When we first moved to Chicago, in mid-August, I decided that I would avoid, at all costs, paying my rent via a job that entailed substantial alphabetizing. I'd had enough, it was time for bigger and better things. No record store job, no bookstore job, no way, no how. About a week later I found myself behind the counter at Reckless Records on Broadway, having realized that resistance was futile, consoling myself with the fact that at least I wouldn't be wearing a name tag, having to "dress up" for work, or handling other people's food.
I pretty much knew what I was getting into I've worked at five record stores in four cities but somehow, at Reckless, everything seems magnified. The regulars are crazier, the hipsters are hipper, the wanna-be white boy gangstas from the suburbs are more ridiculous, the cranks are crankier, and fans of everything from Insurgent Country to Experimental Psychedelia to Bubblegum Pop are even more desperate and devoted to their genre.
At Reckless I sell more records to people my parents' age than I ever have before. I sell more records to transsexuals. I sell records to people visiting from farther away. I definitely sell more Used Heavy Metal Cassettes than I ever have before in my life, mostly to Johnny, who comes in every day to check out our used-heavy-metal-cassette new arrivals. (Johnny wears a royal blue hat with the Blistex logo on it yes, the lip-soothing gunk and often brings along his mother, who is about four feet tall and wears neither front teeth nor dentures. He knows everyone's name and seems nice enough during transactions, but rumor has it he also wears a bunch of Nazi-inspired tattoos on his back.)
These days, though, it seems like all I do is sell "Kid A."
I happened to be scheduled to work on October 3, the day Radiohead's new record, "Kid A," officially became available to the public. My shift started about an hour after the store opened; by the time I arrived we had already sold almost two dozen copies of "Kid A." Five minutes after I slipped behind the counter, my first RadioheadHead approached.
"Do you have the new Radiohead?" she asked, timidly.
She didn't strike me as someone who would be into Radiohead, if I may claim some experience intuiting these sorts of things. She looked like she was on her way down to the Loop for a power lunch with a pack of CEOs, actually. I thought maybe she was purchasing the CD for her son or daughter, but it became evident as soon as she voiced her request that it was for her.
"Do you have the new Radiohead?"
Of course we had the new Radiohead. I mean, we had hundreds of copies of the thing behind the counter, waiting to be distributed to the masses. I looked at her, prepared to join with her in a sort of shared "Ha ha, isn't that a silly question" moment, but realized that not only was she serious, she was deathly afraid I'd tell her that we actually didn't have it, that we'd sold out, that aliens had swung by and abducted our entire supply of "Kid A." I reached down to the pile of CDs and picked one up and handed it to her. "That'll be $16.30," I said, for the first, of many, many times that day. She paid for the CD and thanked me mightily, then left in haste.
Over the next three days we sold about four hundred copies of "Kid A." It got to the point where I could take one look at certain customers and just say "$16.30." By the time I'd scan the bar code on the CD, twenty dollars was being held forth and a nervous, relieved grin had spread over the face of the customer who was about to be handed their very own copy of "Kid A." And by the way, out of all of those customers, not a single person batted an eye at the exorbitant cost of this little old CD. Not a one. Instead, after receiving their change (we should have had pre-bundled piles of $3.70) and receipt, most fled from the store, clutching their newly acquired treasure in hand ("No, no bag, thank you"). I should have put a tip jar on the counter that first morning I'd probably have funded my next month's coffee habit from its proceeds by now.
At first I was kind of freaked out by the intensity of the hordes of loyal fans who flocked to the store. Some arrived breathless. Some arrived in what looked like their pajamas. Some bought several copies at once. One person bought six. As I rang up each purchase, I found myself thinking about capitalism, about individuality, about addiction, about lemmings...
But then somehow my perspective changed. Every single "Kid A" seeker seemed genuinely thrilled to be buying a copy. "Kid A" customers were collectively more enthusiastic about this single record than most of the people I deal with all day at the record store are about anything (except for maybe my co-workers, who actually get quite enthusiastic about where to take their lunch breaks). And it was kind of fun being the person who got to give people something they so dearly craved. I thought about how affected I've been by certain records in my life, (including Radiohead's last record, "OK Computer"), and about how I much I truly appreciate the power of music to make a difference in someone's life. And then I realized that I was being not only a shameless hypocrite but also a textbook Jaded Record Store Employee something I've been trying desperately to avoid in this job, as I am only too aware of how easy a character it is to slip into.
I'm not exactly sure that "Kid A" is worthy of all of the superlatives I've been hearing thrown around in discussions (people are really getting carried away). But I was kind of tickled at how easy it was to make so many people happy, at least briefly, simply by taking their $16.30 and handing them a particular collection of sounds, noises, and words, all packaged with icy mountain images and angular horizons.
I mean, how couldn't I be?
Your friend behind the counter,