The other day I realized, as a cold claw of pure fear squeezed my frantic heart, that I have been working as a video clerk for ten months.
This is a job that I took on a temporary basis for just a month or two until freelancing picked back up and I got my finances in order.
It has been a test of patience, humility, and character.
It has been a lesson in dealing with all humankind, including their personal bodily fluids.
It has been $6.50 an hour.
If you're wondering whether you'd heard of this before and you were on the Internet in the early 2000s, you probably have. This self-published book is a collection of blog posts from back when blogs were a new thing and went viral before Twitter existed. It used to be available on-line, but I don't believe it is any more. I ran across a mention of it about a year ago and felt like reading it again, and also belatedly tossing the author a tiny bit of money.
I'm happy to report that, unlike a lot of nostalgia trips, this one holds up. Davis's stories are still funny and the meanness fairy has not visited and made everything awful. (The same, alas, cannot be said for Acts of Gord, which is of a similar vintage but hasn't aged well.)
It's been long enough since Davis wrote her journal that I feel like I have to explain the background. Back in the days when the Internet was slow and not many people had access to it, people went to a local store to rent movies on video tapes (which had to be rewound after watching, something that customers were irritatingly bad at doing). Most of those only carried normal movies (Blockbuster was the ubiquitous chain store, now almost all closed), but a few ventured into the far more lucrative, but more challenging, business of renting porn. Some of those were dedicated adult stores; others, like the one that Davis worked at, carried a mix of regular movies and, in a separate part of the store, porn. Prior to the days of ubiquitous fast Internet, getting access to video porn required going into one of those stores and handing lurid video tape covers and money to a human being who would give you your rented videos. That was a video clerk.
There is now a genre of web sites devoted to stories about working in retail and the bizarre, creepy, abusive, or just strange things that customers do (Not Always Right is probably the best known). Davis's journal predated all of that, but is in the same genre. I find most of those sites briefly interesting and then get bored with them, but I had no trouble reading this (short) book cover to cover even though I'd read the entries on the Internet years ago.
One reason for that is that Davis is a good story-teller. She was (and I believe still is) an improv comedian, and it shows. Many of the entries are stories about specific customers, who Davis gives memorable code names (Mr. Gentle, Mr. Cheekbones, Mr. Creaky) and describes quickly and efficiently. She has a good sense of timing and keeps the tone at "people are amazingly strange and yet somehow fascinating" rather than slipping too far into the angry ranting that, while justified, makes a lot of stories of retail work draining to read.
That said, I think a deeper reason why this collection works is that a porn store does odd things to the normal balance of power between a retail employee and their customers. Most retail stories are from stores deeply embedded in the "customer is always right" mentality, where the employee is essentially powerless and has to take everything the customer dishes out with a smile. The stories told by retail employees are a sort of revenge, re-asserting the employee's humanity by making fun of the customer. But renting porn is not like a typical retail transaction.
A video clerk learns things about a customer that perhaps no one else in their life knows, shifting some of the vulnerability back to the customer. The store Davis worked at was one of the most comprehensive in the area, and in a relatively rare business, so the store management knew they were going to get business anyway and were not obsessed with keeping every customer happy. They had regular trouble with customers (the 5% of retail customers who get weird in a porn store often get weird in disgusting and illegal ways) and therefore empowered the store clerks to be more aggressive about getting rid of unwanted business. That meant the power balance between the video clerks and the customers, while still not exactly equal, was more complicated and balanced in ways that make for better (and less monotonously depressing) stories.
There are, of course, stories of very creepy customers here, as well as frank thoughts on porn and people's consumption habits from a self-described first-amendment feminist who tries to take the over-the-top degrading subject matter of most porn with equanimity but sometimes fails. But those are mixed with stories of nicer customers, which gain something that's hard to describe from the odd intimacy of knowing little about them except part of their sex life. There are also some more-typical stories of retail work that benefit from the incongruity between their normality and the strangeness of the product and customers. Davis's account of opening the store by playing Aqua mix tapes is glorious. (Someone else who likes Aqua for much the same reason that I do!)
Content warning for public masturbation, sex-creep customers, and lots of descriptions of the sorts of degrading (and sexist and racist) sex acts portrayed on porn video boxes, of course. But if that doesn't drive you away, these are still-charming and still-fascinating slice-of-life stories about retail work in a highly unusual business that thrived for one brief moment in time and effectively no longer exists. Recommended, particularly if you want the nostalgia factor of re-reading something you vaguely remember from twenty years ago.