In a world that forever keeps moving forward, we sometimes like to stop and look back. Technology can make our lives easier, but our attitudes lazier. And once upon a time, when the holidays rolled around, it was time for family, friends, figgie pudding, and—gasp!—even the birthday of Jesus.
These days though, if there’s one thing we most look forward to around holiday time, it’s not having to go to work. You can never be guaranteed that your holiday will be good or bad, but you can always be assured that you’ll get a day off from the office. Not everyone gets to think that way though—for some, the holidays mean it’s time to go to work. “Hustle and bustle” is the norm now, and its never more prevalent than during the holidays, and somebody’s got to be there to service our retail needs.
If you think this is going to be another cynical “holidays suck, and damn us all for shopping too much!” statement—well, it’s not. Say what you will about commerce at Christmas, and call me a glutton for punishment if you wish, but working retail at the holidays can actually be a lot of fun when approached with the right attitude and if you’re working in the right place.
Helping people find that last perfect gift, and the general mania of the season can be blissfully infectious. Of course, these were my wide-eyed feelings years ago, as I’ve been retired from the seasonal retail business for nearly a decade. Who knows if I’d still feel this way today, especially since the idea of any sort of Christmas shopping (another holiday activity I once found enjoyable) sounds like absolute holiday hell.
I worked quite a lot of part-time jobs through the years that were mostly in retail and never ever in the serving industry—the idea of carrying large trays of food always made me nervous. I always knew how to find work fast if I needed to though—costume shops required helping hands at Halloween, and then at Christmas, stores practically gave away jobs. I went big with the “seasonal employment” gig in 2002, and found myself working at Toys R Us in Peoria—you might think that sounds awful, but it was actually a lot of fun and everyone was really nice.
Nostalgia, always on a 20-year cycle it seems, also played in my favor that Christmas, as popular selling items of the season included reboots of the “Care Bears”, “Masters of the Universe” and 20th anniversary “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” toys, which is basically everything I wanted for Christmas…in 1982.
There were also the ubiquitous Star Wars toys and we even had “Bogglins” on the shelves. I was in nerd ecstasy, with one exception: the “music” they pumped into the store was pretty painful to endure for hours on end. I went my post-merry way once January 2003 arrived and rather than return to the land of “more games, more toys, oh boy!” to work for the giraffe again the next year, I thought I’d see what the mall had to offer.
I knew that to endure the long Christmas working hours, I would need to find another place that set the right mood, and Northwoods mall had never failed me in this department. Maybe it was just the “fresh roasted nut” smell (now there’s a phrase I never thought I’d type), but I always thought the place had a special “warmth” at Christmas that it lacked the rest of the year but managed to envelop us all in when Santa arrived and Hickory Farms unpacked its kiosk once again.
It was also a great place to inevitably run into old friends, back home for the holidays and always in a good mood to see you. I was an absolute sucker for the mall at Christmastime, and before I knew it I had landed a job at Sam Goody, the mall’s last remaining record store.
By the time I got there, Sam Goody was on the top level right by Sears in a space that formerly housed two businesses, including a Musicland store. Prior to this era, Sam Goody had been located directly below this space on the lower level by Hardee’s and Orange Julius.
It never made sense to me why two record stores owned by the same company would be located literally right on top of each other in the same mall. By the mid-90’s, they figured this out and the two brands were consolidated into one larger store upstairs which took the Goody name and never looked back. Musicland is where I bought my original Who’s “Tommy” CD that I still play to this day.
My job orientation was held the Sunday night before Thanksgiving. I was issued my “uniform”—a black t-shirt with the word “STAFF” emblazoned on the back, which I always found funny for some reason, and my first shift was scheduled the next Saturday because I told them I “couldn’t” work on Black Friday.
Some of the folks in that orientation never showed up beyond that night to actually work in the store (weird). At first, most of my job entailed finding CDs for customers that they couldn’t—if we had it, you’d lead them to it (all you really had to know was the alphabet) but if we didn’t, you were supposed to offer to special order it for them.
As I recall, the most popular and requested albums flying off the shelves that first Christmas season included OutKast’s Speakerboxx/The Love Below, Jay-Z’s Black Album, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ from 50 Cent, and Yellowcard’s Ocean Avenue. This was also a time in which there were only around a dozen volumes in the exhaustive “NOW THAT’S WHAT I CALL MUSIC!” series. They were big sellers too.
I had never been much of a Sam Goody shopper prior to working there (I was more of a Suncoast guy), but the employee discount proved to be awesome. So were the other perks that came with the job—free posters, store displays and more. For a period of time, my bedroom was decorated with a 3-foot cardboard harmonica that had been a promotional item for the release of Aerosmith’s “Honkin on Bobo” album.
Loss prevention mandated that nobody ever close the place alone, and anytime you left the store (which for me, as one of few non-smokers on staff, was far less than others), you’d be patted down and your pantlegs shaken to avoid “shrink” (retail jargon and buzzwords remain to this day one of the most annoying things I’ve ever encountered). A few of the girls would also sometimes leave early or arrive late because they liked fooling around together. No clue if the married one’s husband knew about that.
I learned quickly that the mall was a small, tight-knit community full of superficial friendships, frivolous drama, and juicy gossip, not unlike Melrose Place. Most people’s personalities matched the stores they worked in—the employees of Hot Topic practically had it tattooed on their foreheads, and the girls of “Wet Slut”(Seal) dressed like it.
Many of the mall employees were even “lifers”—people in their 30s and 40s that began working in the mall as teens and never left, doomed to spend their lives there. In those cases, most started out working in one store and bounced around to different ones over the years, either by choice or otherwise. One guy at Sam Goody actually held down three jobs in the mall all at once and he’d just bounce from his day shift at one job to his night shift at another quite frequently.
While working those long holiday hours I developed a bad habit of walking to Campustown (a store in the mall back then, no relation to the Campustown on Main Street we know of today) and consuming too many gargantuan 74-cent sodas during my breaks. Once the dust settled from that season, I made a New Years resolution for 2004 to give up caffeinated soda (I knew cutting out soda completely was unrealistic). I actually managed to keep this resolution for almost 8 years, until I started dating my now-wife Jenny who drinks fountain soda like it’s going out of style
I suppose I proved to be one of the more reliable seasonal employees of 2003 and was asked to stay on after the holidays. And I did, for two more years all the way up until the store closed in early 2006. This time encompassed three Christmas seasons, and I somehow managed to avoid ever working on Black Friday.
Like I mentioned earlier, I worked a lot of part time jobs in those days to cover my meager expenses—Sam Goody was one of only four or five gigs I had going at any one time back then, so my hours there were somewhat limited throughout the normal part of the year—usually on Sundays (the most chill day to work) and maybe one other night per week.
In my time there, managers came and went, employees came and went, promotions came and went. Some products even came and quickly went from our shelves, though not because they were popular. Some of the industry’s failed experiments at a time when our world was transitioning into a digital one included Flexplay discs (also known as “eZ-ds”), which were DVDs that only worked for 48 hours once you broke the seal on their packaging and exposed them to air. Or Hit Clips, an early version of mp3s that only played parts of popular songs. We could barely give this stuff away.
Remember the high definition optical disc format war? I had a front row seat from a retail standpoint to see Blu-Rays crowned champ, knocking out HD-DVDs which we sold for practically pennies because they were deemed obsolete almost as soon as they hit our shelves.
We were encouraged/required to upsell customers into joining Replay, the Frequent Buyer Rewards program. I hated upselling. Everyone has a rewards program now, and I’m pretty sick of all those little tags cluttering up my keyring because they somehow save me pennies.
Sam Goody also drew in more than their share of the mall eccentrics—remember Don, that legendary “dancing guy” that used to hang out at War Drive and University? He was a regular in the store. Usually we would see him hanging out at “Kitchens” next door for the free coffee, then he’d stop in to check on Jenn, one of our keyholders and for whom he had a huge crush. Jenn however, was into girls. Poor Don. I also got really good at setting up our pre-paid cell phones for the same “non-English speaking family” time and time again, who always seemed to show up when I was working.
Then on January 12, 2006, Musicland Holding Corp. filed voluntary petitions to restructure under Chapter 11. After months of rumors, it was announced they would close 341 stores, with Northwoods Mall’s Sam Goody and Suncoast stores among the casualties. And on February 1st, the store began liquidating.
Let me tell you, if I thought working retail at Christmas was fun, it’s nothing compared to a store that’s liquidating, because once that starts everyone who works there (especially the managers) cease giving, for lack of a better term, a shit about anything. We got scheduled as often as we wanted, and had little we needed to do while we were there. Who cares about upselling, organization or cleanliness when you won’t even be there in a month? Just stand there and be paid, basically. We sold posters and other unmarked store memorabilia for cash, which went into a collection that would pay for a beer and pizza party once we were done.
And here’s a dirty secret about the liquidation process: they start by wiping out all pre-liquidation sale prices, marking everything back up to its original retail price, then they apply their “everything must go” prices, which typically begin at a mere 10% off-so in most cases, you were saving more before the store was going out of business. And I will neither confirm nor deny that everyone kept a stash of products in back until prices dropped to our liking.
We wrapped things up in early April, and our final staff get together at Old Chicago (downtown location, also now a thing of the past) was the last I ever saw of anyone until 2011, when I ran into one of the girls from the store who informed me that Jenn had died in a car accident back in 2007. It’s always strange to learn of someone’s passing long after the fact-on several occasions I’ve wondered what became of certain former teachers, co-workers, etc. only to learn they had been dead for years. Maybe I need to keep better tabs on people, and not just wait to hopefully run into them in the mall at Christmastime.
These days when you walk by the space that was formerly Sam Goody, you see a giant pink nightmare that I think sells women’s clothes called simply DEB. I’ve never been in there.
It’s weird to think of record stores—especially corporate record stores—as a dying breed, even though I saw one take its last breath firsthand. I get how chains unfortunately kill the little guy, but it’s odd that some chains wither away while others thrive.
How does Blockbuster Video die out but Family Video continues adding locations? How does Northwoods lose both Sam Goody and Suncoast, only to now serve as home to an FYE store on the lower level? And how long will that last? I’m sure there are answers to those questions, but I don’t have them. All I have are memories of my time as a clerk in a slowly dying mall record store.
Oh! And the t-shirt. I still have that.
Happy hunting and best of shopping this year, folks. May you find what you need and get what you want, but be sure you take time to stop and smell the nuts…
“Closing these stores was a difficult, but necessary decision to protect the future of this company. The store closing list is based on a number of factors, including store profits and the terms of the leases at each location.”