“The Mad Professor” was a tall, aggressive, middle-aged man who liked to talk at people. Customer or staff member, he’d corner you, and for the better part of an hour would talk without stopping about any of the subjects in which he felt he possessed an expert knowledge. Most people were too polite to shut him up or to walk away or excuse themselves. They just stood there, taking in his halitosis, and smiling weakly.
He cornered one woman one night and went on for so long that Andy finally walked up and said,
–Ma’am, I’ve got an offer for you on those books you brought in to sell?
She looked relieved. It was like watching a thirsty child with a glass of water.
There was a customer we called “The Rug” because he seemed to wear a very bad toupee. He also had a long, thick beard, of the sort a prospector or an Assyrian king might have grown. He always wore the same clothes—an ugly, navy blue polyester suit that reeked of urine. He drove a four-door car. The front and back seats were stacked shoulders-high with garbage, except for a tiny place for him to sit.
The Rug was nice enough. But he was very cheap. He always tried top talk us down on our already low prices. We suspected him of hiding books that he wanted—we’d always find books stuffed behind other books, as if a squirrel had been through there.
We suspected him of damaging books, of breaking their spines, and then bringing them up to the front counter and trying to talk us into marking the prices down based on the poor condition.
We finally caught him with a craft knife, peeling price tags off dollar books and placing them onto more expensive ones. We banned him from the store for life.
We called Ray Hauser “Punchy” because he always acted dazed, like a punch-drunk boxer. We thought he must be independently wealthy, because he always came by the store during the late morning, dressed in dapper sportswear. Everyone got excited when he arrived, especially me, because he always sold us primo, brand-new merchandise, including at least six of the books at the top of the fiction and non-fiction best-seller lists, and about three dozen magazines so new they’d not yet hit the news stands. I bought many of his magazines before they had time to go out on the sales floor.
Mrs. Paulson was a sweet old woman, and a retired school teacher. Andy said he used to smoke weed with her son. Mrs. Paulson and I shared a love of old children’s books, and she even once made me a gift of one because she knew I’d love the illustrations.
One of our regular customers was a woman in her late thirties or forties with a tendency to behave erratically. During my last year at the store she came in one night to sell some books. I was the senior staff member on duty and was working at the Buy Counter, as well as arranging things in the Stock Room behind me.
–I want to sell these books.
–How are you tonight?
–Oh, just busy arranging the stock.
–[Sneering] Well, we all have our burdens to bear.
I explained our buying policy. She shrugged it off, and said,
–Well, I’ve brought you some prized books, so I expect top dollar for my treasures!
–Well, I’ll take a look at them and see what I can do. Please feel free to look around the store. I should have you an offer in ten to fifteen minutes.
I went through the books, evaluated them, decided on a fair prince, and when she sauntered back to the Buy Counter, nose in the air, I quoted her an offer.
She had a fit, started yelling, screaming, cursing.
–THIS BOOK HERE! THIS BOOK HERE!–HOW MUCH DID YOU OFFER ON IT?
–I’m sorry, but it’s against our company policy to break up buys. The offer was for everything.
She got even louder and more profane.
–WELL, THEN, HOW MUCH DID THIS BOOK LOOK UP FOR IN YOUR REFERENCES?
–Actually, I didn’t look up that one in any references. I’ve been working here almost four years, and I’ve been trained to know on sight what most things are work in the local market.
She really began to curse then. Customers and co-workers were craning their necks from far parts of the store to see what the fuss was about.
She told me I was ignorant and didn’t know how to do my job. She threatened to call the Dallas Home Office and get me fired.
I was inches away from losing it and screaming my head off and giving this bitch as good as she’d given me. But I gritted my teeth and thought that if I was going to be fired off this shitty job, it wouldn’t be on account of this crazy bitch.
Through clenched teeth, I offered,
–Ma’am, my Manager has the day off, but if you’d like, I can call him at home and let you talk to him.
–YES I WOULD! BUT WHEN YOU REACH HIM, HAND THE PHONE DIRECTLY TO ME! I DON’T WANT YOU TIPPING HIM OFF FIRST WITH LOW TALK!
Well, naturally, I did tip off Bert with low-talk. And when the crazy woman got the phone she lashed in to him as well.
After several minutes she handed the phone back to me. Bert sounded both worked up and exhausted. He suggested I let the woman have this one book she was obsessing over, keep the offer at the same rate, and see what she thought. If she went for it, he’d look up the books in references the next day.
And, amazingly enough, the bitch went for it. I told her I had to do some more figuring, and if she’d come back in a few minutes, I’d have everything ready for her.
When she came back, she was giving off a whole new vibe. She was smiling and relaxed.
–I’m sorry I made such a scene. I had a bad day and I came in here looking for a fight. I won’t call the Home Office and try to get you fired. I’m sure you know your job very well.
Pursing my lips and panting, I managed to say,
–Well,…sometimes…mistakes are made.
I told Andy about the incident the next day and he told me he knew who this crazy bitch was, and that she’d had a history of drug abuse and repeated institutionalization for mental illness.
Some of our regular customers were pre-adolescents and teenagers. There were two married professors who had three pre-adolescent sons with whom I was very impressed. They were well-read and intelligent for their age. They seemed like the sort of perfect children I wanted to have. I once secretly slipped them a copy of “The History of Farting,” then watched as they worked up a comic routine to try to convince their parents to buy it.
Lucas was sort of the store mascot, a gangling teenager who suffered some sort of mental disability. He wasn’t full retarded, but something had cleared happened to him along the way. Andy was friends with his parents.
Lucas often hung out at the store, reading and browsing, even when he didn’t buy anything.
Once I was working at the Buy Counter, bent over a piece of paper, adding up some figures. Lucas walked up, considered me, then patted me on top of the head like I was a shaggy dog.
One night I’d unlocked my bike and was about to leave for the evening when Lucas popped out of the bushes and said he really needed to talk to me about something. He seemed very distressed. My first thought was,
–Oh, Christ, I bet he’s gonna tell me he’s gay or something.
Instead, he told me he had been hanging out with a group of guys and had been trying to win their approval. As an initiation, they’d dared him to shop-lift a CD from the store. He ‘d done it, and was now filled with remorse. He said he didn’t want to hang out with those guys anymore, and that he hoped he wouldn’t get banned from the store. He handed me the CD. I said he’d have to come in and talk with Brett.
I gave Bert the run-down. Lucas was clearly contrite and scared to death. To his credit, Bert let Lucas off with a stern warning, told him to never do it again, but said he was still welcome to come hang out at the store.
About a year or so later, after I’d moved back to Austin, I was waiting for a cab outside a grocery store, when someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was Lucas. He was cleaned up, with a decent haircut and hip clothes. He wasn’t hunched over. He seemed perfectly normal. He smiled and explained he’d moved from Aggieland to Austin, had a job and a girlfriend and was playing in a band. I guess getting out of Bryan was all it really took.
We had a small, but dedicated group of about five guys who bought the majority of our comic books. I carried a small collection of pieces of paper with me to work every day. One had the home phone numbers of all of our comics customers.
I had developed an interest in comics while working at the store, and often spent part of my lunch hour at the two comics stores that were within walking distance.
There was a young man who was about to go study film at NYU, and he knew he couldn’t fit everything he owned into a small New York apartment, so over two days he brought in the comic collection he’d devoted his life to building.
His collection was beautiful. Complete runs of so many things. We paid him top dollar. Bert grumbled that he thought that was a bad move.
I went into the office and called all our comics guys. I gave them a run-down on our haul, and said I’d give them first crack at the merchandise before it got put on the sales floor.
Then, over the next two days, these guys filed into our stock room, and thumbed through these precious bagged treasures, eyes widened.
I was eating lunch in the Break Room, which was right next to the Stock Room, and was talking to one of these customers, when he noticed that sitting on my hold shelf I had a complete run of Alan Moore’s ten-issue Jack the Ripper series, “From Hell,” which I had snagged from this comic book buy a few days before. I could see how badly he wanted it. I had only set it aside because it looked interesting. For him it was clearly a much bigger deal. I understood the passions of a collector, so as a courtesy, and as a nod to good karma, I told him he could have the set.
We either tripled or quadrupled what we paid on that collection within 48 hours. But Bert still grumbled that he thought we’d paid too much.
Ralph Hall was a delightful old guy who’d worked in Hollywood for years. He was even Music Editor on one of my favorite films, “Farewell, My Lovely.” He’d retired to Bryan/College Station because his son was a professor there.
Mr. Hall was the kind of older man most of us hope to become. Instead of bitching and moaning about illness, he was always running off to some activity, like his barbershop quartet. Whereas most old men’s stories are tiresome and repetitious, his were funny and entertaining.
As I recall, he said the nicest and most normal people he’d met in Hollywood were Robert Mitchum and, I believe, Gregory Peck. On the other hand,
–Roger Corman was an asshole! The biggest asshole in Hollywood. Whenever there was a campaign for some liberal cause he’d always make a big pledge so he could get the publicity, but then he’d never pay up. Corman likes to claim he was a genius for discovering people like Jack Nicholson and Ron Howard, but I say they were the smart ones for having the sense to stop working for the son of a bitch when they did.
Of Disney Studios he said,
–You can’t imagine what a strange place that was. A whole Hollywood studio without one single Jew working there? There was only one Jew on the Disney payroll, and he was the Head of the Accounting Department and worked out of the New York office.
I would’ve loved to have interviewed Mr. Hall, but never got the chance. He died shortly after I left Bryan.
At Discount Book City I encountered a lot of home-schoolers for the first time. While I’m sure there are some people that possess the intelligence and broad scope of learning to give their children a comprehensive education, they didn’t shop in my store. Usually these people were religious wackos with reactionary political beliefs.
The home schooling family that came in the most consisted of two parents and six or seven kids. The mother thought nothing of pulling up a stool in the middle of the Children’s Room, hauling out one of her tits, and breast-feeding there in front of God and everybody. I found that inconsiderate and vulgar. Some people have argued with me that breast-feeding is a natural bodily process, but I would counter that having a bowel movement or masturbating are natural processes as well, but I manage not to do those in public view.
And anyway, what’s the protocol there? Where are other people supposed to place their eyes when that’s going on?
I had a conversation with a man and learned that, like me, he collected old encyclopedias. (I didn’t learn until later that he was married to Tits.) I was very impressed to learn that he had a set of the very collectible Eleventh Edition of the “Encyclopaedia Britannica.” I explained to him that because of the number of renowned and prominent contributors to that edition, it’s considered the only encyclopedia in history that is also a literary work of art.
He added, squinting,
–You know, it’s also the last Christian encyclopedia ever published. All the ones since then have been Satanic.
Well….Okay….If you say so.
I just hope I don’t have to deal with your backward-ass children when you release them into the world with an education that’s a century out of date.
Me. A woman. Mid-afternoon.
–I need to buy a book for my son for school.
–I want to buy him a thea-sa-rau-rius.
–Okay. Well, I know we have plenty of those. I’m sure I can find a thesaurus that will suit his needs.
–Yes, a thea-sa-rau-rius.
–What sort of thesaurus would you like to buy? I have several. There’s a hardback thesaurus or a paperback thesaurus. I have a thesaurus in every kind of price range.
–Just a good thea-sa-rau-rius. Whatever will be best for his school.
–What grade is he in?
–He’s in eighth grade.
–Do any of these thesauruses look like what you had in mind? How about this thesaurus? This is a Roget’s. That’s the leading name in thesauruses.
–I don’t know. Maybe I’ll call him and ask what sort of thea-sa-rau-rius he wants.
Two young women approached me. They shoved three books into my face.
–We’re both about to start home-schooling and would like to know which of these is a geography book.
–Well, this one is history, this one is anthropology, and this one is sociology.
–Well, that’s fine. But which of these three is a geography book?
I’m squatting on the floor, shelving books.
A mean-looking man walks through the center of the store. He’s seen all he cares to see.
His little son is in the Children’s Room, leafing through a picture book.
–COME ON! I’M READY TO GO!
–Daddy, look at this book I found….
–Daddy, can we…?
–I’VE GOT A BELT!
I shot a look over at that cocksucker.
Big fucking man, huh?
Think you’re King Shit because you can scare a ten-year-old?
Take that goddamn belt off, mother-fucker….PLEASE.
Give me a fucking reason.
But he didn’t see me.
He walked straight ahead, his son running quietly behind him, head down, scared.
Discount Book City was also, I think, the first place I encountered suburban entitlement parents, who’d bring their kids into the store in battleship-sized baby strollers, then think nothing of parking those damned things in the middle of an aisle so no other people could get around them. Their older kids were given to shrieking and knocking shit over, but the parents didn’t give a shit, and made no attempts to correct of pick up after their kids.
One man, who seemed to be affiliated with the University in some manner, was astonishing in his capacity to inconvenience us. He must’ve been a sociopath, because he thought nothing of showing up ten minutes before closing time, and keeping us late while he searched for books. Brett was such a greedy cocksucker that he allowed this guy to keep behaving in this manner, because he thought it’d bring in an extra buck or two.
Apparently this guy acted like this everywhere he went, because one night I was on campus and noticed this guy had driven his car onto the sidewalk and had parked up against the front steps of the Library, and was trying to convince the Library staffers to stay open late for him.
He did, however, tell us one funny story.
He had been invited to attend the dedication ceremonies of the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library on the campus, one day before the Library opened its doors to the general public. After the ceremony he found himself standing in line in the gift shop, directly behind Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was carrying a large stack of books.
The guy introduced himself to Arnold, they shook hands, and then Arnold reached down, squeezed a bit of the guy’s belly between his thumb and forefinger, and said,
–You’re getting flabby down dare.
The line wasn’t moving very quickly. Finally, it was Arnold’s turn. But he had a lot of purchases.
Arnold started complaining,
–Could you please hur-vee up? I’m missing my lunch!
It turns out the credit card machine hadn’t been hooked up yet, and the female clerks, who were very star-struck and intimidated, were trying to use an old-fashioned manual credit card imprinter, which, as those things tend to do, was getting stuck. Then, they got confused as to the prices. Arnold leaned forward,
–Vot’s a matter? Cahn’t you add?
Finally, a part-timer, a college student, took out a pencil and tallied up the bill on a piece of paper, wrote down Arnold’s credit card information, and sent him on his way.
A tall, slim, humorless woman brought us a stack of books to sell. Most seemed to be highly sexual in nature. Some were scripts for S&M scenarios. (I’d just assumed people like that made it up as they went along.)
I read one script. A strict father catches his young son masturbating. The father barks out threats, curses, and insults. The boy has one line he repeats over and over. He pleads,
This woman seemed like the sort of person who took her sex life very seriously indeed, and had not a whit of a sense of humor about it. Which made her seem to me all the more ridiculous.
After we made her an offer for her books she delivered a prepared speech. She was leaving Bryan/College Station in a few days, never to return. She was angry that we promoted our recycling efforts, yet then turned around and threw away thousands of books into our dumpster. She admitted that for the past six years she’d been coming by our store early on Sunday mornings before we opened, fishing books out of the dumpster, wiping off the coffee grounds, kitty litter and kitty shit, and mailing them to disadvantaged children in Mexico.
Some slack-jawed white trash guy used to come by the store, sniffing around Regina and trying to get into her pants. There was something about him that annoyed me.
Once he bought a book on a certain kind of runes and fairly ran out the front door, announcing,
–Man, I can’t wait to get home. I gotta translate these runes and see what they say.
Yeah, sure, That’s so important that you do that. I’m sure you’ll find a really significant use for that esoteric information there in the trailer park.
There was a week when he came into the store five days in a row without buying anything. Finally, on his last visit, he picked out a stack of books and brought them up to me at the register.
–I couldn’t make up my mind what I wanted to read, but I’m going out to my job tomorrow and needed to have something. I work three weeks on, two weeks off.
–Do you work on an offshore oil rig?
–No, actually I’m an assistant to an artist in a really obscure small Texas town.
–What’s the town?
–Trust me, you’ve never heard of it.
I had a hunch, possibly the kind gamblers get from time to time:
–It’s a little town in Central Texas called Star.
Then for the next ten minutes I explained to this guy how my mother’s side of the family all came from Star, that my grandmother’s family was the richest in town, that my great-grandfather owned the cotton gin and the bank, and that I had five generations of family members buried in the cemetery.
When I went to Star for a funeral about a year later, my cousin Annette told me she knew this guy, and added that his eccentric artist employer had donated the local Methodist Church a giant Bible covered in grey duct tape.
I was amazed at all the people from my past who wandered in to the store. Joel, a former housemate from New Guild, was a friend of Preston’s. A former classmate from SHSU who used to sell heavy sweaters made of shredded leather, saw me sitting outside on a pile of boxes and smoking. He didn’t call me by name, but from his sneer I could tell he recognized me and thought I was now homeless.
A quarrelsome old couple, who used to sit on the Residents’s Board of Directors at Greenwood Towers, saw me and praised me for having the good sense to finally get out of Austin, as they had. I didn’t bother to correct them.
I took a check from a guy and realized he was the kid brother of a boy I’d hero-worshiped in the mid-1970s.
A former Education professor of mine from SHSU actually recognized me, and told me I really ought to look back into teaching, that retail was no place for me.
We had a regular customer, a young man whom I often waited on, whom I recognized, but didn’t know by name. One afternoon I was working the Buy Counter and he brought up a big grocery sack full of books to sell. I gave him the usual speech about our policies, and told him I’d probably have an offer ready in ten minutes.
I dumped out the sack. The book on the bottom of the pile was now on top: a well-thumbed copy of “Anal Pleasure and Health.” I looked up slowly over the tops of my glasses. The young man looked very embarrassed, gave an awkward chuckle, and offered,
–Um…Married people books.
I continued staring over my glasses and just said,
A woman approached me:
–Where are your books on urt?
–You mean yurts—the felt-covered dwellings of the Mongolians?
–No, like painting, sculpture, drawing, print-making. You know—urt!
An old man told me he was looking for a book which he assumed was long out of print. When he was a child he was bedridden for several months with a serious illness, and one of his happiest childhood memories was of his mother reading to him from a Stewart Edward White adventure novel which had been serialized in multiple parts in “Scribner’s Magazine.” He figured the serial had eventually been printed in book form.
Within fifteen minutes, my research turned up that the book had recently been reprinted, and there was a copy for sale at the Hastings store down the street. Needless to say he was very grateful, and became a steady customer thereafter. Later that day I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, until I saw we had a copy of the book in our own store.
We were regularly visited by a man in late middle age, successful, probably a businessman or lawyer, who’d bring in his elderly mother. He’d slowly escort her up the ramp to the mystery section, find her a chair, and she’d sit down and consult her lists, to see which books she’d already read.
The son, meanwhile, would rush out into our front room, gather up a bunch of books of homo-erotic art and photography, buy them, rush outside and lock them in his trunk, then get back into the store before his mother started looking for him. He’d lead her to the registers and she’d buy her mysteries, then off they’d go, no one saying a word. I used to wonder what their sad little life together was like.
The store participated in a really annoying program called “Jail Mail.” apparently, if you’re incarcerated in a Texas prison, your relatives can go to a specially selected bookstore, buy certain books for you—paperbacks only– and then the store will weigh the books, place them in a special envelope, mark the package with a special store business stamp, and send it on to the prison. The process was complicated and tiresome and I went out of my way to avoid working the register when one of these transactions came up.
There was one couple who seemed to use this program more than anyone else. The Gaglianos were older—the wife was nice enough–but the husband was a hothead. It was easy enough to see where their fuck-up son learned the behavior that got him locked up. Gordon was always very snotty with the Gaglianos, and the old man always picked up on that and started an argument. After Gordon was fired, the other staffers treated the Gaglianos with politeness, and the old man kept his temper. I feigned politeness, though I probably held these people in even more contempt than Gordon did. I saw no reason to jump through hoops to accommodate criminals or the people who spawned them.
A short, stocky groundskeeper from the University, who was covered in tattoos and exuded belligerence—a ridiculous person, really—used to buy cassette tapes from us, then bring them back the next day for a refund, always with the same complaint:
–This ain’t real metal.
Oh, give me a fucking break. Act like a fucking adult. No one under 17 could say something like that and expect to be taken seriously. No wonder he was 45 and mowing lawns for a living.
It was obvious this jackass was using our store as a lending library, copying the tapes at home, then bringing them back, but Bert never grew the balls to confront him about it.
My years at Discount Book City can be divided into two periods—The Preston Conflict and The Bert Conflict. Both were similar in that Rita did little or nothing to make those two guys behave in a considerate, polite, and professional manner, and I seemed to be the person who was most stressed out by their abominable behavior. My friends began to worry about my serious depression and despair, but my family shrugged it off as unimportant….