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One Christmas in the mid-1990s, I managed the holiday-music section at a suburban Tower Records. The time went by in a blur — but if I could go back and give my teenage self some advice, I would say: Relax and Merry Christmas!
At 18, I was having a midlife crisis. Working the overnight shift at the supermarket for the extra dollar an hour gave me time to read all the newspapers and magazines we stocked. I was the best-informed person in town.
But I needed a cooler job — and what would be cooler than working at the coolest music store in the world? No, the Cambridge and Boston Towers weren’t hiring . . . but the Tower Records in suburban Burlington was hiring an administrative assistant.
So I took two bus transfers to Burlington. There was the highway strip mall that Tower anchored — and a short, thin, nervous man named Eric pacing outside with a cigarette, waiting.
I had asked a couple of people at the supermarket what music I should mention if my prospective boss asked about “good music,” so I was waiting with my answers about Charlie Parker and Nine Inch Nails.
But Eric was only interested in one thing.
He walked me in past the sales floor to a locked vault in the middle of the store, pointed to a calculator on the counter and asked, “Do you know how to use the adding machine?”
Sure. I had always used the adding machine at the supermarket, because they shut down the cash registers from 1 to 6 a.m. He handed me a stack of receipts. “Can you put these in?” he said. I started and finished the pile.
“Ted will like you,” Eric said, pulling out more random stacks of receipts from multiple drawers. Ted, the Burlington store manager, was supposed to have been sending a monthly sales tally to Tower world headquarters in Sacramento.
I got the job. The music people treated me with a strange deference: the girl who knows nothing about music but knows how to use the adding machine.
I spent little time on the sales floor and most of my time in Ted’s office or the vault — processing health-insurance forms, making the weekly shift schedule for workers, supervising the cash counts.
Until Christmas. It wasn’t even Thanksgiving, but Eric was panicking. The seasonal Christmas manager had quit.
I would do it, I said. Who even cared about Christmas music? How hard could it be? Maybe we’d sell one or two albums a day, and I’d refill them in between counting the Ticketmaster cash till.
From Black Friday to Christmas Eve, I worked around the clock.
We had neglected to order any Mariah Carey — and Mariah Carey was about to be the Christmas hit of the century. We had ordered boxes and boxes of Alvin and the Chipmunks, but nobody wanted those. The Columbia Records salesman rush-ordered me boxes of Mariah, delivering them in his sports car.
In the meanwhile, I had to shout up from the carpet to the customers, as I rooted around for Perry Como and Tony Bennett, “Sorry, we’re out of Mariah, but can I interest you in the Chipmunks?”
I did work overnight shifts — in addition to day shifts — in the week before Christmas. Who knew what a mess our affluent Route-128-corridor tech workers could make of my neatly arranged section, with “Christmas in Vienna II” carefully layered on top of “A Very Special Christmas?”
I couldn’t help but wonder who these customers were — people who could plunk down $15.99 (almost four hours of pay for me!) for a new release — without thinking about it. I had no idea what they did in the office buildings that lined our highway.
I moved on. Ted got me a job in the New Orleans store — where I was demoted to clerk, because I was only part time . . . going to college.
Tower stores are gone now, having fallen victim to, first, big-box stores that offered Mariah for $10.99 instead of $15.99 and, later, to online file sharing — something even the people who understood the adding machine couldn’t conceive of. But every time I hear Mariah belt out “All I Want for Christmas,” or the Chipmunks sing their “All I Want for Christmas,” I think of my Christmas at Tower.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor of City Journal.
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