When my writing career didn’t explode like I wanted it to (that wouldn’t happen for another two years), I headed into Ramsgate town to see what work was available. My extraordinary collection of GCSEs and one-week show-ups at Thanet College afforded me the following tree of opportunity:
McDonald’s – not a chance: it looked like great fun, but I’d just lost close to five stone and I didn’t want to put it all back on again in THREE hours.
Argos – another no: the staff always looked miserable, and there were rumours that one guy was SO depressed by the place that he’d wandered into the back to get a microwave for a customer, proceeded right through the rear exit and kept going. They never saw him again.
Burton’s – I thought it would be slightly wrong to work in a clothes shop when you’d never been able to afford any of the clothes: I’d have been a class traitor. 🙂
Dixon’s – I knew two guys who worked in Dixon’s at the time: one was trying to change his name legally to ‘Jonas Piemunch’ and the other would regularly pop outside for the sort of cigarettes you smoked if you wanted to run down the High Street with dragons chasing you.
That left Blockbuster Video. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’d heard about how wild it got of a night between the stacks. I’d heard all the stories about the staff shutting up early and huddling around a TV to watch the latest DVDs before any of the customers could get a look in. I naturally assumed it was all just talk.
By and large, the staff of Blockbuster were complete individuals….which is a nice way of saying a lot of them were nuts. I’m far too polite to mention names here, but I ran into every single type of manic oddball you could possibly imagine.
Words cannot express how much I LOVED THAT JOB.
My own highlights at Blockbuster Video included:
* Talking to an angry customer using a sock puppet when he ‘demanded’ to see the manager (I even went out the back, put a ‘manager’ badge on it and used a squeaky voice).
* Being thrust into McDonald’s during the lunch hour rush while gaffer-taped to a wheely chair (the staff of McD had to cut me out of it using scissors).
* Accidentally counting the safe float into the daily takings and reporting a record profit for Head Office….before coming in to start the next day at a gigantic loss.
* Playing manhunt in the pitch dark at midnight in the million and one back rooms that made up the maze behind the stacks.* Talking one very friendly customer into pretending he was a deranged mental patient on work experience in order to make the District Manager as uncomfortable as possible.
Of course, there WAS a serious side to all this – and working in Ramsgate late at night was an eye-opener in all the wrong ways, but – boy – what an amazing place it was to be at the best possible time in the company. It was busy, and full of life, fun and constantly hilarious banter with the customers. Then it kind of…..
I left BBV in 2002, and never went back….but whenever I walked into Ramsgate town and saw the place, it always seemed a little closer to the end: moody, miserable looking staff who were probably being taken advantage of, dilapidated display units, dirty carpets. It really went downhill.
Blockbuster Video closed very recently – and now it’s one of those strange ‘local’ Morrison stores that seemed to charge twice the price of their bigger cousins. Oddly, I have a friend who now works in there, standing and joking with the customers in exactly the same spot I occupied over a decade ago.
It’s a strange world….and my last day at Blockbuster was even stranger.
I was working a morning shift when I got the phone call: it was sometime during March 2002. My agent, who had been negotiating with a major UK publisher for a few days, asked me if I was sitting down.
‘I can’t sit down,’ I said. ‘I’m on shift in twenty minutes.’
‘Your books have just sold to Hodder, David. It’s a huge deal, and a lot of money: I think you’re going to need a few minutes to process this.’
I took a deep breath, and checked to see who else was in the room. My girlfriend was already at work: she started on Saturday mornings a bit earlier than I did.
My mum was standing in the doorway, and my grandmother was in the kitchen (she liked to smoke at least five cigarettes in the morning before she could think about tea).
I held the phone a bit tighter, and said. ‘How big a deal?’
She told me.
I sat down.
I will always remember my mother’s first words on the subject. She said ‘If you average that money out for all the years you’ve been trying to get published, it’s just a really, really good wage.’
Less than a year later, I would get another call to tell me that Disney had bought the same series in the USA for half a million dollars, but this initial call – turning my dream (a dream I’d had since I was twelve years old) into my day job – was the one that I will always remember…..
….and I remember it more vividly because the working day that followed was easily the most difficult I ever had.
First, I had to tell my girlfriend. This was particularly tough, as I’d arrived on a mid-shift and didn’t particularly want to share the news with the Store Manager at the same time.
Then came the customers. Now, Ramsgate customers on a Saturday morning are usually quite a nice bunch….but on this particular day the Hellmouth had opened.
Here’s a selection of the complaints I had to field:
‘I can’t owe £24.00 on my account. Your computer’s wrong: wipe it off.’ ‘My wife says the guy who worked here yesterday was rude to her.’ ‘Listen, you ginger dickhead, I’ve told you twice: that IS my postcode.’ ‘You let BRIAN K take out a film on my account? He’s my EX – I definitely told you guys to take his name off: he’s threatened to kill me.’ ‘All I can say is that we want a refund: the packet said sweet popcorn and it was DEFINITELY salty: it made my wife sick.’ ‘My son says one of you stole his bike when he came to look around the shop yesterday?’
Unfortunately, my patience quickly wore thin.
‘I can reduce the amount to £20.00, madam…but it was logged from the dropbox so you will have to pay it off before you take out another film.’ ‘Your wife called my colleague a tit, and he said she was a pair of tits: I’ll gladly apologise on his behalf.’ ‘Please don’t call me a ginger dickhead, Sir: there’s is no postcode in Ramsgate that starts with CK.’ ‘There are THREE Brians on your account, Miss – would it be an idea to date someone with a different name?’ ‘I can’t refund you the price of the popcorn, but I CAN open a fresh packet, taste some and then give you the rest?’ ‘We did steal your son’s bike, and will give it back to him when he returns the twenty DVDshe ran off with.’
By the time six o’clock rolled around, I was mentally and physically drained. I had told my girlfriend, in hushed whispers, and it was – eventually – a day like any other. I finally told the Store Manager shortly before I performed the most odious and horrific task ANY Blockbuster employee ever had to do: the call list.
The call list truly sucked. It was a thankless, abuse-prompting job that required the assistant to telephone people who had videos out late. Fifty percent of all the recipients failed to answer, and the other fifty percent were ALWAYS amazed. I mean, seriously amazed.
‘True Lies? No way – we brought that back.’ ‘Are you sure, Sir?’ ‘Of course I’m sure: I drove it down there myself. You guys must have lost it.’ ‘Could you possibly double check, Sir?’ ‘I just told you: I brought it back.’ ‘You are positive?’ ‘Look, how DARE you keep asking if – oh hang on: it’s okay, Kelly just found it. Steve had it.’ ‘Could you bring it back tomorrow, please?’ ‘Yeah: no worries. Do we owe anything?’ ‘Two pounds.’ ‘Okay.’
That phone call would be repeated a few days later, and would be IDENTICAL: only, this time, the new fine would be heavily disputed.
I left Blockbuster Video a few months after the first publishing deal was done. I didn’t want to leave, and it certainly wasn’t about the money. It’s just that the job had changed, and I was being viewed differently. I wasn’t one of the ‘guys’ any more: I was THAT guy…..or, at least, I felt that way.
Finally, during a week when the Sunday Times wrote a feature on myself and my family, and Richard & Judy interviewed us on their Channel 4 show (links below), it actually became impossible for me to just go ‘on shift’ and do my job. My girlfriend and I chatted about what would be the best course of action, and I decided to quit.
Knowing what I know now, and looking back, working at Blockbuster Video was the best job I ever had.
Being an author really isn’t all that great: it’s a bit of a poisoned chalice. If you’re a sociable person, and – believe me – I am, then it can be a sort of curse. You get your dream, you get the money, you get the media whirlwind and you get all the free time. You trade in a lot of your friends, lose your sense of ‘place’ in the world and have a whole new set of worries to replace the old ones: will my book sell? Is my Amazon rank good enough? Why are these newspaper reviews bad? Why is nobody calling me? Those people who said they were going to make a film – are they still making it? Who was doing the audio books, again: the guy I thought was good, or the other guy?
In the early days, I couldn’t stand it. Now, it’s a lot better: I have my incredible wife and two beautiful children to keep me occupied, and I’m heavily involved in my son’s primary school: but I would send out a very serious warning to all would-be full-time writers: make sure you WANT the job as badly as you think you do…..
….and be sure you’re willing to make the trade.
IMPORTANT NOTE: If you’re a district or regional manager in retail, please make sure that you acknowledge the people who work for you on the shop floor. Don’t be arrogant around them, rude to them or – as in many cases – ignore them entirely and just talk to the manager. If you do any of the above, please expect to have your products smashed with a hammer and put through as ‘faulty’. Thanks.
Davey Stone is a moderately sociopathic and extremely antagonistic author, blogger and comedy lifestyle commentator. Since starting his career in Knights of Madness with Terry Pratchett and Tom Sharpe, his books have sold more than a million copies for Disney and Penguin in the USA and Hodder in the UK. He has performed at the Edinburgh and Hay Festivals. If you enjoyed ‘Living the Dream’ please follow the blog for more content.