Pilgrims | by Andrea Avery
Work | by Aaron Belz
Music Man | by Daniel Durchholz
St. Pete's | by Franklin Jennings
Left Bank | by Brandyn Jones
The Training Ground | Tony Renner
Shoe Jail | by Stefene Russell
Work is a Four Letter Word | by Brett Underwood
Shoe Factory | by Andrea Avery
All Eyes: The Mansion Hotel | by Thomas Crone
Why We Never Leave South City | by Julie Dill
The Man Who Ran Corn for Mister Otha Turner | by Chris King
How I Became a Zackaroo | by Brian H. Marston
On Being Mr. Bibbs | by Michaela McGinn
Six Things About Barges You May Not Know | by Butler Miller
Businesses and Buildings | by Dana Smith
When The Honest World Has Passed Away | by Stefene Russell
My Road | by Tom Weber
The Training Ground | by Tony Renner
A retrospective collection of the melodic and melancholy music of British pop group Everything But The Girl would be the perfect soundtrack to the time I spent working in a record store in the early '90s. The odd thing is, though, I don't actually remember anyone ever playing Everything But The Girl in the store. Their music—smooth and manicured, but not slick or trite—would have suited the staff's snobbery as well as setting the same suave and upscale scene as the store's neighborhood. The store, West End Wax, located in the fashionable Central West End of St. Louis, was one of a dying breed of independent record shops, stocking not only the hits of the day but also catering to eclectic tastes of aficionados. When I started working at the store, the Central West End was enjoying one of its upswings, almost constantly bustling with shoppers visiting the boutiques and art galleries, stopping in their spending to linger over lunch or dinner at one of the many cafés and bistros lining Euclid Avenue.
The early '90s were a boom time for the economy in general and the record industry in particular. What had once been called punk or new wave was now called grunge or alternative and had crossed over to the mainstream, filling record stores with new customers looking for music from the new bands. The compact disc had also replaced cassette tapes and vinyl records as the dominant format, so stores were filled with old customers buying their favorite music all over again. A boom time for music, maybe, but bust time for me.
Married in 1982 at 21; divorced in 1992 at 31. Me and my
19-year-old bride, Cat, had dated for all of five months before
standing before a judge at the Clayton courthouse, exchanging vows.
After eight years of marriage we bought a house, and I started to
settle in for a future life of, as I remember saying, “reading
mysteries and listening to jazz music.” Cat, however, had started
screaming in an industrial rock band and sowing some wild oats. The
marriage had, as they say, hit the rocks. Shortly after our tenth
wedding anniversary, we decided that it would be for the best if I
found a place of my own.
I found a basement apartment. Exactly the wrong place to after a major upheaval in your life, especially if you’re feeling sorry for yourself: You have not only the weight of the world is bearing down on you, but an entire building, too. (Fortunately, an apartment on the third floor of the same building opened up after only a couple of months. Much better).
I was still working at the printing company where I'd been working for nearly nine years, but there was always less and less work to do. Most days were spent in a vain effort to look busy. For years, I had been able to spend huge amounts of time on the phone doing personal business. The owner's youngest son started working at the family business and made it clear that he didn't want me on the phone all day. With no work and no phone, there wasn't much left to do but talk to one of the last remaining non-family employees about how there was nothing to do.
Completely dissatisfied with my job and with my life turned upside down, a chance remark that West End Wax had me scrambling to put in an application, though I'd never worked a day of retail in my life. I’d known the owner and the manager casually for years. In fact, the night that Cat and I had first met, we had stopped to talk him as finishing touches were put on the store just before they opened for business. After brief job interviews with Pat, the owner, and Debby, the manager, I had a new job. I also went from $10-something an hour to $5-something an hour. A small price to pay to be free of my old life.
Though lacking in retail experience, I had been obsessed with pop music since I was 14, and had amassed quite a bit of music business experience. I had always listened to music on the radio, but it was Rolling Stone that introduced me to a completely new way of listening to—and thinking about—music. By the time I graduated from high school in 1978, I had read both the Rolling Stone Illustrated Encyclopedia and the Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock so many times that I practically had them memorized. I wrote my first record reviews for my high school newspaper and told the yearbook editor my goal was to be the rock critic for The New York Times. On moving to St. Louis in 1980 after a couple years at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, I started working on an amateur music magazine called Jet Lag, writing reviews, doing layout and design, and selling advertising to record labels. KDHX, a volunteer based community radio station, went on the air a couple of years after Jet Lag went out of business. Cat and I volunteered to help with the record library, and soon after started doing a radio show together. I also pretty much appointed myself music director, keeping in touch with all of the record companies. (The personal business that kept me on the phone so much when I was at the printing company was Jet Lag and radio station business.) Even though the day before I started at West End Wax I sat myself down at the dining room table, a pile of coins in front of me, and made myself practice making change, I knew that a record store was the place for me.
West End Wax had a great location just south of the corner of Euclid and McPherson Avenues, an independent book shop, Left Bank Books, to the west and a very expensive antique shop, Rothchild's, to the east. Directly across the street from West End Wax were a restaurant, Duff's, and a delicatessen, Kopperman's. Heffalumps, specializing in gay and risqué cards and gifts, was adjacent. Employees from most of our neighboring businesses were frequent customers, coming to our shop as an oasis of music in a desert of commerce. Debby often said that anyone walking into the store should be overwhelmed by visual stimulation. To that end, posters covered every available surface and were hung from the ceiling. Compact discs were on display throughout the store. Hanging down like Christmas ornaments were mobiles with their promotional messages dangling and twisting in the breeze. We even had a bass guitar suspended in mid-air over the rock section. Stuffed into one corner of the store were two racks of t-shirts emblazoned with rock band logos. Right beside rested Pat's motor scooter. Why? Why not!
The Central West End was home to an assortment of painters, writers, students, musicians and other bohemian types as well as to the very wealthy residents of the West End. The CWE was also a tourist destination with folks making a stop to check out the wildlife on Euclid after they'd visited the flora and fauna in Forest Park. I always felt that part of our jobs at West End Wax was to be characters, to be a cast member in an on-going performance. An advertisement for West End Wax's 10th anniversary sale presented the staff as cartoon characters. Drawn by the store's resident artist, Darren, we were cast as characters in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. All we needed was Scooby Doo. Buddy, the Stoned Student, tall, athletic, and popular with the strippers from the East Side. John, the Rock Star, tatooed, dreadlocked, and handsome, the favorite of teenage girls. Luna, the Dyke, short, blonde and boyish. Andrew, the Freak, curly hair, baby-faced, pupils dilated to pin-pricks from the drug du jour. Debby, the Party Girl, short skirt, tight top, and a wink in her eye. Darren, the Boy-Next-Door, sensible haircut and clothes, with a chisled jaw. Pat, the Boss, short, stout, and ready for action. Tony, the Grunge Kid, scruffy facial hair, two earrings in each ear, wearing his baseball cap backwards. The staff changed over time, some roles being replaced, some retired, and some newly created.
Debby still dressed like a teenage punk rocker even though she was in her mid-thirties. Short animal print skirt, leggings, too much makeup. Her blue eyes were always set off by gobs of mascara. In her earlier days, Debby had cut quite a swath through the rock ‘n’ roll scene. Especially notable were the early ‘80s when Debby and her pals, the “Sluts from Hell,” slept with every rockabilly band to pass through town. Debby always had a black ribbon in her blonde hair. I figured it was in homage to the wise-cracking Rosemarie from the "Dick Van Dyke Show." Two pictures of Debby: standing in the doorway taking huge drags on her cigarette and blowing out clouds of smoke, or sitting, exhausted, in the comfy chair at the front of the store after a hectic Saturday afternoon.
Common knowledge had it that Pat and Debby were co-owners of the store. They weren't. Debby, as manager, kept the store running day to day but Pat owned the store. Pat listened to the opinions of Debby and the staff but all the major decisions were Pat's. It was very encouraging to know that Pat would back up her employees on matters of store policy. Every once in a while a customer would be disgruntled about, say, our cash refund policy and demand to speak to Pat. We’d all say, “Oh, no, you don't want to talk to Pat. Trust us, we're being nice.” We knew that Pat’s response would have been, “Get the fuck out of my store and never come back.”
Pat was in her early forties and probably would have described herself, especially if it could have shocked anyone, as “an old bull dyke.” Short and stocky, closely cropped blonde hair flecked with gray, Pat swaggered through life as if she owned it. Pat often said the turning point in her life was going to San Francisco and seeing “Dykes with Bikes” in a gay rights parade. For most of my time at West End Wax, Pat was an absentee owner dropping by only occasionally.
Debby and Pat worked as a team, Pat setting policy which could generally be boiled down to, “let’s make money,” and Debby carrying it out. When I started, Debby did all the ordering herself. Even though the store had a computerized inventory system most of the ordering was done by hand. As soon as Debby figured out that I would take on responsibility rather than come up with a dozen reasons why I couldn't, she began giving me more and more companies to order from. She would apologize for giving me more to do and I would thank her for letting me do more.
Ordering stuff was fun, and it was even more fun when it sold. My proudest ordering moment was when someone bought a video tape from an extremely obscure British group even before the tape had made it to the sales floor. A customer, not not even the customer I had figured would buy it, saw the video on the counter and almost couldn't wait until I slapped a price tag on it. He left the store thrilled to have found a place that stocked something he had never expected to find. I was thrilled that I didn't have to explain to Debby and Pat why we were carrying a video from a group that only about 4 people in the entire city had heard. While I had a free hand in ordering, I would occasionally have to justify stocking certain titles. “Oh,” I'd say when asked about some obscure band, “somebody'll buy it. They're getting a lot of British press.”
I had actually forgotten how much I enjoyed stocking the store. I haven't thought of the “esoteric” section in years. That was what we called the “goth” section. It wasn't just the same old Christian Death and Cabaret Voltaire CDs, though we stocked and sold plenty of those to pasty-faced teenagers dressed in black, but also recordings of the Dada artist Marcel Duchamp and recordings from the original surrealist Cabaret Voltaire from the 1930s. After a while I'd learned which customers would make a beeline for the esoteric section and when I'd see them I'd be sure to tell them about the great new CDs that we'd just gotten in. None of which, of course, I'd actually heard.
I was also in charge of buying 7” singles at the heyday of the independent label 45-rpm single. It wasn't very profitable, but having the latest singles made us so much cooler. Again, when I saw certain customers coming in, I’d alert them to what we’d just got in. I found an old display case, probably something that the greeting card store next to us had thrown away, took it home and painted it bright red; that was our 7” section.
West End Wax is hard to describe because it was continuously changing. Every poster on display was for sale and they were constantly being sold, so the store never looked the same for two weeks in a row. We’d expanded into the space next door so we had two display windows, with the cash registers were parallel to the larger. A CD display actually blocked the window, with the CDs facing the store. The window displays were affixed to the back of the shelves, which now filled the window except for a person-sized gap through which you could gaze wistfully at the folks having lunch at the outdoor tables of the restaurants across the street. Debby hated seeing anyone on the phone, back turned to the store, staring out of the window ignoring customers and potential shoplifters. The cash registers were on a raised platform that meant that the cashier was always on a higher level than the customer, a neat psychological trick. Debby was constantly yelling at employees to get out in the store and away from front counter.
A lot of day-to-day activities have completely faded from my memory. Did we scan CDs at check out? Did we have a scanning wand or a gun? I really don't remember. I do remember having to write down the titles of CDs that weren't in the computer but I don't remember how titles got into the computer. However they got into the computer, our inventory control system tracked them as they sold. Monday mornings were spent checking inventory. Armed with printouts of everything that had sold the previous week, the staff would comb the store checking to see what of that title we still had in stock. Doing inventory this way kept us from ordering too much or too little stock. West End Wax was arranged by genres, with rock on the right and jazz, classical, and country on the left. The inventory sheets were alphabetical, but not arranged by genre, so doing inventory meant that you ended up checking an “A” in rock and then walking all the way across the store to check a “W” in jazz. You could study the printout and figure out which titles were of which genre and map out a route; but that only saved footsteps, not time, and inventory had to be done before the store opened at 10 a.m. The closer to 10:00, the more you'd hear Debby yelling, “Aren't you done yet?” She also seemed to know the stock by heart. You'd turn in your inventory sheet marked that we had, say, 2 copies of Best of Blondie in stock. Debby would look at the sheet and say, “We only sold two copies. I know I ordered 5. Go check a display.” Sure enough, the remaining Best of Blondie would be sitting on a display somewhere.
The nightmare of inventory, though, was that more often than not I’d spent Sunday evening drinking from when the store closed at 6 p.m. until 2 or 3 a.m. Monday morning. With inventory starting at 9 a.m., that didn't make for a good night's rest. You would think that at some point I would have figured out “early to bed, early to rise” was the best policy … but I never did. (One Sunday evening my roommate and I didn't drink anything, but still managed to stay up until 6 a.m. watching movies.)
As bad as it was to come in hung-over on Monday, it was even worse on Wednesday, when re-stocks of what we had sold the previous week came in to the store. The busier we were on the weekend, the busier we would be the following week. Checking in product was a tedious and frustrating process in the first place, made even worse because customers could, and invariably would, interrupt. Especially nerve-wracking was watching a co-worker standing behind the counter, reading CD liner notes, while I was bent over a packing list as the customer asked me a question. I was actually doing something, which apparently meant I was the guy who knew stuff.
West End Wax ordered from five or six different record companies and each one had a different packing slip. Checking product in meant that I would open the boxes, count the CDs, and make sure that we had gotten what we had ordered. That sounds reasonable, except that the orders were almost always correct (with the rare discrepancy usually in our favor). The worst packing slips were the ones that only had product numbers; it would take me minutes instead of seconds to find each piece on the list. Debby had a wonderful knack of coming out of her office to have a smoke just when I was having the greatest difficulty with something. She’d come up to me, say “Aren't you done yet?” and thump me on the head, adding “hurry up, Renner, we've got to sell that crap.” It often seemed that checking in was the price I had to pay for having a job that really only amounted to standing around talking to people.
Talking to fellow employees didn't always mean just standing around doing nothing but talking. Usually we were also standing behind the front counter taping security tags to CDs. The tags were taped to CDs with clear shipping tape, and it was a tedious process and there were sometimes hundreds of CDs to be tagged. The amount of time we spent doing this certainly far outweighed the amount of shoplifting it stopped. Well, no, I'm sure that potential shoplifters saw us affixing the security tags and knew better than to try. A major shoplifting incident occurred on my day off. A couple kids came in and grabbed up as much of the rap section as they could and took off running. The store was also hit by some “friends” of Debby’s. A group of two or three, one of them being very tall and thin with lesions all over his hands and face, came in and asked for Debby, and we all figured if they were friends of Debby that we didn’t have to worry about ‘em. Wrong. While they were in the store they stole several very expensive boxed sets by taking a razor blade and cutting off the security tags. Word quickly got around about these thieves. They had been hitting every record store in town, stealing CDs to buy drugs. The story was that they were dying of AIDS and just didn't care anymore. One was an infamous punk rocker who apparently stayed out of West End Wax himself that day, out of respect for Debby.
Cat and I remained in cordial contact with each other, even right after the breakup, because we had been doing a radio show together on KDHX. If she needed to take a week off, she would ask me to do her week, and vice versa. We had worked long and hard to get a Saturday night show at the radio station. We had started by doing an awful three-hour shift that ended at 6 a.m. Saturday morning. Cat and I were always either exhausted from staying up, or discombobulated from waking up after a too-short nap. After a year of the graveyard shift, we were able to move to what sounded like a great Saturday evening shift, 9 p.m. to midnight. Giving up Saturday evenings wasn't too bad; if we hadn't been doing the show we'd probably have been at home watching television. We quickly realized, though, that most of our potential audience was not at home watching television, but out at a concert or on a date. After we separated, of course, we wanted to have Saturday off so we could go on dates. I gave up my time first and another DJ at the station began alternating with Cat, who soon gave up her time, too. Doing the radio show together meant constant compromise and friction over which songs to play. Doing the show separately gave us both, I think, more of a sense of accomplishment.
I settled into my new role as single person a lot easier than Cat settled into hers. On a visit to Cat’s house to pick up some book or record I’d left behind, I noticed on the stairs a number of self-help books about dealing with divorce. In our ten years together, I'd never known Cat to read a self-help book about anything. About a year after we had divorced, Cat started coming by West End Wax on weeknights when I was working. If nothing else, record stores are great places to just hang out. Record store clerks are always happy to have someone else to talk to, so much the better if they’re not a customer who, sooner or later, will actually make you do something—like your job. The store was my turf, and I felt very confident in the store. I was actually glad for Cat to see me in my new life. I'm sure that Cat, too, was glad to see me happy and secure in new surroundings. Once the rest of the staff realized that I didn't mind Cat hanging out at the store, they were happy to have her around, too. Cat was sort of an auxiliary employee who would greet customers, look up used CDs, and answer some questions. Though I don't think we ever got her to affix security tags to CDs, and I don't think I ever let her ring out customers, especially since Debby had warned me not to let Pat find Cat behind a cash register.
Cat was able to get a little of what I loved about West End Wax
without having to be there 40 hours a week. Looking back, I can see
now that instead of leaving the printing company entirely I should
have, and easily could have, taken a part-time job at West End Wax.
Working at West End Wax made me happy; it made me feel like part of
a family. Getting out on my own and doing something new also gave me
the strength to embrace Cat not as my my ex-wife, but as a friend.
We were able to commiserate with each other when she got dumped by
her boyfriend and my girlfriend had moved to New York. Really,
though, we were closing together a chapter in both of our lives.
Sadly, Pat was a nut. When she had Debby around to actually run the place, the store functioned well but Debby, for reasons that remain unclear to me, left the store. Pat brought in her girlfriend, who knew nothing of about music or the record business, to take over managing the store. Working at the store became more and more just a job. General dissatisfaction with Pat's business decisions was one thing, but chasing a shoplifter down Euclid and rounding McPherson with Pat in hot pursuit firing her pistol - - in the air according to Pat; right over my head according to witnesses - - that made it very easy to take the next job that came my way.
“What do you think of Vintage Vinyl?” asked Cat not too long after the incident. Cat was now living with the manager of Vintage Vinyl.
“It’s dirty, too big, and the employees are rude.”
“No, no, what about working there?”
“Oh, that’s different. Tom and Lew [the owners] don’t have guns, do they?”
They didn't, that I ever saw, and soon I was one of the rude employees in dirty, too big Vintage Vinyl.