Over the years, I sold a lot of Star Wars toys back to a lot of men in their 20s who were completely dissatisfied with how their lives turned out and were trying to recapture a time when the world was easier to navigate and a plastic Tauntaun could make you feel like the King of the World. If that sounds harsh or judgmental, I don’t mean it to be. If anything, it’s a comment on the bill of goods we were sold as children; the idea that we could be anything we wanted to be, and if you work hard, you’ll succeed, and all you have to do is pull yourself up by your bootstraps and everything will work out, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.
Well, we all wanted to be Jedi Knights. And instead, we got straight jobs, working on computers, sitting in cubicles, making a lot of money for a few people. We wanted to be Rebels, and we ended up minions of the Empire.
That is, most of you. Not me. I kept working at comic shops, manning the counter, helping you to escape to other worlds. Better worlds. A temporary fix, to be sure, but I never judge nor begrudge a person their right to check out of this reality for a time and get their act together. The real world sucks. That’s why stuff like Star Wars is so appealing. Fiction has to make sense. Reality never does.
Like I said, I spent years—over a decade, in fact, working at comic stores. And even when I didn’t like it, I really did love it. I don’t have a lot of specific instances that stick out in my mind, but I will never forget a Christmas back in 1997, during the 20th Anniversary of the Star Wars. The year of the Special Editions, and we’ll get back to that soon enough.
I was working in Austin, at a different comic store, for the same family from Waco. Austin Books was, and will always be, a spiritual home base for me. I met, and maintained relationships with some of the best, most creative, wonderful people on either side of the sales counter. One of my co-workers, Brian, is still one of the smartest and quickest-witted guys I’ve ever known. His come-backs were lightning-fast, and when there was a quip to make, he was almost always first to make it. If you wanted to hang at Austin Books, and hang with us, you had to bring your A-Game.I also met some real whackadoos, but for the most part, it was positive for good, kind, clever folks.
|They may call him Ponda Baba, but he'll|
always be Walrus Man to me.
Christmas in comic shops is always a lot of fun. Not only do you get to sell some nice, high-end comics and statues and toys, but you always get this spate of shoppers every year who show up, list in hand, wearing confused expressions. They’ve been to the mall already, and to Toys ‘R Us, and they can’t find a...what is it? A ‘Ponda Baba in the package’? What the hell is that? And we’d get to gently steer them over to the Star Wars case and show them the vast array of loose and carded action figures we were selling. Or, more often as not, send them over to Brian, because that was his domain at the time. He worked the counter the way Sam Malone worked the bar at Cheers. It was awesome to watch him be charming.
The store is busy, and we’re rocking and rolling along, and all of a sudden, the door flies open, and a woman fairly lunges at the counter and blurts out to me, “Do you have a Lando?”
This pissed me off. It was a Saturday. I had been working all day, and even though it was busy, and I was tired, I was still in the zone and on-point. Brian had been amusing us all day with his impression of Gary Busey as Han Solo. We were in a good mood.
At Austin Books, we made it a point to greet every customer. We also made it a point to treat everyone as if they wanted to be there. In other words, we assumed everyone was qualified to be a comics fan, and didn’t treat the women any differently than the men. I’m telling you this because even back in the mid-90s, this was a problem. Our shop was “Fangirl Friendly.”
This woman—late twenties, well-dressed, and obviously in a hurry—didn’t even give me a chance to be nice. To greet her. To ask her if I can help her. Just, “Do you have a Lando?” I took all of this in in the space of a heart beat, and then I made a point of blinking, looking startled, and said, “Hi! Can I help you with anything?”
“Do you have a Lando?” she repeated. She looked testy. This is a question that would usually follow an exchange of half a dozen sentences:
“Hi, how are you?”
“Hi, I’m fine, thanks.”
“Can I help you find anything?”
“Yes, actually, I’m looking for some loose Star Wars figures.”
“Cool beans, we’ve got a lot. Brian over there can help you out.”
(Brian) “Hi there, what are you looking for in particular?”
“Yes. I need a Bespin Han Solo, a TIE Fighter Pilot, and oh, yes, do you have a Lando?”
That’s how 99% of our interactions went, with appropriate variations. We were nice, they were nice. It was nice. But she was cutting across all of that. All business. Okay, lady, you want to play it that way, fine. I’ll send you over to the master. “Yes, we do,” I said. “Brian? She’s looking for a Lando.”
|"I'm Lando Calrissian. I'm the |
administrator of this facility."
Brian, who was already plugged into the situation (the counters weren’t that far apart), said, “Of course, I’ve got several to choose from here...” He brought out a tray, wherein we had several bagged figures. At the time, these were selling for between $5 and $10, if they were complete with accessories—usually a laser pistol that barely fit into their hand.
Lando Calrissian, the turncoat rogue of Cloud City, was $8.
The woman lunged over to the counter. “I’ll take the best one you’ve got,” she said.
Brian tried to re-direct her. “Well, they’re all in pretty decent shape—”
“I’ll take the best one.” She said it quickly, and a little loudly. It’s clear that she didn’t want to be in our store, and we were only pissing her off by prolonging the interaction. Without another word, Brian handed her the little action figure and she returned to me. “I’ll take this,” she said.
I dispensed with my counter rap. She wouldn’t have appreciated it; it would have only made things worse. And when I’m in “helping at the counter” mode, I am just O.C.D. enough that if I skip one or two of my steps, it throws me off for the rest of the day. She was messing with my mojo, here.
I ran her charge card and she signed the receipt and was heading for the door, even as I thanked her for her business. We were watching her go, so we could shoot each other those knowing looks and say the things we usually reserved for difficult customers, when she stopped in the middle of the door and leaned back into the store. She said, at me, with no other pretense, “Do you have a Woody?”
I knew what she meant the instant she said it. I also know how it sounded the instant she said it. Had I not been jousting with Brian all day, and been in “rapier-wit mode,” I likely would not have done what I did. But to be fair, comedians, actors, and other entertainers wait their whole lives for such a perfect straight line. It would have been criminal—unconscionable, even—to ignore it or worse, give her an out.
So I took a step back, pretending to be confused, and glanced downward for just an instant, and then I said, “Oh, you mean from Toy Story!”
Her eyes bulged and her face melted into a mask of abject horror as she realized her verbal faux pas. She looked like the Nazi Toht staring at the contents of the Lost Ark.
“No ma’am, I don’t have a woody, or a buzz, for that matter,” I said in my best Bill Murray delivery. I smiled at her. She threw the door open and fled without a word. I looked over and Brian was doubled over laughing. Mind you, this was not our usual behavior. We would never have done anything like that with a real customer. I submit to you (as I said back then, at closing time that day) that we were never going to see her again, anyway.
Best Eight Dollar Transaction Ever.