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I feel like trying something a little bit different this week. On-topic, but a little bit more … personal, I guess would be the word. Do it some more? Never do it again? That’s up to you folks in the readership.

See, back before I wrote about movies, criticized movies, studied about movies and even helped make movies (and videogames, for that matter), I sold them. Like so many others of my generation, my first professional gig in vague connection with my creative passion(s) was selling them as yet another anonymous drone in the great Retail Hive. Several great Retail Hives, actually. I did extended periods of retail work for about six major retail companies, a full half of which have since gone the way of the 8-Track (obviously, I won’t be using their real names here.)

All told, I did that for about a decade as I haphazardly put together the career I enjoy now, and in doing so I amassed a collection of anecdotes that have, for whatever reason, stuck with me. Some good, some bad, some silly. I thought I might share a couple with you, as you may find them interesting – particularly those of you currently in similar situations (ye gods… The WiiU hits five days before Black Friday… and it’s already selling out? You have my sympathy, friends).

The two I’ve opted to lead off with share, I think, a similar theme relating to a bigger and more important question of the proper place of so-called “nerd culture” in the workplace and world at large. Retail outlets routinely hire such people specifically seeking their unique expertise, but how are they expecting said expertise to be used? And can it have a use or purpose beyond just facilitating sales?

These were two instances where those questions presented themselves to me.

Fanboy, J’accuse!

In the mid-2000s, I was working in the Media Department (read: games/music/movies) of one of the major electronics chains. I’d been brought over from appliances at first to fix up the DVD areas, but it was the first year post-holidays of all three 7th Gen game consoles being out at the same time and my status as one of the only Media folks who knew about gaming and wasn’t a teenager had landed me in charge of that area more often than not.
Overall, I did pretty well numbers-wise at the task, but I’ll never forget the day I felt that I’d come perilously close to being wrongly fired … for being a “console fanboy.” Sort of.

I should stress right away that the word “fired” was never explicitly used, but I found myself pulled into The Private Room by my supervisor and my supervisor’s supervisor and I knew what that scenario typically meant. At this point, I was quaking in my shoes but also utterly perplexed. I had, no lie, no idea what I could’ve done to be called in here, to sit down and to have my bosses looming over me like a pair of khaki-clad Gitmo interrogators.
“Bob,” they began, “you know your job is to sell the customers what they want – not what you’d prefer them to want.”

I can only assume my face was totally blank, I sincerely had no idea what they could be referring to. “Yes…?”

“When we put you in the games department,” (this is, it goes without saying, all paraphrased) “we knew you were a big Wii person…”

I don’t remember what they said next, because the wheels were already turning and I was rapidly getting pissed. Along with being the (ostensible) grown-up in the games department, I was also known to my associates as the one guy working the games department that didn’t reflexively hate The Wii, Nintendo, etc. This led, you will be unsurprised to learn, to frequent friendly gamers’ debates to pass the time; but I also knew that there were folks in the department not particularly fond of me and a scenario was starting to take shape. One such person could have leveled some kind of exaggerated complaint about this (there had been other employees disciplined for “pushing” certain music/games/etc on customers recently, so it was a touchy thing) to get me in trouble.

As my attention snapped back to the present, I interjected that I had never, ever tried to sell to customers based on my “fandom,” and that I never would because it would be a violation of company policy and more importantly because I am not a child. In response, they began to ask me if I remembered a customer who had “come in to buy a PS3, but left with a Wii.”

A few more clarifying details later and I was feeling relieved. I remembered the customer, and the sale, and they had simply misunderstood the context of the event. I would be home free once I explained things.

What had happened was this: A man in his late 30s had come in and asked to buy a PS3. We had them in stock, so I began to take him through the basics (models, controllers, hookups, HDMI or Component, Blu-Ray, etc) but he cut me off midway. He was buying it as a gift for his children (it might actually have been nephews, either way there was more than one of them) and asked which of the games were best for kids under ten (non-violence being a chief concern).

You may recall that the PS3 was not exactly swimming in kid-targeted titles at launch, and he was both surprised and disappointed when I showed him the actual lineup. I offered that the 360 had a bit more to offer in that regard, but “They’d said Playstation” and he had “never heard of an X-Whatever.” This was to be his and his family’s first console. I offered the PS2’s expansive library, but he didn’t want to buy “an old one.” On the edge of losing a sale (and knowing that we did have Wiis at the time) I mentioned that The Wii was “a different thing from Playstation,” but that it had more family-friendly games overall.

“…Wait.” Says the guy. “Is that the thing from TV where you use your hands?” I responded in the affirmative, and that was that. He was amusingly flabbergasted that “the fancy one” was so much less expensive than the others, and left with the system, two or three games, four controllers, four ‘chucks and a package of those sports-equipment attachments (his idea, not mine.) Clearly, someone had observed only portions of this interaction and assumed I’d “steered” him toward The Wii immediately, acting as some kind of volunteer Nintendo Sleeper Agent.

But, as I explained this, while I could see the preparedness to officially discipline me draining from the supervisors’ demeanor … I could also tell they were still annoyed with me. I hedged my bets (no reason to tick them off) and didn’t pry, but it was starting to become clear what this was really about.

“Bob … a guy comes in to buy a six-hundred dollar game, you sold him a three-hundred dollar game.” My supervisor’s supervisor kept coming back to that point, like a mantra.

They ultimately didn’t give me any kind of discipline, just a stern-ish order to “remember your job” or some such non-statement. But as I walked back out to the floor the absurdity (and the cynicism) of it really hit me … They weren’t concerned about console “fanboyism,” or even about me “steering” the sale. They were only concerned that I hadn’t steered it the “right” way. The more expensive way, regardless of what the guy had asked of me. I was in trouble, in other words, for being honest with a customer.

I didn’t stay at that job much longer.

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Boy, Scouts

At the very turn of the century (I’m pretty sure this was before 9/11, at least) I was working for a now-defunct DVD/VHS store in a local mall. Of all my retail jobs, this one was probably my favorite. Loved the product, became good friends with my then-managers and coworkers, killer employee discount, etc.

One day, a young family comes in. Mom and dad (late 20s, classic blue-collar Boston-area types) and a son who looked about 7 or 8. Mom and son made a beeline for the Anime section, while dad hung out and looked at the magazines by my checkout counter. This was one of the early peaks of the Toonami-era mainstream Anime Boom, and I headed over to greet them, geared up for the usual routine of carefully explaining that the DVD version of whatever they were about to buy for the kid probably included an uncut-version that was not as kid-friendly as what he’d seen on TV. As it turned out, that would only be half the discussion …

The series they were there to shop for? Sailor Moon. Mom already knows the “cut vs uncut” deal, and the kid is stoked at how many discs worth we had. Dad, on the other hand, looks (at best) pensive when I get back to the counter.

I know that this either makes me sound like a raging egotist at worst and the protagonist of a cheap Philip Marlowe rip off at best, but I felt like I could read this guy’s whole story. This was a guy who’d heard the words, “it’s a boy!” and immediately bought up a whole store’s worth of kid-sized baseball gloves and football pads, but instead (or, who knows, maybe in addition to) his son’s big fixation is a “girl’s cartoon.” He didn’t strike me as a bad guy, I stress. Not so much upset at the circumstances as made unsure by the sense (justified or not) that this might be the beginning of “uncharted waters” for him as a parent. Fair or not, the world can be a tough place for people (children especially) who even appear to step outside “accepted” gender behaviors even in the trivial realm of entertainment choices.

After being called over to take hold of the first set of purchases-to-be and coming back to the counter, Dad turns to me. “You got a lot of that show here, huh? That’s good.” Then he leans in, gestures for me to do the same, and lowers his voice. You already know what comes next: “Can I ask you somethin’, guy-to-guy?”

This can go either way. “Sure.”

“This thing is popular, huh?”

Sailor Moon? Oh, yeah. Big following. Sell tons of those. New to DVD.”

“Sell a lot of `em … to boys?”

I stress, once more, that this in no way struck me as the voice or the face of a guy who was mad that his son was buying “a girl show” or at whatever else he imagined that might entail (or imply.) This was a guy who was worried that he wasn’t going to “connect” with his son the way he figured a father should. And, having identified me as someone who might know something helpful about this “this thing” his kid was into, he was reaching out.

Honestly, I sympathized with both of them. And I figured the best I could be was honest.

“Well, more girls, but plenty of boys, too. Probably breaks about 60/40, honestly.” I may have embellished the percentages, but the point was totally true. Anime sales tended to cut across traditional gender lines.

“Seriously?”

I had his attention, figured I might as well sprinkle some sugar on it. Honest sugar, of course, but still sugar. Comfort. Reassurance. “Yeah, I mean… yeah, they’re all girls but it’s an action show. Lots of fighting, monsters, lasers and stuff.”

“Yeah, it is a little intense.”

Ah! He watches it with him. Now, it was my turn to lean in and lower my voice. “And, y’know man, honestly… I think a lot of them are just lookin’ at the girls.”

Silence. Gears turning. “Ya think?”

“Oh, yeah. I mean, look at `em.” I flipped over the DVD to the glamour-shots on the back for emphasis. “I mean, if that skirt gets any shorter I’d have to card you for these.”

Again, I’m essentially being completely honest here, it’s no secret that a percentage of Sailor Moon‘s male fanbase was gawking at the Sailor Scouts, and while I wouldn’t put money on that being the case for his son (he’d be a little young for that, frankly) I couldn’t rule it out, either. I mean, I didn’t fully understand my appreciation for She-Ra until years later…

“…Yeah.” Dad looks at me, for whatever reason, like I’d either just hoisted the weight of the universe off his shoulders; or at least handed him the key to a Decoder Ring. At this point, Mom and Son have wandered over, having heard Dad and I in the midst of a “two knuckleheads from Boston moment” trading broadly-suggestive observations about Sailor Moon.

“Ya, I mean… Tall? Blonde?”

“Legs up to here? What’s not to like?”

Mom gives Dad an elbow to the ribs. “What? I can’t be happy he’s watchin’ the girls?” He’s laughing now, and looking at the kid like he’s picturing some nostalgiac father/son moment to be years from now. “Ya like this, huh?” Kid nods. The DVD stack is about 4 high (good sale, too, if you remember buying Anime in the early-2000s.)
I look to the kid, “Who’s your favorite Scout?”

Kid: “Rei!”

“The brunette.” I smirk at Dad. “Somebody likes a challenge.” Laying it on a little thick, maybe, but I was in a rhythm at that point and Mom and Dad both laughed. They paid and went on their way, and (I kid you not) I even saw the guy do the classic tussle-the-hair “Dad move” as they left.

I still think about that kid to this day. I hope it all worked out for him. I look back on my retail experience primarily with ambivalence or embarrassment, but this is one of the few times when I feel like I might, however briefly, have done something good.

Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.

Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.

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