Fascinating courtly intrigue and bloody power games set on a generation ship full of secrets―Medusa Uploaded is an imaginative, intense mystery about family dramas and ancient technologies whose influence reverberates across the stars. Disturbing, exciting, and frankly kind of mind-blowing.” ―Annalee Newitz, author of Autonomous

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Place In Hell

Last night, as I was cleaning up the mess made by a tornado of customers looking for Christmas gifts, I had to skirt one corner of the store where a man was sitting with a gigantic pile of books. This man was not a customer, he never buys anything in the store. He uses us as a library, and if we dare to question that, he complains to management. He knows we can't stop him from what he wants to do, so he builds a pile of books 40 deep and sits there among them until 1 minute before closing, then saunters out.

As a co-worker and I attacked his pawed-over pile, I remarked, “There's a place in hell for people like that.” She laughed. She works in the cafe, and has her own brand of monsters-pretending-to-be-customers to deal with. In the cafe, people sit down with magazines and books they haven't paid for (and spill coffee on them). They conduct loud, obnoxious phone conversations, eat most of the food they ordered and then demand a refund because it wasn't prepared to their satisfaction, steal tips out of the jar when the barista's back is turned, reach over the counter and grab pastries under the same circumstances – the list goes on and on.

My husband seems to attract a particular type of monster where he works. He calls them Little Old Ladies From Hell. They are the ones who want to tell you their whole life stories while you try to help them find books that are no longer in print. They stand in front of a long line of people and count the money out in dimes, nickels, pennies – then just as they're about to leave, remember that they haven't used their frequent shopper's card and want to return the purchase and start all over. And isn't there a coupon? But young man, my printer doesn't work. I'm sure the coupon was for 50% off. You say this week's coupon is 30%? Oh no, I'm sure mine was 50%.

And while we're on the subject of coupons, what about the lady in the mink coat who printed out 10 copies of the coupon that specifically says 1 item, 1 per customer, and wants to do 10 separate transactions? Or the guy with the expired coupon who says, “Are you trying to tell me you can't override that and just give me the damned coupon?” Or the Little Old Lady From Hell (with her piles of pennies) who bursts into tears because she can't use the expired 40% coupon on the $2.99 sale book she wants. And you twist yourself into knots trying to help her because you assume she must be living on Social Security. And you help her out to her car (because she bought 20 sale books with 20 1-use-only coupons), expecting that she must drive some aging wreck, and you discover that she's driving a brand-new Hummer. And she clips your car as she drives away.

These are the monsters who should be bound for hell, where they will suffer for eternity for their crimes against humanity. Yet when I try to imagine their punishments, I find myself pitying the devil. Because he will strive mightily to show them the error of their ways, and they won't get it. They will thwart his rules just as skillfully as they thwart ours. No coupon he devises will phase them. He may design a corner with a chair full of spikes, in a cloud of unbearable stench, stocked with books covered in slime and feces, and the freebee-reader guy will plant himself there and read until 1-minute before hell is supposed to close.

It won't be long before the devil realizes that he shouldn't punish these folks. He should hire them. Of COURSE there's a place in hell for these monsters – they're FROM hell. No one is more talented at torment than they are. They exist to remind us that life is full of prickles. By their example, we learn how NOT to behave.

So I clean up the pile of books and put them away. I patiently work my way through 10 transactions so the rich lady can get 40% off everything. I listen to the Little Old Lady From Hell as she tells me that the out-of-print book she wants just has to be available, because every book that was ever published is still out there, and I can order it for her if I just look long enough. It's not up to me to punish these folks, or point out to them that they're rotten. I'm not getting paid very much, but I am getting paid. If my company is willing to let these folks waste their resources and time, so be it.

I'll do my job. The devil is going have to look after his own.


  1. Those "problems", along with a wealth of others, will evaporate when big-box bookstores close. Indies, for better or worse, don't need to follow customer service guidelines handed down by executives sitting behind desks in far away corporate headquarters.

  2. Umm, actually "indies" generally strive to deliver even better customer service than any required by "big-box" upper management. I've worked for both and know from experience. "Problem" personality types are for the most part control freaks who seem to get satisfaction from making other people do what they say they want. It's pathetic behavior, and I suspect even a psychologist would have a hard time redirecting it. Just take it as a given in retail!

  3. Ya know, I've had those customers who come up and stick a coupon in each book and when I tell them they can't do it, expect me to do individual transactions. Do you know what I tell them? No.

  4. i hope there really is a special place in hell for these people. I feel like I have been cursed with eternal damnation since I started picking up after these cheap bastards 4 years ago.

  5. I'm an ex-employee of the Big Box Bookstore and reading this blog post was like a hilarious war-time flashback.
    I remember the old ladies, one in particular who would demand double bagging, with each book placed spine down. She would then proceed to poop on the bathroom floor (I'm deadly serious), complain to management that our bathrooms were filthy. She'd be back the next week trying to return purchases she made up to 7 YEARS ago with no receipt. We knew how old they were because the dated tags were still on the books.
    The store manager's lies to cover her own ineptitude has resulted in a ten year gap in my resume. Ultimately, though, I am estatic to be out of the book retail's evil clutches. Good luck, retail warrior. God knows you're going to need it.

  6. Now that you mention it, we had a poopy person too. The assistant manager called him Mr. Poopy Pants, and the guy wasn't content just to leave a deposit on the floor. he was a finger painter. That was several years back, but recently a would-be shoplifter pooped on the floor in the store where I'm working now, in the hopes of keeping the GM busy while he tried to return something he had just grabbed off the shelf.

    My current GM (who fortunately is a good person) is talking about creating a game based on working at Borders. Hmmnnn . . .

  7. I'm an ex big-boxer (Borders), and now I work at a massive used bookstore. I've encountered all of the above stereotypes at both locations, with the main difference being that my current employer is able to deal with them in a far more effective manner: troublesome customers are quickly shown the door as soon as they step too far.

    The real problem that drives these people is the toxic atmosphere that American consumerism inherently creates. I'm not at all surprised that in the era of companies like Wal-Mart, Groupon, and Amazon that we customers wandering around with grossly overinflated egos and senses of self importance.

  8. I had a woman who was printing out multiple coupons. I went past the management in the store to the Loss Prevention Regional Director. :) He gave me the firepower to tell her no. The thing is, those registers at Borders are supposed to note when a coupon code has been used do you *can't* use it again.

    I feel you, people. I was downsized almost 2 years ago. The job I have now is no picnic, but I am perfectly happy to be out of retail hell.

  9. My wife and I are both regularly running into these characters, and they're getting more and more entitled. Even better, there's the new passive-aggressive stick used to beat the retail mule: tell a Customer From Hell "no," and s/he'll bleat "Well, I'm going to write you up on Yelp.com!" (My wife's boss was in an absolute panic about three months ago, crying about how he had to get an Angieslist membership so he could see what people were writing about his store. She had to talk him down, explaining that any "public service" that required you to buy a membership was pretty much going to be set up for complainers. Lo and behold, the only people on Angieslist about their store were the bozos throwing tantrums because they wouldn't give "special discounts" for knowing the former co-owner, who left 15 years ago. Or the ones who were furious that the store didn't offer ValuPak coupons any more, and in fact hadn't for nearly five years, because they didn't want to have to pay a whole $8 for a watch battery change.)

  10. Just out of curiosity, I'm wondering what's happened to your first customer from Hell: the gimp who treated the store like a library. Don't tell me: he was the first one in front of television cameras at the store closing, crying about how unfair it is that this is happening, right?

  11. No -- now he piles his books up on the floor. I can picture this guy on the morning when the doors are locked for good, holding the door handle and shaking it with all his might, trying to will it to open. Then he'll just stare at it like an enraged bull for several minutes. Finally he'll wander over to Barnes & Noble and plague them every single day.