Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Last Days Of The Record Store AKA If You Want To Buy A Sam Cooke Album Where Do You Go? Part 2

I was given a manager position at Tower Records & Video on December 31st, 1998. I was to earn $7.00 an hour (migrant workers made more!). On average I was working between 100-120 hours every two weeks (keep in mind that there are 168 hours in a week). In addition to the responsibilities that I already had, I had more because I was already cleaning up the messes of some of my brain dead co-workers. Now I was responsible for the coordination of all of the first floor’s employees and everything involved with the first floor. That meant that I was to be working with the head of the books department, the girls in charge of magazines, the guys in charge of video rental accounts and the Ticketmaster booth. I began training on January 1st, 1999 for my new position. I later find out that one of my co managers has transferred to a Seattle store and the other had transferred to a New Orleans store. I was going to become 2nd senior manager after only 3 more days and the senior 1st floor manager in two short weeks. It was a lot of pressure.

I was told by the senior manager Mike that he felt that the store was getting too weird for him. “At fist the job used to be fun, now it’s getting like a police state around here!” We started having these weird bulletins sent out and we were all handed stuff like sexual harassment reading materials and given seminars in the basement about looking out for things like trip hazards or anything that could cause us to get sued by customers. Employees began to worry that something was wrong with MTS Inc...after all, why is all of this shit happening now?

It turned out that the brass were banking a lot on the final sales reports from the holiday season. They fell way short of expectations for the store and region as a whole. Also they were hemmoraging money due to the fact that they invested in too many new stores too quickly. Our key supervisor explained that stores like Newbury Comics were kicking our ass and online stores with lower prices like and were doing it as well. We finally started renting out DVD’s on the video floor...Blockbuster Video down the street had been doing it for a while now so we were again behind the curve. Just then, our old workers began returning from home. When they returned they were all told to reapply and they would be rehired, they reapplied but very few of them were rehired sticking me with the same ol’ wack squad of employees. To make matters worse, is was easier to get a home loan than it was to get any of these knuckleheads fired. I sat down with every manager and supervisor to find out the proper ways to go about seeking to terminate someone.

I had to give them verbal warnings , write a report on paper and then have them sign them and put them in a folder. After three warnings they can be brought in for a hearing and then face possible termination....oddly enough, this isn’t the process that they went through to terminate Jen. She was a good worker and the 1st floor’s resident training supervisor for more than a year and all it took was one phone call. I had motherfuckers coming to work and acid and mushrooms. I had this hippie in the video room tagging sales items and she was so high that she began twirling around in the middle of the room until she eventually passed out. I couldn’t get her fired to save my life. She eventually quit on her own because the job was “becoming a drag”. “Get your patchouli stink outta my store!” was all I could think of but I instead said “Sorry to hear that, good luck in the future.” Now I only needed to pray that at least 6 other of my employees would quit.

I asked Joe why he wasn’t allowed to hire anymore. When he hired employees he made great judgement calls and they usually stuck. He told me that what was happening was when the 3rd floor supervisor was hiring he took all of the candidates he hated for his floor, hired them and sent them to me...I of course confronted him on it and told him if he sent me anymore trouble employees I wasn’t going to my Key Supervisor or the Store Manager or the Regional Manager...I was going directly to HIM. I never received another bad employee after that and Joe was once again in charge of hiring our 1st floor workers. After I had trained a new co-manager and received about 3 new good hires through Joe things began to look up.

DVD’s began severely outselling the VHS rentals and we were looking at the daunting task of possibly having to get rid of all of our videocassettes in the next year. Between Bella freezing peoples accounts for being a day late with returns and customers complaining over the stiff return penalties (the rental price for each day it was late which was 2.99 per VHS and 3.99 per DVD). A student that returned a tape 3 days late would have to pay about $13 dollars after taxes. I was given the managers option of “settling” these accounts for cheaper because so many regular customers began threatening to not return due to the fact every fourth or fifth rental or return had a blocked account. If accounts are blocked then we don’t make any money and our regular accounts guy worked from 8 AM to 5 PM every weekday. I was given his authority from 5PM until on weeknights and the weekends.

I was also called on to work closely with the loss prevention agent so I was given loss prevention training as well. I used to help them catch, arrest and detain thieves and people who started shit in the store. So not only was I asked to do everything on the 1st floor but I was senior 1st floor supervisor within a three week span of being promoted. Since I worked mostly at night (all of the bigwigs work until 5PM or 6PM) that left myself, the 2nd and 3rd floor managers and the Key Supervisor in the store at night. Whenever the Key Supervisor was called away from the store he put ME in charge of the entire store. This started happening one short month after I was promoted. I had to handle voids on the 3rd floor, issues with the trash compactor in the basement, blocked accounts in the video department and refunds at the Ticketmaster booth all at the same time. Meanwhile, the store itself seemed to be having it’s soul sucked out as memo after memo began being posted up in regards to new rules being instituted at the store.

There was a non fraternization policy in place at Tower Records...the thing is that no one enforced it. Managers dated employees, employees dated other employees and there was no problem with it...that is unless someone form the California corporate office showed up to the store then NO ONE was dating. The thing was that corporate types started showing up at the store a lot more and the decree came down that they’d be actively enforcing the non fraternization policy at work. It was official, something was definitely wrong. A week later I was told that I wasn’t going to be senior 1st floor manager anymore because Mike was transferring BACK from Seattle. Once he got back he told me that things were bad across the board but the Seattle store was “dead, devoid of any life”. He told me that if he was going to work at Tower he might as well come back to the Boston store. Another week later we got a call from our other former co manager Tai from New Orleans, she said the the Tower Records in New Orleans “sucked donkeyballs” and that the new rules made it dead out here and that she would be returning to the Boston store in the coming weeks. What the fuck was going on with the company?

Music was still selling but the CD burner had affected the music industry in a way they completely didn’t expect. There was a tremendous spike in CD-R sales at all of the stores and while albums were selling fine then. It wouldn’t be until later that year that file sharing programs like Napster and Kazaa would be developed, further twisting the knife into the failing boxstore format. Since the bottom line was making money, our Tower Records stores began hiring anybody with a pulse. The store’s overall customer service took a nosedive and it was often evident on employee’s faces that they weren’t enjoying their jobs too much.

Due to the low wages and overwork (like asking 90 pound girls to carry mics to the stage for an in store) we couldn’t keep any employees with common sense or self respect. The only way to survrive was to wait until a cushy 8AM to 5PM job opened up, apply for it and chill. Everyone else was putting themselves up to either be fired or burn out one day. Guess which path I was on? In order to avoid doing something one night that would put me in the same boat as Jen, I decided to apply for a job in the Books and Magazines department. A good job that ran from 8 AM to 8 PM at the latest, with Mike back from Seattle and Tai back from New Orleans all they’d have to do is promote one of 3 candidates that I pre selected to replace me. At the same time they were finally going to announce the Employee Of The Month winners from December, January and February at the same time. Everyone was under the impression that they’d announce who the winner was for all three months at the same time because it was the same person...everyone thought it was gonna be me. Who ELSE could it possibly be?

The day came when they posted the announcements for the filled store positions and winners of the Employee Of The Month for the last three months in the intrastore mail system. I didn’t get the Books & Magazines job even though I was far and away the one with the most experience in it and I didn’t get Employee Of The Month for ANY of the three preceding months. They instead gave them to people who put in those index cards how they saved the store between $100-$200 each (they were also the only people that went through with that cornball idea as the rest of us just laughed it off). I had reached the end of my rope. I got up and went to the basement to the store managers office and told him that I had to talk to him at 1:00 after I did my first register shift. Later on, I came back and told him EXACTLY how I felt.

I told him about all of the bad employees we were stuck with and how when our good employees came back they weren’t getting hired back. I told him about the repeated offences that some of our bad eggs were written for rarely lead to them being fired but if Bella had a grudge against them they were gone in a heartbeat. I told him about how the entire staff and managers alike were being hamstrung and how the new stricter rules and policies sucked the life right out of the store. I also told him that there was NO WAY IN HELL anyone else deserved to be Employee Of The Month besides me and I also told him that I was officially giving him my two weeks notice. I fuckin’ quit right to his face. His jaw dropped, he was stunned. All he could come up with was “I’m sorry to hear that, (Dart’s government name). You’ll be missed. You’re the best worker we’ve had here in years.” “If I was so goddamn good then why didn’t I get EOM?” I thought to myself. But I said nothing and went back to the sales floor.

Once there I had to gather up everyone and announce to them that I just put in my two weeks notice. My boy Mike Penta said “After you leave, there’s gonna be a lot of people following you right out the door, buddy.” Those words turned out to be pretty prophetic. Word spread throughout the store about me telling off the store manager right to his face. It was something that every other manager wished they could’ve done. Best thing was that I had two weeks of completely stress free work ahead of me. Everybody was treating me like a hero, too. This didn’t sit too well with Bella.

One night, the store got slammed after a crazy midnight sale. The first floor was a mess and there was a counting problem on the 2nd floor that required myself, the 1st floor senior supervisor and the Key Supervisor to stay late to fix...we must’ve been there until 2 AM trying to fix the issue. After we were done we came downstairs and agreed that we did all thatwe can do at to leave it for the opening manager on the schedule. It was the early morning of March 17th, 1999, St. Patrick’s Day. We all said “Fuck it!” and went home. The Key Supervisor (his name was Gardner Key..weird, huh?) said to me “What do you have left, a week? It’s not like they can fire ya!”.

I came back to work at 3pm, an hour early to help clean up some the mess before I had to punch in and get to work. The second I step in the door I saw the head of Loss Prevention, Tim. I’m like “What’s up?”. Tim said “Bella wants you to see her in her office” I say “Okay” figuring that it had to do with the state of the sales floor after last night’s midnight sale. The Tim tells me to go straight into her office and not to bother punching in yet.

Lawdamercy! © Bounty Killer

When I get into her office she tells me that she’s noticed that since I put in my two weeks notice, I haven’t been working as hard as I used to. She said that In the last week I’d been a distraction in the store (read: she’s sick of everyone treating me like a sports hero doing his farewell tour). She printed out all of my intra store e-mails ever since January and said that I used “inappropriate language” in them (every “questionable” word was a derivation of the word “ass” like punkass, jackass, or bitch ass. The other words that were red flagged when taken out of the context of the sentence they were in were usually parts of album titles, song names or movie titles. She also brought up my storewide e-mails saying goodbye to all of my follow co-workers where I left them this long ass will (I had A LOT of friends at the store) and said that “employees have been saving them and it’s clogging the store databases memory”.

After going on for ten more minutes about some ol’ bullshit she finally told me that they were letting me go a week early. Not only were they letting me go a week early but they were going to pay me for this week AND 55 hours for next week and refund me my last $100 advance in one final paycheck . She then told me that in addition I would get a $200 severance check in the mail next week (The Employee Of The Month got a $200 bonus check). I was to follow the Key Supervisor up to the 2nd floor to the only register that held that amount of cash and turn this check into a cash payout. From there I was to be escorted out of the building by the head of Loss Prevention. She extended her hand and said “It was nice working with you”. I then realized when Jen called her the C word and I shook her hand and got up. How could I get mad then? I was gonna get PAID.

Gardner came into the office and wrote out the full cash payout order, to get the total he had to use a pocket calculator. It ended up coming out to $906.17. We headed upstairs in the elevator to avoid anyone seeing us. While in the elevator Gardner told me “We all fought her on this all afternoon, this is some bullshit.” I told him. “Hey, I wanted freedom and I got it. Besides, this can buy me a home studio.” We got out of the elevator and went straight to a register that was brimming with cash. I received my $906.17 in big bills and Gardner shook my hand and said “See ya later.” I was then lead back to the elevator by Tim and straight to the front door. Before I left Tim told me “They just fucked up. No one’s ever gonna do all the shit that you did.” I said “They’ll figure it out soon enough.” I then shook his hand, smiled and left the store.

It was right at that moment I understood what Jen felt like. I had spent only about 8 months employed at Tower Records but it felt like I’d worked there for 2 full years. Shortly after I left they instituted a new rule that no one could write ANY intrastore e-mails of a personal nature of ANY kind (it became known as the “*insert my government name here* Rule”). I wasn’t home for more than 10 minutes before I started getting all types of phone calls from people asking me what happened, a mini rebellion broke out in the store and between 10-15 of my closest friends at the store ended up leaving altogether or they were fired by Bella for petty reasons (one girl who was a friend of mine was let go for selling a fashion magazine for the Canadian price when there was no price tag on it!). The word was out that Tower Records had officially gone to shit.The store was dead and sterile all of a sudden. It went from a place that you could spend hours in to a fuckin’ hospital in less than a year. No one was having fun...It wasn’t allowed by corporate.

It turned out that Tower Records high prices, their unwillingness to change with the times and them expanding too quickly and at the wrong damn time (right when P2P file sharing programs became increasingly popular) contributed to the downfall of Tower Records. At the end, they tried to tighten things up rather than allow the employees to enjoy the freedoms that they did before things got bleak. The Tower Records at the corner of Mass Ave and Newbury St. closed for good in 2002 and moved over next to Fenway Park. A Virgin Megastore replaced the Tower Records and ended up vacating the premises less than 4 years later. That place was like going into a mausoleum. None of the employees knew a goddamn thing! They just looked everything up in the store database. I could’ve done that shit at home with Google!

I ended up jumping around from doing shipping and receiving at Hip Zepi to managing at a Loews movie theatre to working at a Newbury Comics and CD Spins before the Bush Administration took over and my run of quitting a job and getting another one in two weeks was up. My experiences at record stores have been somewhere between “Empire Records” and “High Fidelity”. I’ll write a script about the good ‘ol days soon enough.



alex said...

Great piece. I remember when I first moved to Vancouver I was amazed at the Virgin Megastore. It wasn't until I had spent some time shopping around that I realized pricing at the big box stores was totally fucked and that no person in their right mind would pay $26 for an 'import' that could be had at a smaller store two blocks away for $18. I still occasionally drop into the HMV that took the place of the Virgin store, looks they make all their cash off of DVD sales and Video Games now.

Anonymous said...

Great read, Dart. When I first moved to Boston in '01 I wondered how anyone - anyone - could shop at Tower or Virgin with a kickass Newbury Comics right around the corner. The prices were outrageous, the vinyl selection sucked, and the employees had the collective intelligence of a coat rack (no offense). Glad you made it out alive.

Anonymous said...

yo dart - its andrew from strictlybeats...if u wanna email me that Ayatollah Personal Legend cd that'd be cool - thanks for the clarification on the other one

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