Barnes & Ignoble

By Peter Aaron

“Peter, I’m Detective Vincelli of the Paramus Police Department,” began the serious man in the tan blazer. He showed me his badge, as if I might not believe him. “This is Detective Milano. We’d like to ask you a few questions. And we’d like to have a look at the inside of your car, if that’s okay with you.”

“Sure,” I answered, an air of disbelief in my voice that was both affected and too real. My palms were gushing like showerheads, had been since I was abruptly asked to report to the back office. “No problem. Not at all.” I knew that the end of my employment at the nation’s largest chain of booksellers was very near. That was okay. They could keep it.

Before I signed on with Barnes & Noble, working in such a store had seemed about as far from offensive as retail could be. In fact it had been a bit of a fantasy. I imagined that to have such a job was to be immersed in an environment of intellectual reserve, a calm womb of academic warmth. To be surrounded by high shelves of rich wood, full of volumes of formidable heft, the reassuring aroma of aged paper wafting all around. To sit in a tall chair behind a low counter, steaming coffee within reach and my nose in one of the classics, or perhaps a good pulp by Cain or Woolrich. Of course, this mood might be gently interrupted by the occasional customer genuinely interested in seeking my personal literary advice or to unknowingly trade in some gems for my home library.

Yeah, I thought, I would be very much okay with a job like that.

So I was predictably jazzed when, after several attempts, I managed to land a slot at the B&N superstore in Paramus, New Jersey. A structure that is easily the biggest of the chain’s many locations—almost a city block—and as of 2000 was generating, if I remember the spiel, somewhere around $18 million clear profit per year. It wasn’t exactly the modest neighborhood bookseller I had originally envisioned, but I was relatively confident that it couldn’t be that far off.

I was a fool.

I had anticipated a comfortable $450 per week but would end up toiling at the enoromostore for something more in the vein of, say, $175. A recent Jersey transplant, I had previously been living in New York and making nearly twice that, but my job there, at a manic midtown copy shop, had been one of endless, grinding stress. I needed little prodding to kiss it goodbye. Besides, I told myself, I wasn’t paying one of those Manhattan rents anymore so mathematically it would work out about the same, wouldn’t it? I also resigned myself to the pay cut because, hey, I would be working in a bookstore, I would be leading a quiet work life with coworkers who were true intellectuals, who were fascinated with great literature and the exchange of actual ideas. Not the janitors cum laude I’d been surrounded by at my previous job. And the managers would be cheery, wizened old souls who were happy to impart nuggets of wisdom from their years of experience in order to help me along in the distinguished profession of selling the printed word. I soon learned that these assumptions were also a little short of the mark. It was shocking to discover that my peers were either trend-obsessed college kids or burnt-out, middle-aged divorcees who would have been equally at home in the pool supply section of Home Depot. Not once during lunch break do I recall seeing any of these people turn the pages of anything that wasn’t 8 ½ x 11 with a glossy cover. All anyone ever seemed to be interested in was sports, partying, or store politics. During my interview for the position, I had been asked what kind of things I liked to read. Thinking on my feet, I managed to come up with a somewhat abstract answer that surprised even me: anything with genuine feeling or emotion that moves me. (Or something like that.) Looking back, I wonder why Messers Barnes or Noble even bothered to ask the question at all. If I had just said “TV Guide” it would’ve been all the same to them, judging by the depth of my coworkers.

Every manager I worked under had the aloof, unfeeling demeanor of a highway patrolman. They spoke to me and all of the other lower rungs like we were sharecropper’s children, right away giving us the message that we were of limited worth and could be fired and replaced without so much as an afterthought. Daily pep-talk sales sermons were given in the break room before the start of our shifts. “Okay, we’re up to 35,000 right now, the budget is set at 48,000 for today,” our overlords told us. “By 10:30, we need to make up that missing 13,000. I really think we can do it! Remember: Be sure to walk the customer to the shelf, put the book they’re looking for in their hand, and ask them if they’re looking for something else. That’s the way it’s done, people. Now let’s get out there and have a good shift, okay?”

My last job had had at least used the illusory carrot-and-stick device of a supposed profit-sharing system, though, of course, any potential profit was usually eaten up by outstanding expenses left over from periods of slow business. But at B&N there was literally no incentive to motivate workers to generate sales. No token premiums, small bonuses to our tiny paychecks, goofy certificates of praise. No trickling down of appreciation at all. Only the daily, management-led Nuremberg Rallies and the assumption that we should just be happy to make the owners rich. It’s common knowledge that profit is the goal of any business, but it’s also pretty obvious that a happy, valued coworker is likely to improve revenue. Apparently this is less clear to the owners of Barnes & Noble.

Once out on the sales floor, my assigned position for the day would be that of either front-of-house cashier or attendant of a particular section (Fiction, Biography, Bestsellers, Sci-Fi, Arts/Entertainment, Computer Manuals, etc.). Not surprisingly, being a cashier was by far the more loathsome of these inevitable fates. Behind the luxuriously polished hardwood counter—it’s actually only pressed wood, probably like the anchor desks on TV news sets—I was expected to stand and appear busy for the length of my time on the clock. As I understand them, New Jersey’s labor laws dictate that an employee is due one 30-minute lunch break and two 10-minute breaks for each eight-hour span. The store, however, circumvented this rule and got the maximum amount of floor time from its workers by parlaying everyone’s total break time into one 45-minute respite per shift. Since each individual’s break was determined differently each day, a worker might have ended up getting his or her downtime after standing for a Torquemaden four-hour stretch or, even worse, near the beginning or end of their shift, which would’ve meant standing for as much as five or six solid hours on their feet. Add to this the reality of dealing with droves of impatient suburbanites and their screaming offspring wanting to know when the next Harry Potter is coming out. Try it sometime. But wear sensible shoes.

Compared to the cashier’s slot, the least terrifying fork of these twin evils was that of section-attendant detail. Although the suspecting gaze of patrolling management was always in the air, the chief advantage here was the small amount of autonomy. Responsibilities occasionally meant helping customers find something, but mainly entailed keeping the area in order. In other words: picking up after people too lazy to put the damn books back where they found them! It drove me crazy. Burger-fed morons would sit down with huge stacks of heavy books and spend about six hours flipping through them before simply walking off and leaving their well-thumbed castoffs behind, as though the volumes would somehow float magically back to the shelves they were yanked from. Bratty high school and college students often met to study, leaving empty Starbucks cups and trashed, dog-eared magazines as a their calling cards. The myth of Sisyphus came to mind on many a shift; an endless, no-win game with explicit rules against ever sitting down—no matter what. Saturdays were especially brutal, as the entire population of Northern New Jersey, its minions intent on fulfilling their roles as manifest consumers, takes to wheels and clogs the Route 17 corridor all afternoon, wasting gas and cash to support the likes of Blinds to Go, Golf Galaxy, the Container Store, and other, equally ridiculous concerns. I still have nightmares about it.

The management was nice enough, however, to give employees a 30-percent discount on purchases, so I lustily snapped up many choice books during my first few weeks of service. But this was a clever trap that I had allowed myself to walk right into. I’d run myself ragged over the course of two weeks, get paid very little for it, and then go and blow sometimes as much as a third of my paltry pittance on books I’d been eyeing. After a while it finally hit me that I, quite literally, owed my soul to the company store. And so finally on one particularly hectic day I let my emotions get the upper hand. I was working at the front counter alongside another coworker, a 50-ish woman with overly bleached hair. She had remarked on how stressful the day was and how annoyed she had been by one of the recent customers. Out of earshot of anyone else—or so I thought—and only meaning to show shared frustration, I made reference to whatever school shooting had been in the news that month. “Yeah, I keep bringing that gun to work everyday,” I quipped. “Maybe today’s the day I’ll use it.”

Now, I realize that such a statement may look fairly harsh in print, but to me it was nothing more than a harmless dose of some very obviously dark humor. And we both had a chuckle about it before our attention returned to ringing up purchases. About 20 minutes later, I was instructed—in a very sobering tone—to walk immediately to the back office. Confused and utterly unaware as to what I might’ve done wrong, I made my way to the rear of the store. Which is where I had the honor of meeting Detectives Vincelli and Milano.

Apparently, I hadn’t been quite as I discreet I’d thought with my little aside. One of the customers had overheard it, misunderstood, and then rushed to phone the police. It’s difficult even now to remember if I was more shocked, embarrassed, or disbelieving. As I attempted to explain how it was only a joke and not meant to alarm or offend the overpowering absurdity of the situation had me struggling to maintain a display of remorse and respect.

“Ya can’t going around saying stuff like that,” Vincelli scolded. “You know, with this Columbine thing and all that. What the hell’s the matter with you?”

I explained how sorry I was. They told me they were glad to hear it, but that we weren’t through yet. I was asked if I now owned or had ever I owned any firearms. I told them that no, that I had never felt the need to do so, believing such ownership to be a dangerous commitment best left to the police and the military. They were pleased with that, too, but wanted to search my jacket, shoulder bag, and vehicle anyway. I encouraged them to do so, offering my full cooperation.

When the inquisition proved fruitless, I reported to management who were, no surprise, somewhat less than elated with my performance. I reiterated my defense, to little avail. Given a suspension, I was instructed to call the store after three days for the verdict. Un heard in my attempts to explain myself, I was eventually told not to return. Boo-hoo.

And yet painful as the experience was, I did glean two points of enlightenment from it. First and most apparent: Keep a tight lid on any public comments that could feasibly be misconstrued. Though the effects of my remarks weren’t deliberate—it’s always been clear to me why it’s illegal to yell “Fire!” in a public place—I’ve been reminded that you never know who might be listening, or how attentively they might be listening, at that. The other lesson? Never allow oneself to be swept up by a retail outlet’s marketing image. I actually expected to find a niche of free thought and expression in a bookstore, of all places. How naïve was I? But, then again, though they do sell books, in spirit the impersonal, monolithic Barnes & Noble megastores are not bookstores. They’re more like supermarkets masquerading as bookstores—not the library-like, word-loving, feel-good bastions they present themselves as. I guess I had to be in the belly of the beast, to borrow a phrase from Norman Mailer, to figure that out. And the beast, as it were, got indigestion. Which these days doesn’t bother me at all.

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