Funny enough, my piece on the Codex Seraphinianus has been crazy popular some for some bizarre reason, getting 30 thousand "likes" and now echoed on Boingboing and tweeted to all hell and gone. Already, of course, the excitement has died down. Ah well. But the story about my ordering books at Waldenbooks is a pretty amusing one, so here it is...
Throughout my college years I worked in bookstores,
and for three of those years I worked at the Waldenbooks that was located on the
corner of Henry and Montague Streets in Brooklyn Heights. It was an
unusual store in that, even though it was quite
small, it sold a volume of books commensurate with far larger stores.
As a result, Waldenbooks HQ used to deluge us with books that would
often simply have no place to go. So we’d hopelessly load up carts of
new books and, after a book or two had sold out
of a jam-packed section, we’d scurry over to get some of the residual
books into those freshly freed up spaces.
Depsite this, however, I would get bored. And as I
was reading a lot of Science Fiction, Religion, Philosophy and other
stuff at the time, started ordering books for these sections (which
Waldenbooks often neglected, so that they’d be half
empty). When I first started ordering, however, I would use the approved method and punch in the
ISBNs of the books I was ordering into the register, which had a live
feed back to HQ. Folks in Waldenbooks would take the electronic orders
and accumulate them with other orders to those
same distributors or publishers, and then eventually send us the books.
The process could take “six to eight weeks” and, during that whole
time, my sections would remain empty and ignored by customers.
So one afternoon, after all the books were stuffed
into the shelves, we were standing around bitching about how long it
took for orders to come through, when something occurred to me:
Theoretically, Waldenbooks HQ had accounts with many
or most of the publishers of the books I wanted to get in. Would they
give a shit if a specific branch of Waldenbooks called them up directly
and ordered books? There was little to no harm in trying, so we looked
up Princeton University Press’s phone number
and called them up. They were indeed happy to ship books directly. So I ordered up a whole box of Kierkegaard’s works,
which I was reading at the time (I ordered extra copies of some of the
titles so that I myself could buy one at the store’s 40% employee
discount rate). Unlike going through Waldenbooks HQ,
these direct-from-the-publisher books showed up within a week or so.
So that was just the beginning. As I started
stocking “my” sections, I discovered more and more publishers that
Waldenbooks had accounts with and so at the beginning I filled the
shelves of the Science Fiction, Philosophy and religion sections,
and branched out from there into Poetry, Science and so on. As the
interesting titles appeared on the shelves, customers would flock to see
what had arrived and, sometimes, would mention new authors or titles I
wasn’t familiar with (this is how I started reading
Gershom Scholem and Abraham Joshua Heschel). I added books by Alice A
Bailey (eg, A Treatise on Cosmic Fire) and lots of other “new age”
writers also. After a few months I was receiving tons of books each week
and all of my sections were going like gangbusters.
Of course, I got no extra pay from this, and had Waldenbooks been a smarter
organization, they would have set targets and paid me a percentage of
the profits. Ah well.
Anyway, one evening I was working the register when the phone rang:
This is Joe Beancounter and I’m the CFO for Waldenbooks.
Really? I said.
Someone in that store had been ordering books directly from our publishers.
Well, stop it. It’s messing up the accounting.
I don’t remember how the call ended but I’m pretty sure I didn’t out-and-out
say I would stop the direct orders. The long lag time of the sanctioned ordering process and small
shelf space in the store meant that my sections would be empty most of the time. And
it would make my long hours in the store a lot more boring.
I told Manager Bob about the call and he replied, Nah, ignore that. Just keep on ordering.
So I did. I just kept on ordering.
My books became a bit of a joke for a while, until
the customers started rolling in making a b-line for my sections. One
morning I came in and my pal Linda told me that, the previous night,
some guy came in with his girlfriend leading her
back to the philosophy section: They have Kierkegaard here! Bob
was apparently standing right there and tossed a couple of the books he
was holding into the air. After that he’d periodically ask me if I’d
ordered any “Kiltegaard” recently.
Sometimes, of course, Waldenbooks HQ didn’t have an
account with a publisher, so for that I’d have to punch the ISBN number
into the register and hope that Waldenbooks could acquire the book
through a distributor. Most books I ordered this
way, however, never arrived, and there was no method by which HQ could
send us messages as to why. I could sometimes call and, after
interminable transfers, locate the person who had received the official
register order and hear why they couldn’t get a certain
Because we knew there were people on the other side
of the register-based ordering channel, we decided to make use of that
fact to add some lighthearted frivolity to our world. So we’d
periodically place absurd or impossible orders to see
what would happen and to make the people at HQ actually just through
hoops. Of course, I tried to order a stack of the Codex Seraphinianus
this way, but no dice: Too expensive and no relationship with the
publisher. After that, me and Linda would sometimes
bring in ISBNs of even more expensive or rarer books just to stir up
things. I remember getting some marketing “collateral” (as they’d call
it now) from Dharma Press, run by Rinpoche Tarthang Tulku out of
Berkeley Cal. They had just completed a major publishing
achievement: Printing the entire Tibetan Buddhist canon (The Tanjur) in
Tibetan (almost none of those books had been translated into English at
that time). We cackled with laughter as we noticed the brochure listed a
single ISBN for the entire thing. So of
course, with a little trepidation I punched that into the register We
didn’t know what we’d do if by some mistake Waldenooks HQ actually
acquired a copy: We figured we could claim the ISBN was mis-punched and
that they should try to return it, which would
be no easy feat as it was, I believe, over 100 very large volumes.
As the weeks came and went we wondered if it was
actually going to show up, but after a couple of months we knew it
hadn’t gone through. Even though we would have gotten fired had it shown
up, I think we were a little disappointed. But between the direct-to-publisher orders and the sanctioned impossible orders through HQ, we must have really pissed someone off.
Eventually, a boyfriend-girlfriend pair of new
managers from Buffalo were sent by Waldenbooks HQ, forcing Bob out, who
joined a smaller chain called Benjamin Books. As the new scumbag manager
chopped my hours down to 4 per week (why I never
knew: I'm sure the ordering couldn't have had anything to do with it because no one at Waldenbooks HQ knew who was doing it), I just quit and joined Bob in his new store, which was in the
concourse of the World Trade Center. So yeah, I worked in the World
Trade Center for a year or two and remember it quite well. And of
course, I got paid more and Bob encouraged me to order
to my heart’s content. I even went on trips to Bookazine, the
distributor on West 10th
street, to grab books by the hundreds and dump them into giant industrial versions of shopping carts. It was great.