Dear Linens ‘n’ Things,
This past weekend, rather than a wild night out in Manhattan and Brooklyn, I stayed on Long Island and grabbed some tea with a couple of my friends. Don’t let how low-key that sounds fool you. It was a good time.
First, we tried to go to a café in St. James. However, when we got there, we discovered it was open mic night. It’s a pretty tiny place and every seat was taken, so we decided to go elsewhere.
Besides, letting me watch an open mic night is usually a pretty bad idea, since 99.99% of the performers are fairly cringe-worthy (at least on Long Island) and I have a bad habit of saying anything that pops into my head without thinking. It’s a terrible, but often hilarious, combination. Once I went to an open mic at a coffeehouse in Wantagh where this skinny, nerdy dude with an acoustic guitar, calling himself My Mother’s Boyfriend, or some other egregiously emo name, took the stage. He was awful. I can’t recall what I said exactly, but I mocked him to my friends the entire night, unaware that he could hear me up on stage. He gave me the dirtiest look when I left. And in high school, my best friend worked at a bakery with a cafe attached, where they’d often host open mic nights for music and sometimes comedy. That’s where I learned that musicians don’t like it when you yell “American Pie!” or “Free Bird!” at them from the back of the room.
Then, I remembered there was a café in Kings Park that I had been to once, but we drove up and down the Main Street strip a couple of times and saw nothing. It must have closed down.
So, though I had been avoiding going there – because I’ve spent way too much time there in my life – my friends and I wound up in the café of the Borders Books and Music in Commack, where I worked on and off for a couple of years during college.
But as I walked into the bookstore, I looked across the parking lot and noticed the empty Linens ‘n’ Things storefront. I couldn’t help but smile to myself. Ah, Linens ‘n’ Things, my longtime archnemesis, you have finally fallen.
The store was lit up, what few shelves were still actually standing were obviously empty and workers were inside taking down fixtures. I’d forgotten that you were going out of business, as I hadn’t thought about you in a long time. Well, that’s not true. I thought about you once recently. A few months ago, when my grandmother was dying, I went on a quest to find her a meal tray that fit over her bed, and even, though begrudgingly, stopped by a Linens ‘n’ Things to look for one. (Dying grandmas trump vendettas.)
But I’ll never forget that first day we went to war, Linens ‘n’ Things.
I often opened the café, meaning I’d get in around 9 a.m., hastily perform only the most necessary tasks for the café to be ready when the front door opened, then spend a half hour sitting on the desk in the kitchen reading. Rich, my best friend/supervisor, was usually right there alongside me reading comic books.
There were signs all over the place advertising that your latest store was set to open across the parking lot from us and your staff, during the month prior to the store’s opening, as they stocked it and got it ready, came into Borders daily for coffee as soon as we opened at 10 a.m. At first they were nice, friendly even. One woman even invited me to the store’s grand opening and handed me a coupon.
But then one day it all went sour – lame pun intended. The general manager of the Linens ‘n’ Things ordered his usual large coffee. As I handled the orders of his coworkers, he went to put milk and sugar in his drink. He came over and told me the whole milk was bad. The store had just opened and the milk I put on the counter came from a brand new carton with an expiration date more than a week away. So I told him there was nothing wrong with the milk, it was all in his head, and to deal with it. I didn’t believe in wasting food.
I also never believed in the saying, “The customer is always right.” I was always right. This led to several memorable altercations with customers over the years, including the time the cops had to be called when I was threatened by the massively obese mother who was part of an obnoxious group of customers we called “The Family” (I later learned she was called “Three Chair Woman” at the Barnes and Noble down the road) because I wouldn’t brew a fresh pot of coffee a half hour before closing.
When I refused to get him more milk, he infiltrated my territory. He walked behind the café counter and poured the milk out down the sink himself. Naturally, I freaked out and kicked him out from behind my counter. The woman who had invited me to the grand opening and given me coupons mimicked me in a high pitched voice. This was not the way to get fresh milk from a barista.
Eventually, the guy sucked it up and used the skim milk and they left after we shot each other some more dirty looks.
But I was incredibly offended. And I do not let things go easily.
So, even though I saw some people approaching the café, I put up a handmade sign that read, “Be right back,” and without asking if I could, I went to the break room. Dave Juan was sitting there alone, reading. I grabbed his book from him, put it on the table and declared, “Dave Juan, this is war with Linens ‘n’ Things!”
He adjusted his glasses, gave me a look of complete understanding and nodded. “Oh, ok, it is.” Then he picked up his book and started reading again.
That was the first day I went to Linens ‘n’ Things on my lunch break. And I went there every shift I worked, sometimes even on my days off when I was waiting for my friends to clock out.
Sometimes I’d switch signs in the store around, putting sale signs near items that weren’t actually on sale. Sometimes I would move the entire stock of one product to the opposite side of the store. I unmade all of the fancy-looking bed displays. And other people I worked with got swept up in this retail war and would spend part of their lunch breaks trying to sabotage Linens ‘n’ Things as well.
Then there were the prank calls. We’d prank call you every day. Your phone number was even saved in my phone. That was the summer we learned that Malibu rum and Blackhaus tasted awfully good when mixed with the blue granita drinks we sold. So when we clocked out, we’d mix drinks in the parking lot and call your store, asking you to search for completely ridiculous items, from plungers of a specific size to lime green curtains to melon ballers.
Then, we got ballsier. We started prank calling you from the phone in the café while we were working. The best was the day we had Renee – the blondest, whitest girl I know – call the store to place a fake sexual harassment claim against the manager, whose name, we had learned, was Tim. When asked for her name, she paused, “Ummmm…” and then said, “Lynette Johnson.” Then a page came over our store’s loudspeaker that the café had a call and we hastily hung up the phone.
A few days later, one of our managers (the coolest person in the world who was also somewhat mentally unhinged – she once tried to make me snort sugar through a straw and one night, after mixing alcohol with her medication, chased me through an Applebee’s and flashed me in a bathroom stall) told me she had gotten a call from Linens ‘n’ Things that some of her employees were prank calling them. She wasn’t mad, and, off the record, thought it was funny when I told her the entire story, but she suggested we stay far away from you for a while.
It had been a valiant effort on our part, but with one phone call from your manager, I had been defeated.
But now, years later, I have moved far, far away from the infuriating field of customer service, which, many will tell you, is certainly not my forte, and Borders, despite having its share of financial difficulties, is still standing. So as I stood outside Borders that night, about to get some tea with my friends, the immature 19-year-old in me couldn’t help but feel a little smug as I looked at the empty Linens ‘n’ Things across the parking lot. Because perhaps I lost that initial battle the day your manager called my store to complain, but it was obvious I had won the war.