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The Greatest Store on Earth

July 10, 2007

The Greatest Store on Earth

“Best years of my life”

1976-2007. 1989-2007. 1961-1973. 1974-2007. Those are some of the time frames of Sam’s employees. The last set is four years shy of my age. This will seem bizarre to the younger folk. But this, man, this is retail.

My dates? Coles Bookstore, 1989-1996, Store #1 (what is now the Shopper’s Drug Mart at Yonge and Charles). Technically, it was Store #3; the original Store #1 stood above what is now the subway entrance at Yonge-Dundas Square.

Seven years.

I mopped every body fluid it’s possible for a human being to eject off the floor. I disposed of a dead rat. Someone set fire to the roof. I witnessed an armed robbery. There was a riot right outside our door. I broke up 3 fist fights, caught at least a dozen shoplifters, and carried bums out the door. In my first week, I caught a man engaged in an act of self-gratification. In the Action-Adventure section.

I had someone ask me if Dante had written anything recently. Another didn’t know the title, author, or publisher of the book, but knew that ‘it was round’. Someone offered his ham sandwich as payment. I don’t know how many times I fished porno mags out of the children’s section. In the summer, I ate lunch on top of the dumpster in the alley.

I discovered Borges here. And Calvino, Chatwin, Brautigan, Kundera. Leonard Cohen. Michael Ondaatje. Delacorta. Bronwen Wallace. Elizabeth Smart. Lord Dunsany. Roger Zelazny. Thomas Merton. Mervyn Peake. Annie Dillard. Joan Didion. Jim Morrison.

Our special guests included Shannon Tweed, Dalbello, the cast of Johnny Mnemonic (all except for Keanu), Ice-T, George Takei, Ronnie Hawkins and John Ralston Saul.

Our employees? God, what a crew. I’ve always thought the best word to describe the average retail worker is ‘roustabout’. They are always starving, hustling to get by on minimum wage. Living with roommates, in basements, with family. Get your beer on cheapy nights, your clothes at Black Market. Make your own meals. Make sure the boss doesn’t catch you loafing. Drifters, students, teens, ex-pats, parents, drinkers, dreamers, lovers and losers.

Angie. Edward. Wendy. Tristan. Dan. Heather. Elbio. Crystal. Rob. And the other Rob. Brenda. Susan. Ching. Mr. Kostel. Roustabouts, all. My greetings and salutations. It was an honor to serve with you.

“Thank you Toronto after 70 years”

Let’s look at those dates again. The few I saw in the photos I took added up to more than 70 years. What was the final tally?

175 years. One hundred and seventy-five years of experience, product knowledge, and expertise were lost when the doors were locked for the last time.

Almost two centuries. 175 years times 52 weeks times 40 hours equals 364,000 hours of unpacking boxes, broken price guns, window displays that fall apart, the latest fads, counting down floats, and the weirdest animal you will ever come face to face with: a customer.

A year of retail is worth an MBA. Don’t believe me? Quit what you’re doing and go work for a small store. If you’re not convinced, you can still go get your MBA. If you survive.

I keep being told how great the internet is. How the age of the physical product is coming to an end, replaced by digital equivalents. How everything will get delivered to your living room through a copper cable. Ubiquitous computing will save us all. Mob intelligence will guide our buying decisions. Customers know more than sellers. Blogs will deliver you from the evil of purchasing the wrong colour shoe.

I sold 25 copies of Thomas Merton’s Raids on the Unspeakable. In a Coles. Merton is obscure at best, and this is one of his least-known works. Twenty-five copies? With no advertising? No window display? No marketing whatsoever? That’s incredible. Unbelievable.

I’m not blowing my own horn here. That’s just one meagre victory. I’m trying to prove something. I’m trying to point out what gets lost every time a local store closes. Every time you replace people with a central inventory system. No seller at the head office would have risked Merton.

Would the long tail have predicted success here? Or the dozens of other obscure titles that my co-workers risked shelf-space on? The long tail existed long before Amazon. But it was guided by human hands and tailored to the needs of a neighborhood.

Where did I find the original recording of Terry Riley’s In C? Not HMV. And not online.

This retail experience of the late twentieth century can be traced back to the industrial revolution, where shopkeepers could start selling products they didn’t actually make in the shops themselves. But you can trace retail back further to when shopkeepers actually made their own goods to sell. When you have to sell what you make, or have risked buying, you get very good at knowing what sells. You also get very good at serving the community where your shop is.

And we don’t often think of retailers as integral parts of the community. That they serve as well as art galleries, parks, theatres, and schools as cultural centers and neighborhood markers.

Well.

Bakka, Driftwood, Pages, The Black Market, The Dragon lady, The Japanese Paper Place and The Silver Snail on Queen West. Eliot’s on Yonge. Sonic Boom, Seekers and Book City on Bloor. Suspect and The Beguiling behind Honest Ed’s. Honest Ed’s. The Purple Village, Open City and Unknown Worlds on the Danforth. I’m sure you can name a dozen more.

I find it hard to believe that an inventory system, or blogs, or folksonomy tagging can replace the hard-won street savvy and product knowledge of the retailer. That it can replace the community experience that a local store can produce. That is true expertise and experience.

And it is expertise. But the last century, by mechanizing expertise, made it look like the average store clerk had no expertise.

And so were here, now. One hundred and seventy-five years of expertise was locked out of the best record shop in Toronto, and scattered to the wind’s twelve quarters. And all that’s left? A neon sign. And a bunch of ‘experts’ stuck in a boardroom trying to figure out where the next Harry Potter or Britney Spears is going to come from.

Keep your ‘experts’ and your inventory management systems.

My fucking collar’s still blue.

And what do Sam’s alumni have to say?

“Not only a loss to the city but a loss of family”

“For the greatest place in the universe! Thanks for everything!”

“Five years was way too short”

“What a far too short strange trip it’s been”

“I love music, I love Sam’s, my life, my family”

“Best Job Ever”

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