6.10.2009

First Job

When I was a teenager in the late 1980s, our next-door neighbor started his own business. They had gone exploring in a couple of nearby states to check out the newest trend in retail - really fancy bookstores with comfy chairs and coffee bars and peaceful adult contemporary guitar music. You know - a wonderful hangout where you could read.

Keep in mind, this is the late 1980s. The idea of drinking a cup of coffee AND reading a book IN A BOOKSTORE was like, BOOM - your mind just exploded. What if the customers spill the coffee ON THE BOOK? What if they get crumbs from their bagels ON THE BOOK? What if they READ THE WHOLE BOOK? How would that kind of place ever survive?

Yeah, I mean it. Seriously. it's hard to remember how novel that concept was in the beginning, but today, we all know the book-buying public latched on firmly. Nowadays, it's hard to imagine a bookstore you want to visit without a latte and a place to sit. Add some Manheim Steamroller, and stir. Presto! Suburban bookstore. Or: sprinkle hipster glasses, and toss with a calico cat. Presto! Urban bookstore.

Anyway, this neighbor opened the store with a friend of his in a brand-new shopping center near our neighborhood, and I sort of knew about it because my parents talked about it with our neighbor, and sometimes those talks happened in the driveway where I might be standing around and overhear it. I remember a grand opening, and I found it amazing. They had a couple of permanent employees right off the bat. These were good people who knew books and read books and LOVED books. Then one day, I think it was a few months later, our neighbor approached me about a part-time job doing some computer work in the back room. Turns out they were photocopying all the checks that people wrote (again, this was back before everything was bought on a debit card), and they planned to enter all of the addresses into their customer database. They wanted to create a mailing list for their newsletter, but their staff were generally busy selling stuff and didn't want to enter all that information. Could I help out? 

I'm not sure why they thought of me.  Cheap teenage labor?  Because I was there?  I don't remember asking my parents if I could, I don't remember if my parents talked to me first and then we talked to the neighbors - really, at this point it's all a giant blur of how it happened.  But I do know that I said sure!! and promptly spent Saturdays, and sometimes Sunday afternoons off and on working in the backroom of the newest trend in retail l for the next year and a half. They had a great DOS-based system (remember, 1980s) that catalogued all the books, with search capabilities and easy ordering from the distributors.  It all combined up at the counter with the register sales.  Yep - we used the computer as the register.  You can now applaud wildly at that cutting edge technology.  

My part of the system was pretty easy - I just entered in the addresses & phone numbers into a customer list. They had been saving a big stack of these check copies, and it took me a few months to work through them and get to current dates on checks. I got to where I recognized the repeat customers. 

It was cool to see the store grow to a huge success.  In the beginning, i don't remember being on a specific schedule but I basically worked weekends.  When they got busy, especially around Christmas vacation, they asked me to work the floor. I sold books, I shelved books, I wrapped gifts, I helped people pick out books, and I looked up stuff when people had questions. Eventually they felt like the mailing list was big enough, so I stayed on the floor as needed on the weekends. 

Working in a bookstore was my only retail experience. It felt like a smart place to work, like we had knowledgeable customers who looked at us as experts - not the retail clowns you always found at the mall bookstores. These days I think there are entire websites devoted to the dumb questions that customers will ask the good folks at Barnes & Noble, but back then, it certainly didn't feel like there was a giant conspiracy aimed at ruining our day.  Or else I was too young to notice it yet.  I had good bosses and co-workers, and while it wasn't a traditional office job with staff meetings and cubicles and memos, I definitely enjoyed it.

Oh - except for Manheim Steamroller. Nowadays I get an instant migraine when I hear that music.  Spend 8 hours listening to the same cd of adult contemporary guitar music, and tell me if you still enjoy it.  The owners got to pick the music, and we didn't get much say in that day's pick.  So, my favorite part of the day, musically speaking, was when one of the owners would rush back about an hour before closing time, steam pouring out of his ears, and change the cd to ANYTHING, GOD HELP ME ANYTHING BUT THAT ONE.

What was your first job? We're talking real paychecks here. Teenage babysitting or lawn mowing doesn't count.  Did you like it?

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

My first real job was in a Steel Fabricator shop absorbing abuse from the union workforce. My secret joy was to read a Dosteyevsky novel during lunch. I always found chewing tobacco spit on my book.
Dad

Mom/Neena said...

My first real job was at a Girl Scout camp in Michigan where I was a Waterfront Counselor (swim instructor). I made $75 for each two week session plus room (tent) and board. I loved it! I had always loved going to summer camp -- I had been going there for twelve summers in a row and now I was getting paid to go! And swim all day--what a deal!

samanthabailes said...

Cindy's Cinnamon Rolls! I smelled like cinnamon all the time.

ElastiGirl said...

Taco Villa - and I was really ggod at managing the drive-thru!!

Christine said...

Aw come on now you know it was Camp Cosby... Jr. Counselor where we had more fun than the kids we were looking after. Sorry mom!

Xander said...

Since "Afternoon News Delivery Specialist" is not allowed, I am going to have to go with... busboy/bouncer at a movie themed restaurant. I was 14 but you know me, I was a BIG 14 so the boss used me around the bar area.