Friday, May 28, 2004

Customers: Part 24 - Bumper To Bumper

   "Hey, you changing teams, Girlfriend?" I heckled Stacey.
  "That Mother Fucker," she snapped. "Did you see what that Mother Fucker was doing to me?"
   "I only wish we had it on the surveillance camera, Sunshine."
   "Fucking bastard!"

   All of us were indulgent with particular customers.
   Most of the guys would help Ken find new Punk. I'd listen to Jimmy drone about the The Byrds and The Doors. Joe & J D helped 12 year old future rap packers. Molly didn't fit in at all; she attracted guys like flies, and was friendly to each.
   Stacey helped strays as well.
   Emrys was wheelchair confined with a wasting disease. I couldn't understand a word he said, though I always waved and tried to make small talk. Stacey had patiently learned to interpret his language. If he was in the store, we let her know. Stacey was why he shopped here.
   Anyway, she started helping this other man, wheelchair bound. Only he wasn't plagued with some debilitating disease, he was fucking nuts. In time, Stacey realized her error and tried to disengage. Too late. He had already bonded.
   And he was shifting their relationship into that bumpin' stage.
   What everyone had witnessed was Stacey, trapped in a corner of the Listening Center, and the guy in the wheelchair, ramming repeatedly against her. Back and forth, over and over. Thrusting.
   "Stop that! God damnit! Stop that! It isn't funny. Stop that!"
   He giggled maniacally. Probably had a raging erection.
   Eventually, she rolled over the counter to the other side, and escaped.
   He doesn't come in very much. When he does, Stacey hides.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Coworkers: Part 99 - Sharon

   I went to Angela's & Joe's wedding this Spring and shared a table with Pat, Kim, Sharon, and her girls. Sharon had just finished blood transfusion therapy and seemed to be responding favorably. As usual, she was damned funny and made sharp observations about nearby tables. Alcohol flowed freely. While she was on a strict diet, she remained upbeat and extremely happy. She was gravely ill, but had been invited. She hadn't been forgotten.
   Sharon's disease, Lupus, never really went into remission. By Summer, it had returned with a fury and doctors gave her a couple of weeks. Most of you know how stubborn Sharon could be.
   She fought.
   I'll be honest, Sharon and I had our conflicts. She was trying to survive, which I could relate to. The retail wage was harsh. When choices were limited, decisions were often wrong. I've bent rules, fixed things, and looked the other way. Some of the crap Sharon did was damaging to the store, however. This was beyond shadowy ethics, some behavior was off the scale. More than anyone, I was the one who chased her out the door.
   To her credit, there were no hard feelings. She didn't slink off or become a stranger from Camp Bowie. She contnued to hang out at the store, party with coworkers, even after she found better employment. Sharon remained "family."
   Late October, she phoned me at work, wanting to know if I knew how to make popcorn balls. I told her I had ... once ... over twenty years ago when I was church youth director (imagine that). I warned her this was scalding hot work, since you had to pour boiling sugar syrup over popcorn, then form into balls with your hands. Sharon laughed and said Tom Thumb seemed an easier alternative. She invited me to her Halloween party, "You betta get ya ass here!"
   I said I'd try.
   Actually, I would be away on vacation, and I suddenly felt guilty about our dissimilar futures. Me and my plans, Sharon with a countdown.
   This was the last time I ever talked with Sharon.

   Sharon died peacefully in her sleep last week.
   She was 34.
   Pat went to the funeral service which was attended by an estranged family who didn't know her, and distanced themselves from her choices.. Family planned to clad her in a dress and place a wig on her head. Friends were appalled and protested strongly. I haven't heard what was decided upon.
   Sharon, while hating the costume, would have approved of the controversy. She always loved arguments, uttering statements which would shock dozing coworkers, and keeping people laughing. I'd like to imagine she's venting her opinions to God at this moment. Many remember the times some customer would enter, inquire about a country tune, and we'd shepherd them to Sharon. Their expression was usually puzzled and priceless.
   Thank all of you for praying for her this past summer and keeping her in your thoughts. Pat asked me drop all of you a note. Pat can fill you in on more details, funnier stories. Pat is always at 6393 by late afternoon. Few things are ever certain in this world. One thing is certain, however. Sharon's passing leaves our world a lot less interesting.

   Talk to you later,

Friday, May 14, 2004

Customers: Part 25 - Final In-Store / The Toadies

   Over the years, Camp Bowie hosted dozens of in-store events. Meet 'n greets, live shows, lip syncing jams. George Jones moseyed into a raucous crowd of faithful believers. That No-Show Jones nickname hadn't deterred them, and the Country legend patiently, generously chatted with every soul. Joe McBride gave a free lunchtime performance, just him and his electric keyboard. One early evening, I opened up the backdoor to let the Dixie Chicks in. They played a quiet set for fifty fans. New songs from soon to be released Wide Open Spaces. Within months, the local girls would be hot as the sun.
   Van Cliburn shopped our store for years. Residents were a bit intimidated by the Classical pianist, so we never approached him for an impromptu recital. Danny Wright was also a Regular. Danny was friendly, approachable, and he gave a wonderful performance in our store one afternoon.
   Late in our history, the RYKO label arranged an autograph signing with Jerry Jeff Walker. Beforehand, my east coast contact commented that Mister Walker begrudged publicity appearances, that his behavior was often "challenging." Day of the signing session, a hundred admirers milled about. An hour past the scheduled time, the singer storyteller arrived. After thirty minutes, he decided he would rather play golf. Fans remained. Didn't matter, they were disposable. Out the door, towards the fairways.
   Others might have been steamed. Those folks shrugged it off with, "Yeah, he's like that somedays. We're used to it."
   Alright, Pilgrim.
   Wild events versus ugly misfires. Polite fans versus wolf packs. These shindigs were never alike.
   The next event, which proved to be the final one, was wall to wall, bodies pressed dense, barely controlled pandemonium.
   The Toadies.

   The wait between Rubberneck and Hell Below Stars Above had been seven frustrating years, for group members, for their fans. Feeler, the followup to Rubberneck, had been rejected by a dysfunctional label as the music industry slid deeper into quicksand. Seattle grunge had receded into memory, while Nu Metal and Rap Metal enjoyed their fifteen minutes. The band was never silent, however. New songs, appearing on soundtracks and samplers, included Unattractive, Cut Me Out, Paper Dress. The Toadies still blasted out hard core, demon fueled, unadulterated rock. And they toured their asses off, rolling with Samiam, Bush, Green Day, White Zombie, Reverend Horton Heat, and as headliners.
   For months, the band incorporated new tracks from Hell Below into their shows. Now that CD was finished and scheduled for release. The release party was at Camp Bowie.
   Todd and Lisa's old store. Homecoming. Stronghold to legions of fans who followed the group since the late 80's.
   Even better, The Toadies would perform in the store. Free concert. News blazed like prairie brush fire.
   I lobbied, and I lobbied hard, for a rooftop concert. Build a stage on the roof facing the front parking lot. How fucking cool would that be, Sunshine? I wanted the full throttle, devil whip the horses, loud show.
   I lost the argument. City ordinance about noise. Logistics of mounting amps, equipment and stage to the roof. The possibility of thunderstorms. Money. Would an outdoor concert weaken CD sales? Could band members even climb a ladder to the roof? Could they climb back down? When I bounced my notion off Pepe (who dated a band member for an insane moment), she howled with glee and said she'd pay five bucks to watch him try to climb.
   OK, maybe not my finest idea. And yet ... when carried off ... rooftop concerts often become the stuff of legend.

   Todd, Lisa, Mark and Clark set up in the front of the store, where Three 6 Mafia had encamped months earlier. Usually for these events, the DC threw a couple hundred CDs our way. Hell Below Stars Above was a new release, and the pent up demand after seven years was furious. The Boss ordered over a thousand. It was barely enough. Store sales were phenomenal, wildly beyond expectations of the label which had lost interest in that brand of music. Other store managers in attendance went out of their minds, pleading for a Toadies party at their own location.
   The show, part electric, part acoustic, was one of a kind. Laid back, yet claustrophobic. The band was in the middle of a fevered snake pit. Ten songs, from I Burn to Doll Skin to I Come From The Water. Several video camcorders captured the event from around the jammed Floor. (NOTE: I'm still searching for the other copies, from different vantage points.)
   The crowd was huge. Fratboys and drovers, Goth girls and cheerleaders, stoners and drunks. Ex coworkers Curtis and Jesse were part of the police crowd control. No arrests that night. The few characters who passed out, from sheer excitement - not alcohol, never alcohol - we relocated to stools at the Listening Center. Before and after the show, we sold hundreds and hundreds of albums. Best of all, after the set, The Toadies signed autographs and chatted.
   That was arguably the greatest in-store we ever did, for those combination of reasons cited above.
   That was also the last major in-store event we did.
   After that period, the systemic rot that plagued Wherehouse became more and more prevalent.
   For both store and our most famous musical offspring, rough waters seemed far, far away.
   Tonight, Camp Bowie rocked on, and The Toadies ruled the world.


Friday, May 7, 2004

Coworkers: Part 100 - Rumors‏

   Wherehouse Music had been acquired.
   That was the only FACT we knew.
   Bought by one of the leading music retailers.
   Operated primarily "mall" locations.
   Not the large concept stores.
   Thanks to file sharing, record stores had become endangered, big box meccas, lumbering dinosaurs. Tower Records was still around, as was Virgin Megastores. Independents carved their own niche, Waterloo, Amoeba and others.
   Camp Bowie was a Wherehouse outpost, yet we acted like a full blown independent. We scheduled our own in-store events. From Gangsta Boo to Three 6 Mafia to Jacob doing an Usher tribute to J D to the Toadies release party. We had rearranged the store beyond the suggested layout. Better to curtail thieves and feature stock. Our inventory was overloaded on Rap and Country and Tejano, catering to listeners who still bought heavily from us.
   Customer demographics had profoundly altered. An entire generation, aged 25 and younger, no longer purchased music. They downloaded for free. Who could blame them? Music labels had lost their minds. Twenty dollars for a compact disc that contained one or two decent songs? C'mon. The early 60's had resurrected. We also lost most afternoon businessmen. USED CDs, however, kept us in the game. Over two thirds of our inventory was now USED product. More than many other stores, we had embraced USED CDs and DVDs immediately and fully. That is what kept us profitable, quarter after quarter.
   The new owners weren't looking at individual, successful stores. They had purchased a chain. A chain, predominantly mall based, with strip shop locations as well.
   Not necessarily large stores.
   Locations, and inventory.
   Inventory was what the big stores contained.
   One other point. Many years earlier, the new owners had been court ordered to pay $2.5 million for using another chain's trademark.
   The other chain?
   Peaches. The lingering ghost inside Camp Bowie.
   To those who believed in omens and tea leaves, the forecast did not look good.

   Every new owner made their presence known. Blockbuster honchos visited all stores, introduced themselves, tried to integrate us into their structure with mixed results. Wherehouse simply performed inspections, told us how things were done, then shoved us in the pool. Our newest owners? Silence.
   I was one of the first to feel their hand, though. Shipments began to fluctuate. Back catalog product from vendors, then Tuesday New Releases, finally the weekly Distribution Center replenishment. The flow choked. Customers shopped, we had jack.
   Wherehouse suffered frequent cash mismanagement, for which I had developed a backdoor strategy. One of those situations The Boss "knew, but didn't want to know." I phoned Abbey Road and Southwest Distribution, and placed fill orders with those one-stops. One-stops were pricier, and had quantity limitations, usually five units per title, but our credit was always good. Their product would tide us over until Corporate paid their bills again.
   "Sorry, guy, no can do," the telephone agent sighed.
   "Are you out of stock? Do you have problems? Or is it us?" I asked.
   "Your new owners issued instructions: No orders - No stores - No exceptions."
   "I know. You were a good account, and I could use the commission right now."
   "Yeah," the woman signed off. I had spoken with her for five years. That was our last conversation.
   This was repeated across all my one-stop contacts. We were frozen out. I told Joe that all indie rap orders from Southwest and Gonzales Music were suspended. Our street cred would sink. Next, I appraised The Boss that my dodge had failed. He shook his head. All new product dried up. Not just for us, all of our sister stores. As always, the original Wherehouse locations were fine and dandy, thank you. The only ones affected were the later acquisitions. The old Sound Warehouse addresses. We were being starved.
   There were trickle down consequences.
   J D's major label appearance was on Texas Hood Connections. Joe and I told him we could no longer stock it. He shrugged, but this was a huge setback.
   Tim drifted into the store, just to chat with the few of us he knew. He was in Zac Maloy's band, having a blast. Their debut sold reasonably well. For the follow-up, they had signed an exclusive deal ... with Southwest Distribution.
   I felt bad telling Tim, yet the head's up might have been useful. I don't know.
   I admired Tim's perseverance and endurance. He had been plugging a long time. Yet his was a lonely path. He held an EP, Love Songs For The Very Low, unavailable at stores or online, just some personal songs. Tim smiled and gave me a copy. I felt very touched, and very undeserving ...

NOTE: Pause SoundCheck above before launching video.


   ... "What's going on with your new owners?" he asked.
   "What do you mean?"
   "I have some old contacts in the Midwest. Said operatives were sweeping house. Firing people."
   Once upon a time, he had been lead guitarist in a struggling band. As the group edged into fame, he stepped away. Yet he still shopped, and his contacts were real.
   "Aw, upper management always gets axed during takeovers. They'll get compensated," I argued.
   "No. It's store staff. Assistants, Backroom Guys, people like that."
   That was unsettling.
   The Boss confirmed the rumor. He had spoken with fellow managers who also reported emissaries from the eastern coast had visited and purged. Stores were also being closed, though corporate emails stridently reassured everyone that no stores would be closed.
   Berry was closed. Knight and Lemmon was closed.
   So what were we to believe?
   Hulen was closed. Mockingbird was closed.
   Promises or actual events?
   Greenville ... the old flagship location ... Greenville was closed.
   "Visitors are going to come here," he warned. "Couple of months. November. The Loss Prevention agent will be visiting stores."
   "Donut Bear?" I joked.
   "I wish. At least we knew him, but he's long gone," he muttered. "No, these guys ... they leave behind a trail of tears."
   "Thanksgiving! Christmas season, our busiest time, surely they'll -- "
   "I don't think they care. At our store, he asked to see Stacey and Joe. Others to be determined."
   'Hell. That could be anyone. That could be Pat or Mandy or Molly," I stressed. "Innocent people."
   "Yeah. And it could be you or me."
   "Fuck. Sounds like a witch hunt."
   "This is bad," he said. "I can't leave. If they close the store, and I'm convinced they will, I'll receive a nice severance package. I need that."
   I gestured emptily.
   "Is there anything you need to let me know?" he asked quietly.
   I pondered. If Stacey was the Hatchet Man, and Pat the Good Cop, I was the shadow worker. Scams and dodges, pushing gray areas. Stayed near guidelines, but definitely bent rules. Trying to help the store, though the ground might be shaky.
   "No," I answered. "You know me. Classic loner. All my stuff is mine alone."

   The Boss talked with everyone. No one seemed worried.
   I had a trip planned for end of October, The Boss went to the manager convention, overheard stories firsthand.
   Within the store, as the days shortened, individuals who had been carefree and unconcerned, began to worry.
   Waiting. Thinking. Wondering.
   It was a terrible time.
   October died away.
   And November went by so fast.