1983 saw 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, 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 # 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 (the wall was 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! If a parent annoyed me by asking me to “suggest something” for a kid I knew nothing about, I’d go to great lengths to find albums with the most horrific artwork, or the most offensive names. Yes m’am, I’m sure your son would just love 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.How about if I sing it? Yea, sure kid. Sing away. They’d hum something undecipherable. I begged for lyrics. Just one or two would do. Uhh. Love. And umm…heart. I would lean in close to the kid and say sweetly, Well that narrows it down. To about 3,000 songs! 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 frenzied people became. 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 Iglesias. 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 (this is when everything was done by hand) 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 Record World, 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, but 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 World 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.
I have not worked retail or gone to a mall during Christmas season since the 80s.
I do still miss that job, though.
[a tip of the hat to those working retail this holiday season. good luck to you.]