Retail and Idealism

Working and College

Like any American, I have my consumerist bent on worldly things, and while my time and focus was on college, I wanted to work a life sustaining job while surrounded with things I had a kinship with: books and computers. And like an idealistic ninny, I chose to work at a bookstore, which meant I made very little money. (The fact that one can’t make good money at a bookstore, far less than other retail, shows the value of books in America.) But this was no indie-cool bookstore, this was was a large chain: Borders.

I thought selling books would be my small way of doing some good for the world while also allowing a small workerly escape for days and months of long hours of classes and homework. I soon learned that there is a reason the popular book section took up a lot of the entrance of the store: people only wanted popular books. Turns out, Americans don’t really read that much. According to Pew Research Center, 27% of America haven’t read a book or even attempted to read a book in the past year. The median average of books read each by Americans is a staggering four.

I have no beef with Oprah now, but I did back then. I saw her as this populist talk show host, and “talk show host” was a thing of TV, the antithesis of books. But she had somehow become a part of my life at Borders. Customers would walk in the store, and their eyes would scan the place until they found an employee. They were with purpose; no book browser here. (A minority of customer would look for a Oprah table, which in some iterations of our display plans was a thing.)

“Did you watch Opera today?”

Maybe the customers thought that us good booksellers must have watched a good person like Oprah every day. Half the time, I would not know what Oprah had recommended, and my response in the negative would shatter the customer’s worldview: “My goodness: Oprah is not relevant to this kid.” And sometimes, from being asked multiple times, I would know. And the customer’s slight grin conveyed the opposite: “Oprah is awesome. Even this kid knows her.”

Or maybe they thought Oprah was so good that she had some sort of immediate line to all the bookstores.

And, I know. Oprah is pretty good. I have since learned that. And recently, I listened to a recent interview with Oprah and Malcolm Gladwell through Gladwell’s Revisionist History feed, and I was just nicely won over by the presence and intellect of Oprah. But this will always be juxtaposed with all of those times I stood at a computer console with a customer, trying to figure out what book Oprah was slinging that day, feeling totally like a shill instead of some lofty wisdom-on-high purveyor of books.

More Money

At some point, I realized that I needed more money than what I was making at Borders. It was a sort of greed, but in that greed was a mixture of trying to ensure that I could tread water with at least my nose at a comfortable breathing height. I had to pay for half of an apartment, transportation, and food; my time outside of grad school was becoming increasingly valuable: when you are going for a teaching degree, you must student-teach.

When I think back on this moment in my life, I wonder why I didn’t just work as a waiter. I had the right service mindset for it (and it would have made me more money). I was a retail people pleaser. If a customer needed a book, that customer would get that book, or I call competitors and send them there if we didn’t have it. It was a strong empathy tick. Perhaps you could describe it as being too nice?

Anyway, at that point in my life, I’d only worked for a handful of companies: Penn Station, King’s Island, Subway, and Borders. I had retail experience but not the type of retail experience that requires what is known as “upselling.” At Borders, if a customer asked for a book, I’d get that book. Easy. There was no, “So, we’ve found your mystery/thriller book. Perhaps you’d like a sci-fi to go with that? Or a good historical fiction? Say of the Henry VIII era? Certainly thriller-ish, am I right?” I could have been totally fine pushing desserts or that getting-past-its-day steak to diners, but instead I chose a company that was known for its speakers, which was another sort of passion of mine since I was a musician and music lover.

My cousin had a friend that worked for Bose, and they were hiring. At Borders, I was making something like $7.50 an hour, and Bose would be offering $11 or $12 an hour, plus a sort of collective commission that I have forgotten the workings of. It would be a huge-ish change for me.

Bose

Recently, Bose announced it will be closing most of its retail stores worldwide. This includes closing every single store in the US. Yet, Bose products remain quite popular. Their noise-cancelling headphones have set the standard, in the public and commercial industries. So it’s kind of confusing.

Then again, there aren’t many retail stores that sell their electronics directly to consumers. You must have that edge, that intangibleness, which surely Apple does. Whatever that is, Bose’s attempt started in 1993 and ended 27 years later. (For reference, Apple opened its first stores in 2001.)

Not only did Bose open dedicated retail stores, but Bose once prided itself on its sound so much that they had a theater in their stores to show off their home speaker systems. It took up a quarter of the store if not more and could have fit around 20 people in it. There were even real theater seats and a dedicated projector room at the back.

The Wave Radios already had TV and word of mouth fame. People would crowd around the Wave Radios and really get a kick out of how full the sound could get, even in a retail store nestled in the ambient noise overdrive of a mall. (And really, I’ve never seen so much cost come down to a weaving plastic tube that helped amplify a sound much like how Arnold Schwarzenegger used to amplify his iPad.)

Before they ventured into retail, Bose had their commercials, which verged on being infomercial-ish. Sound does speak for itself even if that sound is in a Best Buy or a Walmart. But my experience there as an employee of a Bose retail store said differently.

When the Bose store that I once worked in closed down a couple years ago, I felt pretty good. Every time I went to the mall, I would pass that store and helplessly look in, as if to pay homage for the surreallness of my three months I spent there as a retail salesmen. I led more than a very unsatisfying double-life working there, and it was also the closest I’d ever come to getting fired from a job.

The Show

Bose grew popular through creative use of sound. Their 901 speaker is the a unit with, to put it plainly, nine small speakers that are angled to use walls to help amplify the sound. This creative thinking carried over to those Wave Radios with their plastic tubes. The radios, and then CD player equipped radios, were all the rage for a generation of people. Even at a striking $400-$500.

The 901s totaled at $1400 for a pair. A home system cost upwards of $1,000 and could go in the multiples of thousands. Here I was, in college, already with a degree and two minors, living off of nothing and trying to get into a career that was not popular for the money it paid, selling these luxury products.

At the end of my first interview for Bose, I had a feeling things were not going to work out so well. The interview was not the issue. It was fine. I got a second interview. But before I left, I was given a script to memorize and perform for the store manager at the second interview. What? A script? To sell speakers? I was meanwhile studying education, learning about social constructivism, student autonomy, the power of writing, skill processing, deep reading, etc. And here I was being explicitly told how to interact, like a robot presenter. I felt like I was being asked to be some sort of android circus ringmaster, with one of those pre-Siri, halting robot voices.

For my second interview, I dressed up in a similar odd khaki-pants-based setup and wondered if there was some sort of showmanship flair I was missing. (There is an essay here about not having dress clothes for job interviews because you always rely on a uniform to look presentable at jobs you previously/currently worked for and these jobs don’t pay enough money to buy nice things anyway.) The manager sat in the middle of a small movie theater—the theater was situated in the back right corner of the store. When I walked into the theater, the anxiety hit me: I had no idea this was such a show. I was to recite my lines and then unveil speakers like in a TV gameshow, tell-them-what-they’ve-won style. Yes, there were stage directions. I vaguely remember if the stage directions were actually in the script or if I was prompted right before the manager was to see my performance.

The manager had an air about her that I’ve tried to describe many times to myself and to others but still haven’t quite got down. She was very concerned with the store, how it looked and how it ran. She managed her countenance constantly, adjusting as necessary for the betterment of the store. She was trying very hard, creating much more pressure than she should have. Older now, I can probably put her into some sort of worker idealism phase. She was trying to make everything perfect. Accept nothing less. She was going to show people. Such and so forth.

She very much embodied the Bose selling ethic. She was over and done with those who worked at the store and did not embody Bose-level sales ethic, which when you work at a store that mostly employs young people, I’m sure that’s a constant struggle.

After I was hired and working on the sales floor, I remember bemusedly grinning with extreme discomfort as she crossed her arms and looked at me with a smile that was supposed to disarm the correction she was about to give me.

“You are crossing your arms,” she said. “That’s a signal that shows the customer that you are closed off. Keep your arms behind you.”

A similar occurrence would happen if you leaned on something, like a wall or a counter. It was a place like that.

There was a steamer in the back of the store where we would steam our clothes if they were even the slightest bit wrinkly. It was a good totem for the place.

I caught the manager’s demeanor in the first few moments of the beginning of my second interview. And when she began describing the theater performance to me in her way, which was to create excitement and “fun,” I was immediately disarmed. I could barely recall my lines, feeling ridiculous that this was an easy thing to do, to be enthusiastic about a speaker presentation. She sat in the middle of the twenty seats in the theater and directed the standard movements and motions I should make, which made it all the worse. I stammered and restarted, trying to remember the movements with the lines.

It was clear to me that I did not fit in at Bose, but if this was how I was to get more money, if this was really the way of it, I would shield off my doubts and try to find the best in it.

The gist of the “show” was to lead customers into the theater. There was a foot traffic counter at the entrance of the store. We had an 18% theater rate, which meant that 18% of the people who entered the store were successfully turned into Bose Theater audience members. It was a tricky bit of upselling, and therefore the theater rate was an important metric of the success for the store.

We would seat the customers and then press play and wait for the familiar audio signals that meant that we needed to act out our part, the bit where the movie discussed the inconvenience of big speakers. I would walk down the aisle, and then wait for my cue. Spotlights would appear on the two large speakers at the front of the theater. These were fake. We would lower the felt rectangular “speakers” to reveal small Bose speakers, the real driver of all that theater sound, lowering one felt rectangle and then walking the four paces across the room to lower the other. This was an “ooh and ahh” moment.

Then, once the show was over, you were to usher viewers to the room next-door, which was set up to look like a family room. There, you would do another presentation, human sales pitch style, scripted of course. And then, you would do your selling.

Selling Expensive Things

To sell such expensive things, you must put yourself in a mindset that you either accrued through good upbringing or through imagination. In a bookstore, I could recommend books I had read or had heard about. I could afford books, and it was fair game to have read a library book and then to recommend it. But at Bose, there was the collective imagination through the customer and myself that I worked a job that could afford the things I was selling.

I did like most everyone who worked at the store. We had good times in the intermediary when the store wasn’t busy, and everyone took their job quite seriously and gave good sales advice. There was an aura of team-ship there, that we were getting to a goal together. And that was nice, to take pride in things, to work toward something.

But I couldn’t quite understand the sums we were dealing with. My imagination, usually set free by anything, collided against a wall of realism and brutal honesty at my financial situation compared to the customers.

(I must admit though, the theater show got me. I was pretty chagrined to be caught in that allure. Those small and tiny Bose speakers are responsible for such grand and surrounding sound!? Sheesh.)

Of course, I was not good at the job. If someone was curious about a product, I would show them all there was to it. I would answer questions. But to be pushy even just a little bit was a tainted affair to me. And that’s what was expected at Bose and probably why the manager did not appreciate me. A very fair critique.

Also, I was late a few times. I think you could only be late five times before you were fired or written up. In that period of my life, I dreaded work. And I was always tired and burnt out from college. And being late was definitely something I stupidly did. Another fair critique.

But I’m not sure being late was the thing that got on the nerves of the manager. I think she could see how bad I was at sales. I remember telling her that she made me anxious when I was fumbling to role-play a sale with her, and perhaps that sort of honesty made me weaker in her eyes. I have no idea. But the truth of it was that she was very confident in what she was doing to the point where I interpreted it as a sort of unworldliness. It unhinged me to be a complete actor and show-person at a retail store.

Retail favors those who work hard and are nice, even if they slump in some areas. That was me at Bose. And that was the unnerving part. I have always been a nice dude, but that place was just serious beyond seriousness. Cultish in the ways of doing things. Years later, passing that store in the mall, I’d surreptitiously peak through the opening and just think of what I had escaped. And when the location closed, I was kind of relieved. But you can make that space into a candle store and I’d still know what it really was.

After three months at Bose, the manager tried to fire me, but I hadn’t enough red marks for the company to okay the firing. I’d only been late a couple times, and I hadn’t done anything to necessitate a dismissal. So she suspended me for something, perhaps for an error I had made while counting the till. I can’t remember what it was, only that it was an opaque reason. And when I came back from suspension, I would have mark enough to be let go. An assistant manager told me the manager’s plans and also told me to tough it out; let yourself be let go. (I loved the assistant managers at the store. They were awesome people.) Our team had won expensive noise-cancelling headphones for being number one in our district in sales during the holidays. In order to get them, I had to play along with the suspension instead of quitting. So, I let myself be let go. Officially, it was not a firing. They treated me as a temporary employee not asked back.

So, on the day I was let go, I dressed up in my Bose uniform and made other plans for the day. Before I clocked in, I was ushered into the manager’s office. I planned to hold my tongue, and I did so.

“You are not a very good communicator,” the manager told me. She smiled in a sad way.

She said other things too, but that’s all I remember. A man who loved writing, who wanted to be a teacher, told by a luxury speaker retail manager that he wasn’t a good communicator.

I wanted to say, “I have a degree in public relations, a minor in philosophy and in English. I’m going to school to be a teacher. I’m literally going to be a professional learner for the rest of my life!” But that would have been silly and needless. Let her forge her own path and get whatever karma she gets. At least I was smart enough back then to do be quiet, to not battle, to let it go.

And so I walked out of that office with a pair of free $350 noise-cancelling headphones.

Less Money

Two weeks later, I was hired at Best Buy, and it was much more lax in its handling of up-selling. I could nerd out a little more in the computer section that I worked in. I was even promoted to Printer Captain, in charge of printer sales, which I’m not sure was really a position of any noteworthiness. But I got along with everybody, and we had fun.

(I’m not sure if this is true anymore, but I remember that back then it was cheaper to buy a new printer than to buy ink for it. That astounded me.)

Despite still making more money than I would at Borders, the grind of selling and selling gnawed at me, and I went back to selling books at Borders. I had made lifelong friends at Best Buy, but Borders was a place that if I looked up from whatever I was doing, I could see books, my totems for the possibilities of the future. I could both work and dream away in there, and the hours would go by.

Should I have just worked as a waiter throughout my time in college? I might have had less stress: I never had any money, and I always had to make pretty ridiculous decisions with food and rent and the like.

It is sometimes a silly thing when you think about it, what makes us happy in our formative years. You may say, well, Borders wasn’t no indie bookstore. No shining light of literacy; no bastion of thought and democracy. Borders was probably responsible for closing many indie bookstores. And it’s revolving door of CEOs eventually pummeled that place to the ground.

Yeah. True. But despite quitting Borders to teach in 2008, a couple years before Borders went down completely, I still have four Borders shirts in my dresser. There are Borders bookmarks waiting to be used on a table next to a recliner I often use to sit and read. And when I buy a used book at a library sale, the sight of a Borders price sticker still sends me into the past when I used to, amongst other things, unpack boxes of books, sticker them, and put them out to be sold. And I pause because I know that my retail work is somehow still out there.