Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Coworkers: Part 86 - Walking In LA

   I was more familiar with our new owners, Wherehouse Music, than anyone else.
   Once upon a time, they'd been my record store.

   In the 70's I drove cross country and enrolled at Cal State. Los Angeles was about as far from the Appalachia Mountains as I could stretch. For over four years, I attended CSUN, clubbed, and worked in a skateboard factory. The first adjustment was especially difficult. I suffered naive misconceptions about California based on 1960's beach movies and psychedelic hippie history. What an idiot. Worse, I wasn't accustomed to motorcycle cops. I received enough citations so that I couldn't drive for almost a year. Hitch hiking became my commute method. Or I walked. L-O-S-E-R.
   I was suspended from Cal State. Later, placed on probation. Drugs were free or cheap, most of my friends were generous stoners, which probably accounted for my sorry finances, infantile existence on Sunset, and dicey academics.
   I barely held onto an apartment because my landlords pitied idiots. The nearest record shop within walking distance was The Wherehouse, a Southern California mainstay. The staff was helpful, wax was affordable.
   I had good memories shopping the Ventura Blvd location.
   After a year, I was permitted to drive again. I abandoned the old car, or gave it away, don't remember. Bought a sports car and switched record loyalties from The Wherehouse to Tower Records to Adam's Apples, an import specialist tucked in an industrial park. I never shopped The Wherehouse again.
   I met Zelda, struggled through yet another probation at CSUN, graduated. Then we drifted on.

   Years later, I followed reports of the old chain, renamed Wherehouse Music, in Billboard, Variety, Ice, and other music journals. Wherehouse doubled in size during the 80's, and beat off a hostile takeover from Shamrock, the Disney group that would purchase Sound Warehouse, later resell it to Blockbuster. The Wherehouse chain suffered hard times in the 90's, filing for bankruptcy protection, then being acquired by a group of Merrill Lynch brokers. During much of that period, they could not compete in the rental arena, where rival Blockbuster destroyed their video margins.
   Wherehouse shifted gears and went into the USED business. Big Time. Music labels fought this plan, but the strategy ultimately prevailed.
   Fast forward to the late 90's. Viacom wanted to shed the music division, Wherehouse had emerged from Chapter 11. Viacom asked for $200 million, accepted $115 million. At store level, employees couldn't care less. Just other distant bosses. Because that chain had already mismanaged their affairs into bankruptcy, our expectations were low.
   One of the first changes by Wherehouse, and what set the tone, was the purging of the North Richland Hills location. Hurst was a solid performer in a prime location, but new owners wanted Assistant Managers replaced. AM's had played a bit of a dodge with personal checks to tide them over till payday. Nothing illegal, more of a cash float. The new Wherehouse management team didn't warn or counsel. No. Termination. Old colleague Danny was among the discharged. This was a catastrophe for their store. Our Assistants, Stacey, Pat, John, and Joe, pitched in and staffed their team until everything was sorted. Ironically enough, many years later the North Richland Hills store would return the grim favor.
   Our store, which was as neglected as all the other acquisitions, began to reinvent itself. More because of Joe and JD, their passion and interest in the hot underground, we shifted focus into Rap. Coworkers like that were contagious. We caught trends early on, and were always onto emerging labels. NO LIMIT, then CA$H MONEY, finally SWISHA HOUSE.
   Camp Bowie grew into Rapland. Nights, the store was a club scene. We increased the size of the section several times, as we purchased direct from Houston, Louisiana, and Memphis one stop distributors. Whatever problems plagued the chain itself, or Region, or District, our financial numbers weren't as distressed.
   Overall, store morale improved. Coworkers deeply committed to music now outweighed the drones who worked for paychecks.
   We were beginning to surge past all the other stores in our area.
   It was a fun place again.
   We never worked with so little budget or for a sorrier group of owners. As The Boss summarized, management declined with every corporate shift. From Bromo, to Disney, to Blockbuster, to Wherehouse. Every change was a change for the worse.
   One singular example. Wherehouse Music rarely spent ad dollars (provided by labels, mind you). When they did ...
   An infamous commercial. Yanked almost immediately:

Pause SOUND CHECK, hit the play button below.


Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Customers: Part 19 - Calling Doctor Elvis

   "I like Elvis. Do you like Elvis?"
   "I'm a Beatle person."
   "Well, can't you be fans of both?"
   "Not normally," I said. "You're either a fan of Elvis or a fan of the Beatles."
   I was mowing through DVD inventory, my thoughts preoccupied. A month earlier, after I had inventoried the section, I almost lost my mind. DVD's had suffered 10% shrink. Not dozens, hundreds of discs missing. When I reported my numbers to The Boss, he simply shrugged.
   "Welcome to my world," he said.
   10% didn't strike him as outrageous for a high theft section. To me that was too much. I decided to re-inventory and pinpoint the biggest problems. Though The Boss predicted, "New Releases. New Action. Porn."
   My mind was busy tallying printout titles with hard copies, when the Presley fan base started firing questions.
   "That girl likes Elvis and the Beatles," he persisted.
   "That Girl?" I replied absently, "Marlo Thomas?"
   "What? Who's Mar -- "
   "That's a joke, Biff. Look, no one gets to claim both Elvis and Beatles. Doesn't work that way. The mop-tops displaced the King. Likewise, you can't be an Elvis and Sinatra fan, since Elvis displaced Frank. A person who rallies for both is faithless. Wishy washy or greedy, definitely not loyal. Same rule applies for Beatle fans. Everyone gets one favorite. Not two. If you said you had two, then you really don't have a favorite. Person like that probably doesn't even have a favorite ice cream flavor."
   "You're so smart," the guy gushed at me. He looked early thirties, wore black rimmed glasses. Blue flannel shirt. It was July, temps were 102 outside. He either had an unpleasant skin fungus, or he was nuts.
   "Thanks. You're looking at the by-product of a quality Appalachia education."
   "I like Elvis," he cranked up again. "And I like Elvis movies. I really like Elvis movies."
   I stopped checking DVD's.
   "Dude, nobody likes Elvis movies. They're bad. They're not stupid bad, or trashy bad, or kitschy bad. They're boring bad."
   "When I watch my Elvis movies ... I put on my Elvis costume."
   Ding dong. Completely nuts. I realized I was in the E section. Mister Shopper was hunting for more priceless Presley celluloid. I should have walked. Moved my ass to the T's or elsewhere. Yet, I was the methodical type ... and ... I was intrigued by wacky people.
   I gazed about for Pat. I wanted to share this gentleman with her.
   "You wear black leather Elvis, or that flashy gold lamé, or the white spacesuit?" I prodded.
   "I got a poster of Change Of Habit," he continued. "That's my favorite."
   Late 60's flick with Mary Tyler Moore. I momentarily confused it with another 60's film she made with George Peppard. "Is that the one where Elvis is a doctor?" I asked. "Isn't the main female a nun? Was he trying to bang a nun?" Obviously, I suffered faulty recall for this classic.
   "Elvis is Doctor Carpenter," my client informed me. "He treats patients in the ghetto."
   I quickly searched through the store E's, then the C's. I scanned my printouts. "I don't think we stock this any more."
   "When we watch Change Of Habit I have a white lab coat I put on."
   Shit. I'd screwed up.
   "I dress as Doctor Carpenter, I even have a stethoscope. My girlfriend wears a nun outfit. She's Sister Michelle."
   Damn, damn, damn.
   "Then when Let Us Pray comes on, and I start singing along ... "
   Yeah, he told me. The guy was borderline retarded and had no check switch.
   Me? I don't have an excuse.
   So now I have this really ill image of beer budget Elvis fans spawning in special outfits on their trailer sofa.
   That I can't shake.
   But I'm sharing.


Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Coworkers: Part 87 - Well Placed Friends

   Porn Regulars soon had new concerns.
   Customer complaints.
   Our store received several comments per day. This was repeated across Wherehouse's newly acquired landscape, especially in Dixie and Texas. Not surprisingly, the wheeler dealers who snapped up Blockbuster's music division had more of an eye on bargain and inventory, and didn't bother understanding regional differences . To paraphrase their reactions in the vernacular -
   "Everybody enjoys fucking. Everyone enjoys watching."
   With that mindset entrenched, Wherehouse honchos visited locations to ensure USED sections were brimming, the Floor was tidy, and Porn was prominently displayed in its own DVD aisle.
   "When customers see it, customers buy it! No arguments, comply."
   Who were we to argue with Overlords?
   Our aisle of glossy, off-Hollywood art flicks were churned out from my college neighborhood, the San Fernando Valley. Doubtless, many Porno thespians honed their acting chops in that West Coast Theater mecca, Cal State Northridge. CSUN, my alma mater. I had so mismanaged my career. Had I been more perspicacious, I might have parlayed my valuable English degree into a successful screen writing résumé. To whit, I might be earning royalties for Star Whores or Raiders Of The Lost Part.
   Alas, no, I was ever the bungler. I was only selling porn romps, rather than creating them, let alone starring in them.
   The films we offered were terrible. An hour and a half of banging and moaning, kicking & licking, spanking and wanking. Subdued mood music enhanced the six, count 'em, six positions known to Kama Sutra explorers. Of course, more positions lurked out there, but those films cost more. Advanced maneuvers were trickier for dropout thespians to remember. Ours were budget blasts.
   The crap we shelved had no detectives, no gunfights, no chases, no scientists, no livestock.
   In short, no plot.
   Groping without purpose, the same fare one could view in front of the living room mirror. Comment: At least one scene per porn film ought to boast a mirror. Double your money. I once lived in an apartment where one entire wall was mirrored. Also had an artsy montage of Winter dressed sportsmen blasting away at ducks. Put female guests right in the mood, let me tell you.
   Maybe this was just me. I preferred movies with narrative, exotic locale, inventive cinematography. A customer once asked me what sort of films I watched. Before I could reference Film Noir, Silent Era, Foreign ...
   Sarah blurted out, "Asian films! With girls!"
  "With whips and swords!"
Pat laughed.
  Mmm ... coworkers.
   So, family visitors complained bitterly. They might be browsing the Family Horror section, when their impulsive offspring toddled up grasping Anal Antics or 69 Girlz, 69 Stylez. Parents were alarmed their two year old had just caught a disease. They threatened to contact the police. Then they did just that.
   Wasn't limited to families, either. Men griped. No, not because our titles were repetitive and dull. We didn't offer any "gay porn."
   Alright, some men.
   "You're completely dismissing our category, and we are a financial force," the man with blue sunglasses advised me.
   "I'll pass this upstairs," I responded.
   "I'm sure I'm not alone in this. Just as men enjoy two females engaged in contact, I'm sure women would appreciate watching the guys in action."
   I wasn't too sure about that, but I didn't argue. Instead, I wrote a cheery suggestion for alternative mano a mano and forwarded to our ever complaining District Manager. Within two months, gay porn arrived. Throughout the District. I don't think it was my request. This had to have been in the pipeline. I mean ...
   Defective porn proved bonanza time for The Professor. DVD's were rarely faulty. Before morning opening, The Professor would "test" Water Nymphs, or whatever title was handy, and load it into the machine. Then he would stand, transfixed, before the TV throne glowing with wholesome, milk fed goodness. Mandy and I unlocked front doors stealthily. Customers caught The Professor more than once. Quality moment.
   Didn't break his greedy habit, however. Neither did comments from Mandy, Pat, Sarah, Sonya, Stacey or Angela. The Professor didn't give a damn about what womenfolk thought about him.
   For awhile, John and I tried hiding defective porn, but The Boss warned us that might be misconstrued as a loss prevention issue. Believe it or not, Donut Bear was still in the District. Worried about losing his position, he had roused from his hibernating cave at Berry and was now terminating associates.
   What to do?
   Mandy unplugged the unit. Told The Professor it was broken. Advised him the unit in the Office worked, he could sit next to The Boss and share the sleaze.
   When we opened, she "fixed" it. Repeated this for weeks, he never caught on.

   The Wherehouse solution to all those complaints was to place black plastic cards in front of all adult titles. These weren't affixed. They were cards. Customers, both passive aggressive and malcontents, routinely pulled skin back to the fore.
   We roamed Porn Land every hour, dropping the curtain.
   One afternoon, we received a tip from an old colleague. Now in law enforcement. Jesse, Curtis, Damon, Leroy, so many ex coworkers became cops. Can't remember who phoned with the warning that a member of the District Attorney's staff and two squad cars were heading to our store with a seizure warrant. Hardcore pornography was, and always had been, illegal in our family friendly burg. Any XXX flicks found on the shelves would be confiscated.
  The anonymous contact was thanked, then Sharon and I emptied Porn City into three shopping carts and wheeled all those gems to the back. When the task force arrived, the manager on duty simply said, "Porn? What porn?"
   And that was that.
   We never sold hard core pornography again. Everything was boxed up and shipped back to California where it was better appreciated.

Wednesday, October 6, 2004

Shoplifting: Case #09 - The Silent Companion

   Looked out the plate glass and saw ZZ Roadie wheel into the parking lot. He was, I hated to admit, a Regular. Usually bounded in, plopped his ass on a Listening Bar stool, then wasted an hour singing along to mindless Techno.
   He and his companion.
   Temps outside were 105 degrees. ZZ Roadie wore a corduroy sport coat. Sported a full beard as well. Companion wore a vest; also a full beard. Both could have been ZZ Top crew members. Transportation was Ole Reliable.
   Blue bicycle. Girls blue bicycle.
   Anyway, Mandy or Molly tended him while he jammed to D.J. Irene, or Club Boy Roy, or that Doyen of Dance, Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine. While Trainin' Wheels twitched and bobbed like he'd suffered an accident at the saw mill, his silent, brown eyed companion sat passively and ignored the beats orgy.
   After an hour, a full hour, mind you, Bobble Head pushed away from the counter. "Thank you kindly," he said, "I'll have to consider this purchase carefully for several days." He was invariably polite. Never bought a damn thing, yet he was always courteous and a gentleman. Good manners from Bum School.
   As for Silent Ted ... well ...
   Front door theft alarms triggered - JD and Worley pounced immediately. Merchandise had been concealed. Under the vest. Silent Ted, who would've thunk it. Bobble Noggin read him the riot act while JD and Worley looked on in baffled amazement.
   "I told you to quit taking these things! Didn't I warn you? Do you know what prison's like? Don't you argue with me! I've been in jail. Is that what you want? Is it?"
   Beady eyed companion said nothing. No surprise there, Silent Ted was a foot high, battered brown Teddy Bear with glass eyes.
   We kicked ZZ Roadie and Mister Bear from the store and banned them. Didn't care that the bear was the one caught, we figured both of them worked as a team. Didn't summon the cops, either. They'd never arrest a stuffed bear. Look too bad on Action News At Six. Viewers would sympathize with the bear. Blame the cops, blame us, blame the bear's mother.
   Still see 'em both a couple times a week in the parking lot. Playing chicken with parked cars. Bear sits perched on the handlebars. Stays put even when there's a slight accident now and then.
   Again, they were Regulars.