spot in the store; the cash register, the cassette department, the imports. I spent time downstairs unpacking boxes upon boxes of shipments, sorting albums, slapping stickers on them and writing the title, artist and store number on the plastic sleeve of every record with a blue Sharpie.
By the second week in December I was spending more time on the floor helping customers find exactly what they were looking for. During the holiday season, this usually consisted of frazzled mothers trying to remember exactly what it was their son or daughter had asked for. This resulted in a lot of guesswork, humming and/or singing. It also involved many loud gasps of horror when the mother matched the title of the record with the album on the wall, where the albums were displayed in rows of pockets. So many dropped jaws and wide eyes as parents spied the cover to Quiet Riot’s Metal Health. “That’s what my child is listening to? Oh My God! He’s a devil worshiper! I knew it!!” Or Suicidal Tendencies? OH MY GOD MY BABY IS GOING TO KILL HIMSELF!
Sometimes a parent would ask me suggest something for a kid I knew nothing about. A typical conversation went like this:
“I need an album for my nephew . He’s 15. What do 15 year old boys like?”
“I don’t know, ma’am. Not all 15 year old boys are the same.”
“He likes boy stuff. Cars, girls. Sports. What kind of music do boys like that listen to?”
“Well, he might….”
“Oh, what about those New Kids on the Block? I bet he’d like that!”
“Well, he might…”
“Or that Lionel Richie or Christopher Cross!”
“Did you want me to….”
“Oh, yea, please. Something wholesome.”
And then I’d be a complete asshole and hand them a copy of “Crippled Children Suck” by the Meatmen.
The kids were just as bad. They would come in without a list, trying to buy music for their parents. Getting the title of a song out of them was like pulling teeth.
“You know, that song old people like. How about if I sing it?”
“Sure kid. Sing away.”
He’d hum something undecipherable.
“Any lyrics? Just one or two will do.”
“Uhh. Love. And umm…heart.”
“Well that narrows it down.To about 3,000 songs!”
“What are you, stupid? How could you not know what I’m talking about? You work in a record store!”
Eventually I would convince the kid that the song he was humming was actually Frank Stallone’s “Far From Over“ knowing full well that I would be going to hell for inflicting such pain on an innocent person.
The closer it got to Christmas, the more of a frenzy people were in. They fought over the last copy of Synchronicity. They mobbed us when we opened a new box of Madonna cassettes. Every once in a while, I would have to step over some fur-coated, blue-haired grandma who fainted when she saw the larger-than-life cardboard cut-out of Julio. And I started to feel the result of all work and no play. I was tired, I was cranky and then I lost my voice.
My co-workers made signs for me to hold up so I could still help customers. Two days before Christmas, the only sign I needed to use was “Sorry. We are out of that title right now.” I faced the wrath of customers who, through no fault of mine, had waited until the very last minute to pick up Pyromania. I’d try to tell them that Dio’s Holy Diver was a much better choice, anyhow. I was a little punch drunk.
I listened to the complaints that the register lines were too long and the store was a mess and the floor people were rude. We had to chase customers out of the store ten minutes after closing and even as I was vacuuming and closing up cases they would say “Oh, are you closing?”
I lost my patience and I lost my fixed greeting smile. No longer was it “Welcome to our record store, how may I help you,” but “What you really want to buy your kid is clothes. Go to The Gap and leave me alone.” By the time Christmas Eve rolled around, I was was about one “Will buying Shout at the Devil for my kid turn him into a serial killer?” away from a workplace incident. The only thing that kept me from slicing someone’s neck open and watching them bleed out all over the Michael Jackson display was the happy hours at Houlihan’s. Dinner break meant a walk down to the other end of the mall for free crap food and as many dollar drinks as I could pound back in 45 minutes. Customers are so much nicer, smarter and better looking when seen through the haze of cheap alcohol. I was also more likely to point the blue haired women toward the Exploited or Iron Maiden, but I had to get my jollies somehow.
This was all played out to a soundtrack that was a little mini-war over the store stereo system where the Misfits’ Walk Among Us would get pulled off the turntable by the manager after one song, while she let the evil Huey Lewis’s Sports album play all the way through.
Had I known that the next year I would be doing the record store Christmas stint again and would be subjected to the non-stop playing of Do They Know It’s Christmas, I might have appreciated Huey a little more.
I tortured myself through Christmas of ’86 and decided that I was going to retire from retail after that. I could not handle another holiday season of bitchy parents and surly kids and girls screaming and drooling over New Kids on the Block albums. I had used my holiday bonuses and store discounts to accumulate a nice collection of imports and that almost – almost – offset whatever mental damage that job caused me.
Despite all that, I still refer to my term at the record store as the best damn job I ever had. Where else was I going to get reprimanded, yet lauded, for putting out a Dead Kennedys display on November 22?
I never did work retail again. And every time I revisit my dream of opening up a record store, I think back to those times as a way of slapping myself upside the head.