Listening to Chris on the latest Rental Return podcast episode reminded me of my own days working at my local Media Play. I was hired for the book department during a time where it seemed like everyone was reading something. Readers of all ages were engrossed in the Harry Potter novels. Some parents bought them and read them to kids who were too young to read the books.
Some of the other popular children’s books we sold included Shrek by William Steig. Shrek inspired a CGI animated movie, two sequels, and a holiday special that still runs on network television. There was also The Polar Express, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, or books from series like Junie B. Jones, Captain Underpants, and the Animorphs.
Some of the classics were still there as well. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pat the Bunny, and novels by Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume. One of my favorite Judy Blume novels was Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself. I checked that book out of the library frequently when I was in grade school so I popped for the four dollars for my own copy to read again.
During seasonal holiday shopping, my managers would station me in the children’s section of the book department. There was a little table and chairs for the children to sit in while they looked at the books to decide what they wanted to ask their parents to buy. Then again, when families came in, they were usually coming in for books, particularly for books on their school reading lists.
Even before I worked there, MediaPlay was one of my favorite stores. It was a regular stop on what we called the “New Year’s CD Run”, along with its inside the mall sibling, Sam Goody. I had also browsed the racks at Suncoast, but usually purchased apparel or toys because the prices of the videos were so high there. There was one Suncoast visit where I broke down in tears absolutely heartbroken at the discovery that the VHS of Newsies was $100.00.
I think when I filled out my application for MediaPlay, I told the manager interviewing me that they could put me in any department except the computer and video games. Those were my weak areas. I loved watching movies and I had a broad base of music knowledge ranging from Classical to the pop artists of the time.
My heart truly belonged to the print media. Working at Media Play also introduced me to several new authors. One of my managers got me into James Patterson and Thomas Harris. I regret not having read The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings at that time, but reading books like Along Came a Spider and Silence of the Lambs helped me with my squeamishness. I’m still sensitive to intense violence in books and movies, but at least I could be in the same room when a commercial for a horror movie came on.
The sales signage at MediaPlay was bright yellow and we received more paper signage than we actually needed. We used the leftover paper for scratch paper when we were looking for specific books for customers. The most common usage was to put them inside the books or on top of CD’s or movies we wanted to buy on our next shift (or payday). I found this one inside a bargain book I ended up giving my niece.
Another manager knew the couple who worked on the Strawberry Shortcake and Care Bears cards for American Greetings. We still have Strawberry Shortcake and Care Bears t-shirts I bought while I was working at MediaPlay that my nieces use for their art or messy food smocks. My older niece is also enjoying a giant book on animals I bought from the bargain table. I rescued many orphans from the bargain table during my time.
The book department was right across from the music department. From time to time, I was able to help them when customers were looking for older music. Sometimes the music department would even have their customers sing or recite lyrics to me when they were stumped.
If you’ve heard me on Situation Jukebox, I’ve talked about how my mom was actually a big influence on me when it came to music education. Mom does tease me sometimes about her boy band being better than my boy band. I do have to agree, musically, Beatles> NKOTB.
Speaking of Boy Bands, most of the women I know in my age group who had been NKOTB fans were either NSYNC or Backstreet Boy fans. While I was working at Media Play, I sold CDs from both groups when they came out, so I’m in a rare position where I can claim neutrality in the “Boy Band Battle”.
Another experience is the Easter my manager at the time, Brad (the James Patterson and Thomas Harris guy) decided to have me dress as the Easter Bunny for the kids. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any families in that morning, so I wasn’t in the costume long. It was a cute costume too with a dress and apron. At the time, I didn’t fully appreciate MediaPlay’s attempt at bringing some female representation to a holiday mascot typically represented as a male.
The interesting thing about April in Georgia is that you can have one of three different kinds of weather. Some years, it is wet and a little chilly, others it’s wet and warm, or it can be sunny but chilly or sunny and hot. That year, it was sunny and warm which doesn’t work well with fur covered costumes. After my shift that day, I went home and stayed in the air conditioning for a while. It does bring some perspective to my required double masking for my current day job. At least I don’t have any trouble lifting my head.
One of the coolest things about MediaPlay was the giant promotional displays. I still have an Enya one from A Day Without Rain. Normally, I keep it in my closet but just the fact that I was able to get one of these amuses me on some level.
Also, I started working at MediaPlay shortly after Aerosmith had been to that location to promote Just Push Play. My brother and I both wanted to go see them but traffic was backed up on the expressway and the shopping center parking lot was full. There was a leftover “Just Push Play” T-shirt in the promotional items box that I was told I could have.
I did score a “Just Push Play” t-shirt from the promotional swag box along with a Tom Wopat CD where he sings the kinds of songs you would hear at your grandparents’ house. These songs were also in popular movies like When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle. Tony Bennett was also popular at that time from his MTV Unplugged appearance.
I also loved compilation CD’s. “Various Artists” were one of my favorite racks to glance through in the music section. Billboard 1983 is a beauty, but Platinum 80’s introduced me to songs and bands I wasn’t as familiar with such as The Smiths’ “This Charming Man” and A-ha’s “The Sun Always Shines on TV”. I used to hear “Take on Me” during 80’s weekends on the local radio station, but I’d never heard “The Sun Always Shines on TV”. It was so much fun to buy a compilation album for two or three songs and discover a new favorite.
Another favorite purchase from the music department is this AWESOME box set. There’s also a really cool book inside with stories about each of the songs and short essays about different aspects of 80’s pop culture and a fun timeline. If it was popular or happened in the 1980’s, it was in this amazing book.
My mother and I were both fans of cozy mystery novels, especially ones with humorous characters or fun extras. Diane Mott Davidson wrote culinary mysteries and bookstores would have contests for kitchen items modeled on the cover art on the new release book. The cover for Tough Cookie featured a cookie jar shaped like a baker. For some reason, the manager at that time either didn’t want to do the contest for the cookie jar or the customers weren’t interested, so I got to keep the cookie jar. I keep it on a shelf with other souvenirs.
I also learned about several classic Rankin-Bass specials I had never heard of while I was working at MediaPlay. One holiday season, we featured toys from The Year Without a Santa Claus, which I had never seen. I didn’t remember it airing here, but now I record it from AMC during their annual Rankin Bass marathon. The best parts are the Misers songs. The Snow Miser reminds me of Professor Coldheart from a Care Bears book I had. One of my co-workers in the Book department was originally from the Northeast and she told me about Nestor, The Long-Eared Donkey.
While I was working at MediaPlay, I earned my college degree, a Bachelor of Arts in English. My coworkers were all very happy for me and very supportive. Unfortunately, the month after I graduated, 9/11 happened.
People weren’t going to the mall as often because of fears of security in public places and people were also concerned with being able to afford the basics. Extras like toys and media were cut from a lot of household budgets. Release dates in the aftermath of the attack were even affected, including one for a Stephen King novel. It became difficult to sell reservations for hardcover books. More and more people were using the library or Amazon or waited for mass market paperback.
Just before the 2000 holiday shopping season started, Best Buy bought Musicland Group (Sam Goody, Suncoast, and MediaPlay) and things started to get less fun and more about selling certain amounts of arbitrary accessories.
It was also less about teamwork between colleagues and more about individual sales. If you didn’t sell enough of the extras and accessories, you weren’t kept on. This was also after 2001, when recreational spending was down and online shopping was starting to get popular. Why stay up until midnight and drive all the way to the shopping center for your copy of a new release when it could be delivered to your home?
After MediaPlay let me go the following year, I applied at Barnes and Noble, B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, and Borders. Apparently, studying for a degree was different from having one. The lady at Barnes and Noble who took my application actually said the word “overqualified”. I didn’t get calls back from any of the stores so I started a new adventure looking for office positions.