Sunday Night at the Bookstore

It was a Sunday night at the local bookstore.

I approached the front counter with an armload of cheap books, the $1 and $2 rejects that are piled willy nilly inside of large cardboard bins placed in the middle of the store; bins people root through as if digging for their children in a McDonald’s Playland ball pit. I’m cradling my stack like a baby, pleased as a new papa to have found so many great bargains. I am a journalist, after all; the Armour household ain’t a rich one.

So, I get to the front of the store and take my place behind this older gentleman with his own stack of books, but of the full-priced variety — likely a collection of bestseller mysteries by Stuart Woods or James Patterson and a few of those massive, unwieldy tomes devoted to pictures of military weaponry and World War II history. He looked like that kind of guy, and he smiled politely as he joked about spending $75 on books that his wife claimed — from about 10 feet away — he would “give away in a week.”

“I just can’t seem to stop buying books,” he said, a problem from which I suffered once but alleviated by becoming broke. The cashier, a middle-aged woman with a slightly chunky build and the countenance of an irritated pug, didn’t give the usual polite chuckle at his little rich man’s joke or nod and say “mmmhmmm” or anything like that. Instead, she just mashed the cash register’s buttons as hard as she could, literally threw his books in a sack, took his money with indignation and slammed the drawer shut. The rich-people book-buyers left without another word.

Naturally, I assumed they had been dicks. Having worked in retail — my wife, too — I understand the physical and emotional aches and pains of being a cashier jockey. The old adage “The customer is always right” is almost certainly a mistake or misprint or something; much more accurate would be the statement “the customer is usually a condescending asshole.” Knowing that, I have a lot of sympathy for those people who are forced to peddle product for cash day in and day out.

Pug-face certainly did not warrant my sympathy, as I soon discovered.

“Well, that was a big waste of time,” she mumbled loudly — loudly enough that it quite possibly broke through the category of “mumbling” and could now reasonably be defined as “yelling” — as I set my books atop the counter. Having, naturally, heard her criticism of the last customer, I offered my usual “What’s the deal with those guys?” look and waited for her to ring up my purchases. Mandy, on the other hand, stood a few feet away and rifled through the various crap they set up near the registers in order to illicite a few last minute, spontaneous sales.

“Do you have a discount card with us?” she asked.

I was prepared for this interrogation, having been through the process several times. The deal is this: for $15 I am issued a small piece of plastic that entitles me to a 10-percent discount on all purchases made at that store during the next year. Selling these things is not an option for the retail employee — usually the powers-that-be mandate they push these things upon hapless customers, promising that if said employee does not maintain an arbitrary level of discount card sales he or she will soon be standing in the unemployment line. High sales of these cards garners no reward other than less threats, and since most of these threats are as empty as a salmonella poisoning victim’s stomach, most employees don’t give a shit whether or not they sell a card. They ask, as required, are denied and then move on. It’s a process as old as time itself.

Pug-face, however, was a little more determined. After I was asked the rudimentary question and responded with a well-worn, “No thank you, I don’t buy a lot of books here,” she informed me that

“Well, people tell me that all the time.”

The tone of her comment wasn’t the usual “Oh, I know it. Whatever.” kind of thing, but more along the lines of “You’ll live to regret this,” as if she were some villain swearing vengeance against me.

But, I just kind of shrugged it off and told her “No, thank you. Not tonight,” and hoped that would be the end of it; but, of course, it wasn’t.

“Are you sure,” she asked, as if I were a little kid and incapable of making my own decisions. “You’ll save some money on the books you’re buying tonight and receive a free tote bag.”

Now, Pug-face’s guarantee of financial savings is only partially true, for while I would indeed would be saving a whopping $1 on the $10 worth of books I was purchasing, I would also be required to spend that aforementioned $15 on the card itself. So, in the end, I would actually be spending an additional $14 on my purchases that evening, which according to any normal human logic not born from the mind of a complete fucking idiot would not be saving money.

As politely as ever, I told her, “No thank you, I’m just not interested tonight. I really don’t buy a lot of books here.”

At this point, her eyes narrowed into slits and she kind of huffed, just a little bit, and said, “Are you sure,” as if it was my last chance — as if after that point there would be no way for me to ever purchase the glorious $15 discount card. “You’ll save some money and get a free tote bag.”

Three times! Three times she offered the same stinking discount card. At this point, I’m practically laughing, not at her per say, but at her tenacity. For the third time, in a tone just as polite and kind as if it were the first, I decline the card.

Now, her eyes squinted so hard that she could have crushed insects between the lids — their little exoskeletons crackling from the pressure — and without another word but plenty of huffing and puffing she began tossing my books in a bag. She told me the total — $10.71 — snatched my debit card as if I were going to pull it away at the last second, smashed some buttons on the cash register and gave me my receipt. Although there was not a “Thanks come again” or anything like that, she did offer some loud but indecipherable mumbling as she stormed away, leaving me dumfounded at the counter.

As we left the store, Mandy turned to me and said, “That’s it. I’m never coming back to this fucking place again.” She used to work there and still holds a grudge. While I thought that sentiment might have been a bit harsh — they do carry $1 books, after all — I did agree with her next statement, which she said without a single trace of humour:

“You should have told her we make tote bags for a fucking living.”

Would of; should of; could of, as they say.

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