We call it a ‘Take 5′ when, at the opening time of 7:30am, all of the Student Stores’ employees huddle together to hear the dos and don’ts of the day. (Usually from a sleep-deprived manager who definitely has something better to do, and usually the topic-in-question is about new or recently expired sales.) Today, the theme is called ‘Bartleby’, a new subscription service that basically everyone fails to understand.
“And if you sell one as a cashier, you get a 5 dollar bonus.”
Which could pay for my lunch, so as a minimum wage employee, I was listening. However, I just don’t get how anyone would want to pay $9.99 a month after swiping their card for $400 textbooks, even with the ‘free trial’ period. The best ruse would be to get all the cashiers to purchase textbooks from each other, request Bartleby, refund the books, and cancel the subscription service. With the bonus, we’d all be millionaires.
After the gathering we all dispersed into our little niches. Cafe, pharmacy, textbooks, merchandise, web orders, et cetera, like a small colony of homo sapiens that never dared to traverse past those automatic doors, and so, grew interdependent of each other.
I went to the first floor register. An eight-hour shift at a bookstore sounds like it’s as enjoyable as a barefoot tour of the Sahara Desert, but without the added benefits of Vitamin D and exercise. I began pacing back and fourth, thinking how nice it would be to shelve law books, like usual, or to sign my name on Web Orders after stamping “packed with pride” (maybe too much pride) while pretending to be a celebrity.
“Oh hello. Sorry, I was distracted. How may I help you?”
The middle-aged dad reached in his wallet and placed a $100 bill in my palm, and in that moment, I wondered why this type of thing doesn’t happen to me more often.
“I’d like to exchange it for five 20s, please.”
I tell him that we don’t exchange money, mainly because the cash drawer doesn’t open unless you actually buy something. In response, he visually scans the entire register area and fixates on these stacks of answer sheets we call ‘scantrons’, usually purchased by students for their exams, and which, individually, run at about 25 cents.
“I’ll have one of these please,” he says, handing me the scantron and $100 bill. I give him a nasty glare and go about the dirty work of sorting out the change.
When not processing transactions, I’m tying together Nike hangers in the back and inserting the ring-shaped sizing indicators. Some stores call them ‘buttons’. Here we like to call them ‘donuts’, as in, “Go and fetch me the large box of unused donuts!”
This time, it’s a middle-aged lady with an affinity for eye makeup, mirroring a saucy grandma from one of those pageant reality shows. She’s wearing a baseball cap from the clearance section, with the tag still on it, and using sign language to communicate to her deaf/mute husband whom she is apparently making pay for the purchase.
“I can’t take this off because it will mess up my hair,” she says, pointing to the hat. Meanwhile, I’m astounded that she can be married to somebody with such limited vocal ability and still be worried by the state of the keratin on her head. I’m too secretly amused to be suspicious, and so I grab the scanner and twist it upside-down and she happily cooperates with me. In the background, other family members of hers are making faces at me that say, “Yep, this is who we’ve got, but we’re making the best of it.”
An hour after the Take 5, a manager comes over to notify me that we are no longer affiliated with Bartleby, and that I should ignore any indication that it ever existed.
“They think it’s a cheating tool,” she tells me, referencing the college professors who think a paid subscription service for experts to do your homework is a little sketchy.
Well, bye-bye bonus. I had never come close to selling one anyway, but sometimes it’s just the idea more than reality, you know? Mentally, I was past the 5 dollar increase in salary anyway and envisioning myself as a master salesperson who’d figured out how to make everybody’s knees buckle for an exciting service called Bartleby. The cancellation made this minutely possible outcome unobtainable, and that made me a little sad.
Coffee break was calling, and there was practically a trail of caramel mocha scent wafting from the cafe to my nostrils. Almost there, I thought. Not before one of the employees got the chance to wave some sticky note cubes in my face.
“Check this out!”
He revealed that the bottom of the cubes had been vandalized with a handwritten note declaring that “The items in this store cost more than my college tuition.”
The guy must’ve thought he was a complete baller while defacing these. The irony is that if this snooty chap ever got found out, he’d need to pay for all the sticky note cubes, way more than he had signed up for in the first place. Perhaps he’d use them to vandalize other stuff, in which case the Student Stores would be to blame for being so reckless.
After fifteen minutes well-rested, I’m now sitting behind the Customer Service desk taking phone calls. A male voice rings the line just to ask me if we happen to have “A 7-inch kids basketball with two different college logos on each half.” A what?
“Did you see it on our website?”
“No. Just wondering if you happened to sell one.”
“Okay, let me ask if we have anything like that,” I said, knowing perfectly well that we have nothing like that. But now, the caller thinks he is at least on the right track.
Eventually, exhausted by the multitude of ill-informed phone calls, questions about if it’s possible to rent new books for the used price (no), and stopping students from taking suspicious photographs of the textbook shelves, I retire to the back room to pack book orders. This activity tends to be a joke, since literally none of the cardboard boxes fit the average order of books — they are way too large or too small, which is less than you’d expect from a place with a post office just up a floor. Like a reasonable person, I grab the smallest size which still accommodates the shipment and begin taping.
“Those boxes are much too large!” says a manager, stating the obvious.
“I know, but it’s the smallest that fits this order.”
Apparently I shouldn’t have responded at all, because the next thing you know she wants me to un-tape all five boxes I’d labored on in the past hour and replace them with the next size up, which makes about as much sense as complaining that your hamster makes too much noise and then replacing it with a howler monkey. (“What a waste! Those boxes we use for merchandise orders, like basketballs. Here, use these instead.”)
I’ve realized over the past two months that a job means complying with those above you, the managers and the customers, even it they, beyond a reasonable doubt, are completely insane. The old “customer is always right” adage is a mindset, or rather an illusion to be preserved, rather than a fundamental truth. We are paid to hand over an aspect of our dignity that gives our voice as much validation and strength as the others.
It’s true that working at the Student Stores sounds just like the textbooks we sell: black-and-white, tenacious, and boring. However, I’ve found this preconception not to be the case — drama isn’t necessarily written in the cards, but quirky mishaps happen all the time. When you learn to appreciate them, your seven-hour shift becomes manageable and even entertaining. The box incident, the basketball call, bartleby, the mad hatter lady, and the strange exchange: now those are five that I’ll actually be able to take.