Party Like It’s 1999 at Barnes & Noble
I had an interview at a B. Dalton Bookstore* in 1999 and I wore this awful, polyester pencil skirt that was too tight and the woman who interviewed me kept watching me tug at it. I like to think I won her over with my overly passionate speeches about books and how much I loved to read. Or maybe (according to another bookseller) she was just desperate to fill the spot.
A week later, I was a Supervisor and being trained by a woman named Marnie, who I was replacing. She was retiring after having spent 25 years with the company, had sold everything and purchased an RV, and was about to travel the country with her husband. I recall her not being too impressed with me but I loved hearing her stories, the old fogie stories, about Barnes & Noble. How the logo and colors had changed from 70’s mahogany and cream. How, when paperbacks first came out, people said it was the end of bookstores because how could we stay open, making so little from these small books? Marnie told us, in her southern accent, that we were spoiled by having computers because when she was new, they had to use a card catalog system.
Oh, good God. I can totally hear the Spice Girls overhead.
1999 at Barnes and Noble and B. Dalton (their mall version) was interesting and fun. Marnie told me that “the Germans” had created a website for the company but our CEO, Len Riggio, was having trouble buying it back from them. We weren’t online yet but we had come up with an electronic reader called, The Rocket Ebook, and it held a total of ten books and understandably, bombed. There were 40% off bestsellers and the stickers were triangles with sharp corners that made all of our fingers bleed as we pulled them off. B&N was toying with the idea of having a greeter at all store entrances but that never panned out. We had a computer system called, WINGS, that was this close to using DOS. It had that old school, white font on a blue screen and no mouse. This is how you looked up The Stand by Stephen King:
c store “Stand” . Bk; [King, Stephen] <C>
Or something like that. You had to memorize dozens of codes for look up. The stores didn’t have internet in those days, y’all. It took two weeks to get in a book you ordered and running out of a popular title (or Oprah Book Club book) meant devastation for customers.
During our holiday meeting, all of the employees had to take a test and see what kind of animal they were, in regards to selling prowess. There were the unfortunate animals like hippo, that would have provoked a lawsuit today. When it came to merchandising, we in the stores, made all of the decisions. We would create a display and come up with our own sign and fax the details to our graphic design team in NYC. They would print the sign we wanted and send it to us. It was AWESOME.
A customer received this paper gift certificate in 1997. Redeemed it in 2015. We had to take photos.
We had a new program called, Readers Advantage. For $10, you got special discounts every time you came in, a stamp card, and plastic card for your keychain. This eventually evolved into the Barnes and Noble Membership card. Of course, we bitched and moaned about selling it. “How are we going to get them to pay $10 for this?”
And the money flowed like wine. There were no discussions about cutting hours, ever.
I even remember the worst customers during those days. One, was an older woman named Ellie. She was graceful and tall, covered in gold jewelry and had white hair swooped up in a bouffant. She came in all of the time and thought we liked her but we hated her. Back then, we had a little person working in the store (I’ll call her Mindy) who was sweet as pie. Whenever Mindy would find a book for Ellie, Ellie would pat her head like a dog and tell her in a baby voice that she “did a good job”. Hopefully, Ellie is dead by now.
The other horrible customer was another older woman who came in with her husband as we were closing one night. She wanted the book, Shrub which was about George W. Bush. The computer said we had one in stock but it wasn’t on the shelf which basically means someone stole it or it’s among the racks, lost forever. This woman threw a Toys ‘R Us size temper tantrum and told us that we were going to go through every single shelf in the store until we found it for her. When we told her we were not doing this, she said she would get us all fired and huffed off. We never heard from her again.
We booksellers discovered Shrub in the Gardening section a week later and laughed our asses off.
Working at Barnes and Noble these days, is drastically different and not just because we had to throw out our 20 binders full of HR manuals and store procedures. I can sound like the fogie now when I say that life was so much simpler back then. Now, Barnes and Noble sells display space as “real estate” and booksellers have to keep up with the daily changes. Spoiler alert: we can’t keep up with it. Especially as they cut hours down to one bookseller on the sales floor. Corporate insists on selling a certain amount of membership cards per shift. They force the employees to put on events we know won’t bring anyone into the store. They put an enormous amount of pressure on store managers. It’s not fun working there…at least not as much fun as it was in 1999.
*B. Dalton Beechmont in Anderson Township. Cincinnati, Ohio. Closed in 2000 when Beechmont Mall closed.