In Autumn of 2002, I moved to New York City and started working at a bookstore.
Previously, I had lived in Missouri, Liverpool, London, and Oregon, roughly in that order but with some back-and-forth at various points. (Missouri is my home state.)
I went to drama school in the UK, worked for a couple of years as an actor and then took a break to go live in Oregon where my best friend Jeff Falzone lived.
The intention was always that I was simply taking a break from “Show Business” and the move to NYC was intended to be a return to that.
I applied for one job, at Barnes & Noble Union Square. I was hired instantly and was given a brutal 7:30 till 4 shift, Tuesday through Saturday. I hated getting up that early in the morning, although years later I would refuse to work any other shift. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I figured I would work there at least through the Christmas season. I was surprised when I lasted a year there. The time went quickly, and I was a hard worker.
At the time, the Graphic Novels section was an un-alphabetized mess, blended in with books about Animation, as if comics and animated cartoons were the same thing. I started making myself little projects, like building up the Film & TV section to include books about essential films & filmmakers (whatever could be found in-print) and shortlisting comics titles from great publishers like Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly to augment the smattering of DC & Marvel titles that they had. I sent away to D&Q for a manifesto they had printed about how bookstores could/should organize a proper Graphic Novels section, and before long the store manager was allowing me to set up the section so that there was more display space for these nice-looking books I was ordering in.
One time, Chris Oliveros, the head of Drawn & Quarterly, came to the store specifically because someone had told him that we had a good Graphic Novels section, and he didn’t believe them. Years later, he told me that he had thought at the time that our store’s section was a sign that other B&N stores would also have a great selection of “comics lit” titles, but that he soon realized that it was, he told me, “just you.”
Wait, but what about Show Business? What about my Acting “Career”?
Well, I tried and it was miserable and nothing I did worked.
I would try to do plays and it was just impossible to get anyone to show up for them. I tried getting an agent and calling on my now-useless London contacts to try and get something, ANYTHING, going, and it was like pounding my head against a brick wall. Finally, I just decided, “you know what? I was miserable when I tried Show Business before, and I’m FINE now. I’m FINE working in a bookstore, managing my little unofficial sections and making them nice. I have ZERO stress, and I’m surviving.”
So I gave up on Show Business, figuring I could always return to it sometime later.
There’s stuff I don’t wanna get into here, but Life Is Hard Sometimes and this job was kind of this steady, simple, honest thing that kept life moving and gave me some structure. There was a period when I picked up an extra half-shift on Sunday morning (starting at a decadently late 9:30 and ending at 1pm) which served the store well at a time when they were woefully understaffed and which was Overtime for me so it was like picking up a full day’s wages for a few hours of not-very-hard work.
There are 4th floor displays at the store that became fixtures for a long time, like the University of Mississippi Press series “Conversations With Filmmakers” display. The sign was vandalized by someone with the word “MALE” added to it, because the series reflected the sad reality that 95 percent of the titles were about men, with only Campion and Ullman and later Bigelow featured in the series. The sad truth was that the only female film director with a lot of books written about her that we could order in at that point was Leni Riefenstahl. Still, it was nice to have that display while it lasted.
The “33 and 1/3″ music books series is still prominently displayed, and that was also something that just materialized because I made it happen without asking permission. If you haven’t seen these little books, they are hit-and-miss but it’s a really interesting series that covers a broad and eclectic range of albums and artists. I hope they keep it there now that I’m gone.
There were sections that were a mess which I would find an order for. An entire bay of Star Wars novels, for instance, would now be organized “chronologically” according to the order of events in the Star Wars universe. I should emphasize that I have never read a Star Wars novel in my life. I just liked that they had a handy little chronology in the front and I thought it would be helpful to shelve them that way. It made the section look nicer, and it made it easier for customers to actually navigate. It’s stuff that I don’t think anyone else is gonna do when I’m no longer there, and there are a lot of things like that.
2002 through 2004 was the period when I was actively trying to be an actor before giving it up.
2005 through early 2009, I was just a guy working in a bookstore in Manhattan. I realized at one point that as a divorced, 30-something bookstore employee, I had somehow turned into a bearded male version of the title character of the late 1980s tv series The Days & Nights Of Molly Dodd starring Blair Brown. It was not what I thought my life was gonna be, but by early 2009, having failed at basically everything I had ever attempted, I had somehow arrived at my early 30s as a happy person.
I was also, I have to say, the least successful person I knew. And it didn’t matter. I was happy, and stress-free.
I registered for Improv 101 almost exactly 6 years ago this week, for a class taught by Betsy Stover that began on May 6th, 2009. And I loved it.
Ever since then, I’ve maintained my 5-days-a-week work schedule while first taking classes and then eventually doing indie shows, getting on a house team, and then doing things like UCB TourCo and TCGS and booking commercials and other paid opportunities.
But here’s the thing: I didn’t start taking classes at UCB thinking it would lead back to attempting to make a living in “Show Business.” I just saw some shows there and it seemed like a magical place and I wanted to learn how to do what the people on stage were doing. I just wanted to get better at it. I wanted to be better at the thing I liked watching, and I wanted to learn how to do it well. Honestly, I just wanted to someday make people like Shannon O’Neill or Will Hines or Chris Gethard think something I did was funny. I never thought I’d ever be friends with them or be on a team with them, or anything even close to that.
Although I’ve gotten used to the work-and-Comedy schedule now, those first few of years of UCB activity nearly killed me, simply because I always had to be up early and most of the Comedy things would keep me out till midnight almost every night of the week. There was a period in early 2011 when I was in Gethard’s “( )” class and we had a session where every improviser in the class took turns making the class do whatever improv form they wanted. When it was my turn, I asked if we could turn off the lights so I could go to sleep and everyone else could improvise my dream. I went to sleep for real until I was awakened by Dru Johnston doing an impression of Alan Starzinski.
Anyway, over the past two years, I’ve accidentally backed into a very modest amount of actual Show Business work. And it got to the point where it became clear that it would probably be the right time and a smart move for me to actually get serious about what I’m doing. I have been taking the Comedy part seriously, but not really the Career part. Because I haven’t had to. I already had a job, so the Comedy could just be the thing I cared about trying to do well, but not the thing I used to pay the bills in any serious way.
At the same time, the bookstore has become an increasingly understaffed and difficult place to work. It feels like every time something changes, it is in a way that makes the place slightly less good. I’m not going to bother to go into detail here but I’ll happily talk your ear off if you ever want to have a conversation about how a handful of very dumb people with bad ideas can ruin or damage a bookstore that could otherwise be doing very well.
It’s just a bookstore. It’s a big one. Four floors. The goal should be to make it as nice as possible for people to come in and find what they’re looking for. I spent the past 13 years trying to help make it a little nicer, and for whatever it’s worth, I did that, a little.
I’m sad to leave my job at the bookstore. It has been a safe place for me. It is the only job I’ve known in New York City. But it would be sadder if I stayed, because that job is what it is, and it isn’t going to get any better, whereas I think there are genuine possibilities if I get it together and try to have a for-real Comedy Career at this point.
UGH, thirteen years. That’s a long time to do anything. If I’d had a baby instead of working there it would be a teenager now.
This post is far too long, and for that, I apologize. But I’m a very sentimental person by nature, and this is the end of a very long chapter in my life where I shelved books 5 or 6 days a week for over a decade. I’m grateful for the people I’ve met there who were nice and great.
I don’t know what is going to happen next. I’m the warm-up comedian for The Chris Gethard Show on Fusion, a job I also did for last year’s TCGS Comedy Central pilot. It is an exciting opportunity, being a part of this show my friends make that I have been a part of for years now. The me of 2002 would look at this and be happy about it, as would the me of pretty much any year since then.
It is now spring of 2015, I still live in New York City, and I used to work in a bookstore.