As I have relayed in this blog o' mine, I spent over a decade in record store retail on St. Mark's Place in the East Village through the eruption of Punk, New Wave, Rap/Hip Hop, Garage, House, Techno... For most of that wildly fertile time, I actually looked forward to going to work. It was the absolute best place to be for a musician trying to land a record deal like me. Record stores were the front line trenches between the music industry and the public. I was a long-time habitue myself.
And St Mark's Sounds, the store I helped run, was a serious trench! Given that New York is one of two or three global hubs for the biz, and the fact that Sounds bought 'used' records, the number of promo copies that wandered in from label people, music journalists, college reps, promo men, and such, gave me the What's Up on everything weeks ahead of almost everyone else. It really was like going to school.
And like school, it had its bad kids. Shoplifters! My God, as annoying, insulting, and occasionally scary, as any given situation could be, we usually had much fun with shoplifters (or 'boosters' as they're universally called in NYC retail). Boosters were notoriously active during holiday-shopping. Now, look at that! That one preceding sentence justifies this WTF subject matter. You see how this works!
There were essentially two kinds of shoplifters, thrill-seekers, more often than not, middle class kids out for a lark, as opposed to the stereotypical hardened 'urban youth'... and pros.
When you caught a pro, you were low-key about it. You'd take the guy aside (always guys) and tell him quietly that everyone on the staff knows his face and the next time he steps in the shop, we're calling 911 on the spot. They leave and don't come back. We had a few other methods we employed on the thrill-seeker shoplifters. A few scenarios...
When it was busy, as the cashier rang up the sale, I'd be at the register, checking that each used LP's jacket contained the right record. Perhaps I'd find a rare $10 re-mix 12" single in a one dollar sleeve, or a brand new Ozzy Osbourne LP inside a beat up $1 'As-Is' Ozzy LP cover, things like that... I'd turn off the music and announce, using my best Pat Sajak smarm...
"Your attention, please! I thought you all might get a kick at seeing what an actual shoplifter looks like. Come on, turn around, let the whole store see your angelic face..." Beet red was the common color they all shared.
Or... I'd say in a real low urgent voice, like I had some cool news... "Okay... Wow! Who you here with? Go get them right now... I need to talk to you and all your friends right away."
Four guys would come over... "Yeah, whassup?"
"Your friend here, who was shoving $5.99 albums in $1.00 sleeves, just got all five of you banned for life from Sounds. We are all really good at remembering faces. You come in here ever again... I promise you truly serious embarrassment... Now, off you go! Scoot!", talking to them like they're five years old. We'd watch 'em out the window, walking down the block, all yelling at the guy who'd gotten caught.
My personal favorite type of rip-off creep was the conniving pompous ass. Guys who acted on the assumption that you were a retail-loser dolt, to be led like a cow. They aren't going to steal, they're gonna use their superior strategery skills to get something for next-to-nothing. A memorable example...
We'd gotten in a magnificent mono copy of "Meet The Beatles," by now, a true rarity. The cover was immaculate. No spindle marks on the label. The inner sleeve crisp. Pristine! Easily a $50 collectable back then. But, this copy had a gouge in "This Boy," as in, one that would tear your needle out of it's cartridge. So, I put in the bin under B, priced at $10.99, with 'As Is' in bold letters on the outside of a heavy plastic sleeve I'd put it in to protect from bin-wear.
This bespectacled tweed jacketed (with suede elbow patches even!) Harry-Chapin-neck-bearded Newt-style ass sauntered over to me while I was on the floor, standing near the registers, with a big outdoor 30 gallon plastic garbage can directly behind me.
"Are you the manager?"
"Look, I wonder if I might have a word with you. I have just found this record in the used section [it had been waiting almost a whole half-hour for him]. Now, I was very interested in purchasing this. But, I've just seen something that I think sort of changes things." His cadence and grammar were oddly British, but, he was an American.
"Oh really, what's that?" said me.
"Well, let me just slide this out [which he did with great care]. Take a look at 'This Boy.' That's a very serious scratch. I'm sure you can't even play that song. Tell you what, I'm ready to give you a dollar for it."
"Wow... Hmmm! You mind if I take a better look at that?"
With an extra dollop of theatrical pedantry, I held it up to the light at a couple of different angles, all the while making small noises of vexation and disappointment. I told him, sadly, that he was right. I slowly slide the inner-sleeved disc back into the cover and with one instantaneous move, I shoved the LP under my arm the wide way and snapped it in two, BANG!, and violently threw it into the trash can and mildly told Tweedy Pie...
"You didn't want that." Both the cashiers, two full-blown Punk Rockers, howled with open laughter. I turned to them and said...
"I'll be in the back pricing some more used records. Call me if you need me."
"We love you, Binky," said the cashiers in unison, Tweedy rooted to the spot, dumbstruck.
There was a time, involving a pro, we were not low-key about...
One summer, every Friday or Saturday, for something crazy like 10 or 12 weekends in a row, our sealed new Rolling Stones and Police sections (at least 20 LPs per) were being emptied by someone, about a $300 loss each time. We were hip to all kinds of games and we were all completely baffled. This was someone good and this was someone in the store a lot. We had literally dozens of Every Weekend Regulars. One of these regulars was this classic gregarious Jolly Fat Guy, a 30-something named Jim. He had passable musical taste, a big plus with us. A Mets fan, another plus, he looked like Ron Howard (we called him Opie behind his big back) with curly hair and another 200 pounds. Sometimes he bought something, sometimes just stopped at the registers to say Seeya! after browsing awhile.
One Friday afternoon, Jolly Opie walked in with his usual big hello. Tally, the primary security guy, and ex-singer in my CBGB band, The Planets, came over to me and said in a low voice...
"Holy fuck, Bink... It's him! I suddenly just know Jim's our Stones/Police thief."
"Wow, interesting!" I replied, as I watched Jim flipping through the Stones section. "We're gonna let him getaway with whatever he takes and deal with him on the street." Tally liked that idea.
Jumbo Jim waddled over the register and asked me if I'd watched "that wild Mets game" the night before. I met his eyes and said, "No," as expressionlessly as I could, and nothing more. Opie immediately broke into a literal sweat. Suddenly actually dripping, he stammered, "Well, I'm outta here..." and walked very slowly out the door and down the stoop. Tally and I let him get about 50 feet from the store and down the stoop we we went, tailing him. As Opie was walking past the Trash and Vaudeville boutique, something shifted, and now his ass under his pants suddenly took on the shape of a thick 12" square. Tal and I ran up and at the absolute top of my lungs I bellowed...
"TAKE OFF YOUR PANTS, YOU FAT PIECE OF THIEVING SHIT... PULL THEM DOWN... NOW!"
Tally, while a total sweetheart, was/is a black man with Rasta locks and arms carved from oak. Tal took one giant step towards Opie Jim and he burst into tears, sobbing, "Please let me go... Please don't call the police..." over and over again like a religious fanatic in a litany trance. At one point, I thought he was gonna hurl even. Suddenly, I was utterly bored by him. We took back our Stones and Police LPs, and let him walk away.
But, whenever I saw Ol' Opie, which turned out to be about five times over a two year period, I'd walk up to him and whoever he was with (weirdly, about three times, it was with a genuinely good looking, sane looking, woman), and I'd ask him in a big friendly voice how his shoplifting career was going since we'd last bumped into each other. Then I'd turn to whoever he was with and say something like...
"You know, this 300-pounds-of-shit-in-a-50-pound-bag friend of yours is really good at stealing records from small stand-alone stores. What are you doing walking around with this bloated scumbag? If I were you, I'd check my silverware after he leaves your apartment..."
The last time I saw him he threatened to call the cops. I burst out laughing.
Of course, every now and then, you'd encounter a "booster", who it was best to just let get away with their haul...
In 1988, I wound up doing time in the Jazz/Classical/Soundtrack Annex store we'd opened up that year. Unlike the St. Mark's location, the annex was on a much less traveled side street. We'd just scored an amazing amount of long-out-of-print sealed new John Coltrane LPs on Atlantic... at least 50 copies each of four different titles... and were selling them for the crazy low price of $9.99.
One night, this extremely 'street' drag queen flounced into the annex just before closing time. By 'street,' I mean, dirty, wild-eyed, bedraggled, crude skewed make-up, stubble-ed, a true urchin, all 6' 3" of "her". It was almost 10pm on a weeknight. "She" was my only customer. I was the only employee. Sigh. I turned my back on her for about 10 seconds and she was suddenly heading full speed for the door. I could see from my cashier's perch that the Coltrane section that had had about 20 LPs in it a minute earlier was now empty.
I reached below the counter, flicked the automatic door-lock switch and grabbed the bat we had for moments like this. She yanked the door. It wouldn't budge. I announced, in my toughest voice, that I'd let her out after she gave me back the Coltrane LPs. In an instant, she was brandishing a knife at least 9 inches long.
"You let me out now, motherfucker, or I will cut your balls off!" she hissed.
20 Coltrane LPs vs. crotch-stabbing? I flicked the switch and told her I'd appreciate it if she never returned.
She agreed to that compromise with a hearty "Fuck you, motherfucker!!" and flounced back out with 20 sealed out-of-print Coltrane albums.
Ruined RuPaul for me, I can tell you that!
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