Posted 8/31/10 by Danny
For those of you who aren’t from the South, the Midwest, or Hades and aren’t familiar, Books-A-Million is a chain of book stores catering to the suburbanite bohemian lacking access to any cultural hub. Just like what Starbucks is to the trendy independent coffee shop, Books-A-Million is the mass-produced equivalent of the quirky bookstore on the corner…at least it felt like that as a high-schooler in Montgomery. Anything that wasn’t a monster truck rally or spitting contest felt like an intellectual epicenter, and when it opened, Books-A-Million was a welcome change to the landscape around town.
Books-A-Million acted as a Mecca for distinguished literary scholars who spend their Saturday nights buried in dusty, long-winded “classics”, i.e. pretentious teens with a superiority complex and no prospects for a significant other, i.e. me and my circle of friends. Originally, I loved Books-A-Million. They had comfy couches, an in-house café, and the whole place had that new book smell.
I loved it so much, that after my freshmen year of college when I returned home for the summer, the first place I applied for a summer job was the new Books-A-Million down the street from my house. The starting pay was $6 an hour, which was just higher than minimum wage, and the job wasn’t food service. I also had a morbid curiosity to see behind the curtain of Books-A-Million. What was the clockwork behind the awkward teenager safe haven I had come to know so well?
After submitting my application and taking a skills test Jenny McCarthy would have flown through in her sleep, I got the job.
So, I endeavored to become familiar with the inner workings of Books-A-Million, or (to be more infectious and nauseatingly cute) BAM! for short. Make sure to include the exclamation point…that’s how you know we’re talking about the bookstore, and not the noise from my bowels involuntarily releasing like a pissed-off orangutan. (it tends to happen when I talk about Books-A-Million) As an employee we were actually expected to refer to it as BAM! If that doesn’t make you feel like a tool, I don’t know what will.
BAM! : the sound of all your literary needs met at low, low prices.
BAM!! : the sound of your dreams dying when you become a manager at Books-a-Million, and you realize this is your “career” now.
BAM!!! : the sound of the self-inflicted gunshot entering my brain after two weeks of working for these pod people.
Books-A-Million is just like any other soulless corporation. With a chew-you-up-and-spit-you-out philosophy toward employees, and a bean counting, “profits over people” attitude toward customer service, there isn’t anything new about the BAM! experience. It was, however, my first time working for such an entity, and after spending years trying to repress these memories, I’ve decided maybe purging them might be a better coping mechanism.
Consequently, please enjoy the following breakdown of your local Books-A-Million:
My first test on the job was manning the café. (At least I thought it wasn’t going to be food service) The manager at the time was on the way out, and you could tell she had been phoning in the job for quite some time. She basically handed me a recipe book and told me to get to coffee-ing.
Interestingly enough, they judged how well a drink was made by how much it weighed. The recipes were so precise, they could tell how specifically you followed instructions by measuring it to the ounce. Well, my first few drinks tasted like shit but they weighed the correct amount, so f*ck it, away we go…on to the next task.
If you think “sonicking” sounds like a made-up word to add elitist jargon to a bullshit job, then you’re absolutely right. A monkey could’ve done the job, but I guess they wanted to add that extra level of prestige by imbuing book selling with its own set of professional terms.
“Sonicking” is the term for walking around the store like a jackass and making sure some of the books are spine out and some are face out in a way where every shelf is full. This quickly became the useless busy work they’d assign anyone they wanted to keep occupied. The minute you’d get a reprieve from obnoxious customers who never quite mastered the whole “alphabet” thing, and couldn’t find anything they wanted on their own, a manager would sneak up behind you and ask you to go “sonic” the children’s section. As you can imagine, the children’s section looked like a damn train wreck every twenty minutes. Joking about how I’d rather go “sonic” the hedgehog never went over that well with my manager. Which brings me to…
As with any low wage, customer service job, you become close with your peers very quickly. It’s like going into war against demanding assholes, and the pressure cooker unites all who are involved…except for the managers, of course.
The managers had dedicated far too much of their life to BAM! and they wore it very poorly. The bitterness iced over every word that left their mouth. I remember on my first day I was asked to retrieve the dust broom from the back room. I came back with your typical yellow broom. Apparently, a dust broom is a long, flat swiffer-like object, that my middle-class suburban upbringing had sheltered me from up to that point. I’d never seen one before. My manager flipped out when she saw it and called me an idiot for not bringing the correct broom.
And it was like that with every thing. If I didn’t already know the arbitrary BAM! procedural knowledge, then I must be mentally deficient. I must be a moron if I didn’t know that you have to enter two zeros before you enter the promo code, then scan the item. What kind of a dumbass doesn’t know that from birth?
That job was the first time I heard the c-word used so liberally, and it was the first time I used it myself about someone standing ten feet away from me.
The BAM! Discount Card
This was, without question, the most ridiculous aspect of working at Books-A-Million: trying to force feed every customer a discount card. It cost $10 and would give people 10% off their purchases for a year. A pretty good deal, right? Yeah, maybe for the customer, but it sure sucked for the cash register jockey.
I can’t remember what the actual figure was, but we had a very specific quota of discount cards we were supposed to sell per week. One time I tried to explain to my manager the concept of diminishing returns. I explained that any given Books-A-Million location would only reach a certain number of people, and that of those people, only a small percentage would buy enough books to warrant purchasing this card. Finally, I said that to expect a consistent sales figure of discount cards week after week would violate both economics and common sense.
The response I got was what you’d expect: the regurgitation of some corporate talking point picked up on an orientation video into the world of BAM! middle management.
“There’s no ‘I’ in team” or “Just give it 110%” or some other nonsense motivator.
The reality is, there are three types of BAM! customer:
There is the book junkie who bought a discount card on day one and considered BAM! their home away from home. They’re taken care of for a year…you won’t sell one here.
There is the errand runner. This person is buying a gift for a friend, or needs one book on a very specific topic. Occasionally, they fall into Oprah’s book club for a month or so, but typically they aren’t “heavy users”. This is your target audience for selling discount cards. They tend to be parents, so they’re thrift conscious, and they also drastically overestimate just how often they’ll be heading into BAM! in the next year. “10% for $10!…Why, I’ll surely save hundreds of dollars this year!” You’ll see them maybe two more times, netting them a savings of about $3.47 unless getting the card turns them into the frequent flyer mentioned above.
Finally, there is the discrete porn shopper. Books-A-Million had what most places in the south didn’t have…access to sweet, sweet porno. On the top magazine rack behind tall black dividers was a pornocopia the average redneck was powerless to resist. I’d see Jimbo saunter in like he was going to buy a book on rifle maintenance or perhaps Auto Trader magazine, but as sure as he was inbred, he’d end up at the counter with a Penthouse. Now what exactly am I supposed to say to that guy? “You know, you can save 10% on your masturbating for the next year if you buy this $10 card!”
After the shift was over it was time for the real fun. You see, not all porn partakers were so forthcoming as to actually purchase a magazine. It’s Books-A-Millions’ fault, really. Carrying an ample supply of smut and maintaining a public restroom is a disaster waiting to happen. It shouldn’t surprise anyone what I’m about to describe.
In addition to the stray shit-bomb that went off in the BAM! restroom (BAM!!!! goes the shit-bomb in the ladies room) It was also common to find a baby-batter bomb had gone off in the men’s room. Yes, masturbation was a frequent occurrence at BAM! On the plus side, usually the magazines were left open, so I could see the exact same image our mystery guest did as he reached awkward hillbilly climax.
It turns out, as asinine as it seemed, there was a very deliberate reason for the sales quota on discount cards. Apparently, there is a BAM! bylaw that all employees had to get a raise after they reached the 3-month mark. Conversely, every time you missed your quota you received a citation. Three citations meant eligibility for termination. This, my friends, is the genius move. The quota was impossible to achieve every week unless you hired friends and family to come in and buy discount cards from you.
This way BAM! could fire people at will with no real reason. They could get rid of anyone that didn’t submit completely to the BAM! way of life, and because the starting salary was a dollar an hour over minimum wage, there’d be a fresh crop of naïve innocents lined up to take the job like lambs to the slaughter.
Then one day in August it happened to me. I was called into my boss’s office (stockroom) and got the news.
My performance wasn’t what they had come to expect at Books-A-Million. I hadn’t been reaching my quota frequently enough and they were going to have to let me go.
It was 4 days before my raise was to kick in.
This may sound like the irrational rant of a person too sensitive to being fired. “Sac up! So you got fired from a crappy bookstore, don’t be such a baby” you may be saying to yourself. The thing is, I’m speaking out not just for me, but for every employee of Books-A-Million.
And if you think I’m just pissed off, then let me clarify my point. I’m glad I had this experience. It’s given me priceless perspective. Even when I’ve worked the most soul sucking job waiting tables, I could still say “Hell, at least it’s not Books-A-Million” and continue being badgered for napkins and ice water.
As for my time during that summer, I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I got out. The people I had to work with, though, were like zombies; barren husks of their formerly ambitious selves. I can picture each and every one of them on their first day at BAM!, wide-eyed with hope and youthful exuberance.
Slowly, day by shitty day, their head began to hang lower and lower. The bags under their eyes began drooping farther and farther. They hardened emotionally. Their blood turned from vibrant crimson to a drab shade of gray. Cleaning up man-seed in tissues became nothing more than their Tuesday night. “Sonicking” became a household word. They sold their soul to master the art of milking discount cards out of people. Slowly, they died inside.
For those BAM! veterans who got out alive, like me, I salute you. I often raise my glass to you when libations grace my table. Perhaps one day we can all unite, maybe start a support group, and pour one out for the poor souls still trapped in the oppressive world of Books-A-Million.