(NOTE: I will also be publishing some off-series entries on this blog. File Under: Music Etc. Photo by VariousArtists)
Ever worked in an abusive hellhole of human toxicity? Sadly, I’ve had a few of those, including this mid-80s record store stint. My departure afforded me the opportunity to give some of the love back at them, with my exit strategy planned to inflict maximum pain upon my evil overlords. However, when the time came, my nightmare of a regional manager had a surprise of her own for me.
It was August 1987 in London, Ontario, and for the previous year I had been managing a store that was part of the XYZ Records chain (as I will call them), following a prior year as an assistant manager at another outlet.
XYZ had been an established, successful music retail chain in Canada since the 1950s. A few months before I began working for them in July ‘85, XYZ had been sold to a guy who was the middle-aged son of millionaires. He was also, by all counts, utterly whackadoodles. The story went that, since their lucky-sperm-of-an-offspring son was incapable of holding down any position under someone else and possessed less-than-zero social skills, Mummy & Daddy simply let Junior Senior go out and buy businesses on a whim, usually running them into the ground. He was particularly obsessed with store ceiling tiles and was known to go into rages if any of them looked damaged or spoiled. Oh well – it kept him off the streets and gave him something to do.
I heard many times that, prior to the takeover, XYZ had been a pleasant company to work for, with many long-timers at both the retail and corporate levels. That changed decisively with the arrival of Mr. WhackaD, with competent, intelligent employees at the Head Offices leaving so fast that it sounded like one had to queue to get out. Unsurprisingly, they were replaced by shiny, sparkling, nasty, yes-person dunderheads who couldn’t brown nose W hard enough.
Along with my staff and co-workers at other locations, I watched with increasing bafflement, anger, and frustration as one ludicrous and infuriating national store policy was hatched after another. It quickly became clear that Whacka had a genuine disdain for (a) record stores, (b) the people who worked in them, and (c) most of the people who shopped in them, save for grannies who might deign to come in once or twice a year to perhaps buy the new Anne Murray. Or at least look at the cover and call her a hose for wearing a short skirt.
Retail Hell: the store’s front from the previous summer of 1986. Notice the comely ceiling tiles.
Not only were XYZ policies upended as frequently as most people change their socks, each of these new laws were enforced with Gestapo-like rigidity and solemnity. The best/worst example was a missive from the late winter of ‘87 that outlined a new dress code policy for retail staff, including a Business Casual style of clothing, no piercings or strangely coloured/styled hair, and no long hair on any male staff. Hair on male staff that touched the shoulders would be cause for immediate dismissal.
And on the date when it came into effect, they meant business. Reps for Mr. Whack were dispatched randomly to locations everywhere across the country and entire stores of staff were fired on the spot, only to be re-opened the next day by cute smiling robots who knew nothing about music and cared about it even less. The Stalin-esque masses of firings built up as the months went on.
As I sit here typing this, recalling the moment, it seems even more absurd now than it did then. And at the time it was beyond the pale.
The result was that, coupled with increasing control over what was and wasn’t played and carried in the store, an XYZ location had all the ambiance of a slightly hip finance company – just the kind of environment where younger people (then the industry’s bread and butter) wanted to hang out and shop!
Never mind that, in 1987, granny and her sewing circle accounted for about, say, 1% of our market. This was the demo that WhackaD wanted and by golly that was that. It should also be noted that it was clear to all of us that XYZ’s once solid fortunes were in free fall owing to bad management. The chain almost went under at this point in time, with some companies refusing to fill stock orders until XYZ paid its bills. This lead to an increasing reduction in key, major label titles in our stock. Store catalogues were now rigorously controlled with popular sellers such as Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run, Wham!’s Make It Big, and Led Zeppelin 3 pulled in order to make room for every single Sally Oldfield title in all formats! On import! Bin padding, anyone?
There was a lot of stress and tension at the store ….
As a manager, I was sometimes working 60-hour weeks for starvation wages, barely allotted enough of a budget to adequately staff a store that was located in a bad, higher-crime area in the city’s east end right next door to a high school (during the previous Xmas season there had been an armed robbery with gunfire at the lotto booth directly outside our door on one Friday night, while we had thousands of dollars worth of product stolen from our back room after it was broken into the next Friday), had to keep up with seemingly weekly changes in iron-clad rules, and regularly had to deal with a none-to-bright, grating, pernickety, taste and irony-free corporate true believer of a regional manager who I’ll call Miss Winner. To say we had a strained working relationship was an understatement. And once the cleansings firings really got going, hitting many innocent friends and acquaintances of mine in the process, the tensions between the two of us were so thick you could have cut them with a knife.
Working at XYZ was part of a post-high school plan of taking some time off from education. I had begun college right after graduation but hadn’t been into it and decided to drop out for a few years in order to have fun, work, and figure out what I wanted to do. By 1987, I was utterly miserable in my role as an XYZ store manager, with my hands so tied that I felt like I was babysitting a neglected child of evil, abusive parents who were using me as a whipping boy for their own mistakes and indiscretions. I had decided that I wanted to study literature at university and, owing to a communication screw-up, did not learn that I had been accepted until early August of that year, barely a month before classes started.
Record store displays, mid-80s-style: Eurythmics, The Human League, Jennifer Warnes, and Run-DMC plus those all-important ceiling tiles again. What could be more appropriate than a cluster of bright, shiny balloons to go with a Leonard Cohen tribute album!
On the same day when I received that welcome news, I also intercepted something at work that made it clear to me that XYZ was trying to set me up in order to fire me, despite – or more likely because of – my store doing very well in terms of both healthy, upwards sales and gross profits. I knew that my days would be numbered because it was becoming progressively harder for me to hide my barely concealed disdain for Mr. Whacka’s train of bozos, and anyone who didn’t kiss ass quite hard enough would not be there for long. Since XYZ’s approaches were increasingly anti-retail, I decided that if I was going to go down, I’d rather go down winning by my rules than losing by theirs. Ergo, I began ignoring what I was told to do, pandering instead to our actual customers’ needs and wants, resulting in robust business. This was not to be tolerated in the land of Corporate Ideology Worship Über Alles.
Since I knew I was leaving but needed all the cash I could get up until I started school, I had to carefully plan an exit strategy. I had no misgivings about sticking it to XYZ’s pond scum management, in particular my Nurse Ratched of a regional manager. However, I had a pretty good idea of how the company would cover my departure and surmised that if I gave Miss Winner no notice at all, the people who would be most directly, negatively affected in the immediate future would be some innocent co-workers in the city who I knew.
Not wanting to further dump on this already put upon group of people, I decided on a compromise: I would announce my later-in-the-week departure on the Tuesday after Labour Day (following two weeks of what turned out to be an utterly blissful vacation, given that I knew what I was going to do upon return). I reasoned that this was short enough notice to screw with upper management but gave me time to have the new manager set up and ready to go following my departure.
However, this was not simply about my leaving for I had two more aces up my sleeve. Namely, among my staff of three (an assistant manager, a full-timer, and a high school weekend part-timer), my assistant and full-timer had both recently announced their return to university as well, with the assistant wanting to leave the job entirely to concentrate on school, while the full-timer was open to a part time position.
Ergo, all full time staff would cease to be. Simultaneously. And this would go down just a few days after the big news would be delivered. I saw dropping this bomb on the Whacka Crew with such short notice as partial revenge for the unfair dismissal of so many former colleagues not to mention how I had been treated. Absolutely delicious stuff.
Suffice it to say, when I returned to work on that Tuesday morning, I was gleeful at the mere thought of what was about to play out while utterly dreading what was to follow thereafter: a week spent in close quarters with Miss Winner as she brought in the new manager and oversaw the transition. Oh well, I could simply quit at any time if she got too obnoxious, I reckoned.
The very desk in my office from where I delivered my news to Miss Winner.
There was a ritual wherein at the start of every week, each store manager would receive a call from their regional manager and personally report on the previous week’s sales and profit margins – a sort of verbal and mental running of the gauntlet to keep the working plebes in line. Managers would wait for the voice of their Regional Deity to command their presence on the phone. When the call came on that Tuesday, I scooted back to pick up the line in my office, charged with the knowledge that I was about to paint my nemesis’ day several dark shades of frustrating. I felt like I was ascending to the podium to collect an Oscar.
We went through the numbers and then the call went like so:
Miss Winner: (spoken in her mousy natter) So, you said that you had something you wanted to talk about.
Me: Yes, I just found out that I have been accepted to UWO and therefore will be leaving XYZ.
MW: (barely able to contain her thrill at seeing the back of me) Congratulations! That’s great news for you.
MW: What will you be studying?
Me: English Lit.
MW: Gee, I’d like to go back to school but I just don’t know what I’d like to take.
Me: Well, I’m pretty happy about it but, (in a tone of mock regret) unfortunately, as I said, I just found out and so this is a little short notice. This Saturday will have to be my final day.
MW: That’s ok, I will come up with a transition plan. Is (the Assistant Manager) in today?
Me: Yes he is … but I have another piece of news for you as well that I must tell you first. (delivered with faux concern and sincerity) The Assistant has also decided to return to school and he too will be leaving this Saturday.
MW: (noticeably more sombre tone) Oh …. O — kay. (pause)
Me: Yes, he has decided to leave and return to full time study at university as well.
MW: (sounding fazed) Uh huh.
Me: Oh …. and I have one more piece of news.
MW: (almost whispered) Ok.
Me: The-full timer will also be returning to UWO next week, and so after this Saturday he will be unavailable to work full time. He is very interested in a part-time position, though.
25 years later, I can still fully recall the sound of the extended silence that followed – softly punctuated in the background by the muted clickety-clack of Head Office typewriters – that greeted me on the other end of the line at that moment. I was grinning from ear to ear and thoroughly enjoying it when Miss Winner dropped a bomb of her own on me: one that I did not see coming and was better than anything I could have anticipated.
After I let a good 10-15 second pause linger in order to allow the salt to really saturate the wound, I continued …
Me: Now, you could …
MW: (blurted out in a tone of horrified desperation) SO WHO DO I HAVE WORKING IN THAT STORE FOR NEXT MONDAY MORNING?!?!?
Me: Er, no one. You’ll have to come down and hire a complete staff.
MW: (increasingly emotional) But I can’t. After getting all the store numbers here today, I am leaving Toronto (two hours north of London) to drive to Windsor (four hours away and two hours south of London) to personally oversee the prep and opening of a store this Saturday. I have so much to do there before everything opens on Saturday morning I couldn’t possibly get to London this week if I wanted to no matter how hard I tried. And I have to be there for this opening and no one else can really take my place in Windsor. How am I going to do this?!?!?
Me: (all Wally Cleaver-like) Gee, I’m so sorry but this all just came up.
MW: (deep, whimpering sigh) I really wished you’d given me a better head’s up. There couldn’t have been a worse week in the whole year for this to happen.
And there it was. My joy at hearing her spit out that last line was ineffable. I had utterly maximized the misery of Nurse Ratched. Not only that, but I would be able to work that final week without her in my face. It was like winning a lottery.
She mumbled something to the effect that she would have to put her thinking cap on and quickly got off the phone in a state of mortification. Later that week, I chatted with one of the “good folks” secretaries at Head Office who I knew and she told me that, following our phone call, Miss Winner put her head down on her desk and sat there crying for 10 minutes.
My only regret upon hearing that was that I couldn’t have been there to videotape the event for mirth-filled, frequent, repeated viewings.
Those final 5 days at XYZ in September ‘87 made for the best working week of my life. I made it clear to staff that, during the remaining period:
- Dress code was prohibited. I encouraged everyone to wear the most worn, torn, and outré stuff they had. For the remainder of the week, I wore only ripped jeans and made sure not to shave.
- Staff were strongly encouraged to bring in as much of their own music as possible (a BIG company no-no), preferably albums that were irksome in some way to our MOR customers (I brought in several carefully selected titles for in-store play on the final Saturday including Free Jazz by the Ornette Coleman Double Quartet, An Evening With Wild Man Fischer, New Day Rising by Hüsker Dü,The Rhino Brothers Present the World’s Worst Records, and Ivor Cutler’s Privilege. To my astonishment, two people asked where they could purchase a copy of the Wild Man Fischer album), and to not play anything that we might actually carry in the store.
- Only attend to customers that they felt were worthy of service or that they felt like serving. (I remember one googly-eyed harried housewife, rampaging into the store on the Wednesday afternoon as if to bite a pig and probably looking for the new Whitney Houston, making a stampeding b-line for me. I gave her a look of horror, ran into the backroom, slammed the door shut, and waited there for 10 minutes before emerging. I am hoping that shoplifting mall urchins had a field day during that time. We probably didn’t have a shred of Mötley Crüe left.)
I know that last one sounds really harsh and in retrospect it is, but I was so fed up and losing it after a few years of crazy-making shit that I could barely contain my disdain for it all.
One other thing is that XYZ would allow stores to write off dinners or take-out if they were part of staff meetings. That week I held four staff meetings, culminating with an extended going away lunch on the Saturday for ten (including personal friends as well as some of our best pals from neighbouring businesses) complete with free booze at a near-by restaurant.
I doubt that the store made even a nickel’s profit that week.
Would I have done any of this had I been treated well? Not on your life. I take pride in conducting myself professionally in any job environment and this isn’t how I would ever normally behave at work, be it my retail position then or my white collar work now. But, that’s what happens when good people are treated abusively, referring not only to me but also to many other hard-working staff who had been shit on, screamed at, and then unceremoniously fired. I contacted a few of them, relating the details of my exit and Miss Winner’s torture, and they were audibly or visibly delighted to hear that XYZ and Miss W at least got some of their own thrown back at them in a small way.
As for my store, they brought in a particular manager from one of the smaller locations, as I had thought. I knew this woman to be a dedicated, terrific person and I made sure that I took a break from being and arse and passed along as much knowledge as I could to her about the runnings of the store in order to make things as easy as possible for her.
She continued on, and I heard she was working 50-60 hours per week, always smiling and bending over backwards to accommodate and please.
They fired her one year later over something minor.
One year after that, I ran into her on campus where she was now taking psych courses, loving life, and thrilled to be unshackled from the crap of the past.
As for XYZ? It finally went bankrupt in the very early ’90s. I remember standing in front of their shuttered flagship store downtown, laughing.
Next On Stage –> In my piece on The Clash, I wrote that seeing them made for the most-anticipated gig I had attended up until that time. Well, this David Bowie concert one year later — at the same venue but utilizing the full stadium — left that prior show’s sense of anticipation in the dust as I finally got to see the performer who had long occupied the No. 1 spot on my “Must See” list.
Bowie and his seventies output made such a seismic, and enduring, impact on my life that I am setting aside a whole first part simply to extrapolate on how formidable it was, as well as to put it in context with the 1970s, at least how I experienced that time. Part Two will look at the actual show, featuring the great Rough Trade as opening act, on that gorgeous Labour Day weekend in 1983, ending one of the most memorable summers of my young life with an unforgettable climax.
© 2010/12 VariousArtists