He’s Dead, Jim – Did We Stock Up In Time?

“Holy crap,” said Scott, putting down the phone with a muffled click. “One of my sales reps just called me up to tell me Frank Sinatra just died.”

A hushed silence fell over the office. It was 4:35 on a Friday afternoon.

“You sure?” I said, raising my voice so I could be heard over the top of the cubicles.

“No,” he said, frowning. “She said a friend heard it on the radio, but she can’t verify he’s dead. It could be a rumor… but we don’t know for sure either way.”

And with that, the entire Waldenbooks Merchandising Department exploded into a frenzy of research.

Every book buyer in the department called up their best sales reps, asking them what they’d heard on Sinatra. Every assistant was calling home to see if their parents knew. Every boss was sitting in his office, biting his nails and waiting anxiously for the news. Had Frankie bought it? Was ol’ Blue Eyes pushing up daisies? If so… how? Did anyone know?

Bueller? Bueller?

I myself hopped online, desperately checking CNN.com and MSNBC – but dammit, neither site had been updated since 3:55, and who knows what had happened since then? Goddamn internet. You can’t be sure. One of the buyers was looking for a TV in the neighborhood, running down to the local barbershop to see if they had one. Surely there would be interruptions from the local news about Sinatra’s death… but the barber shop didn’t have a TV, and neither did anyone else within jogging distance. We cursed the fact that we were downtown, away from all the electronics shops. One Sears and we would have known. God dammit.

Finally, at 4:55 pm, I had a brainstorm. My friend Dora worked at an insurance company and had always complained that the easy-listening 40s radio station there drove her nuts. She was forced to listen to various 1940s-50s classics day after day, with no volume control…. Perfect. Who else would have the scoop on a freshly-deceased swingin’ cat like Frankie? And since she had to listen… she’d know.

I called.

“Hey there, sweetie,” said I. “Listen, did the radio station mention anything about Frank Sinatra dying?”

“No,” she said, stunned by the potential news. “Is he dead?”

“Who knows?” I replied. “One of our reps in New York said he’d passed on, but nobody can say for sure. I was hoping you could tell me.”

“Wow,” she said, awestruck. “Sinatra… dead… man, I mean, he was a genius. No matter what you say about him, he’s… he’s just done a lot of stuff that’s going to live on for pretty much forever.”

She paused for a moment, considering my own musical preferences, which mostly ran to borderline metal acts, usually with food-related names like the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Korn. “Say, I wouldn’t have picked you as a Sinatra fan.”

“I’m not,” I explained. “But if he’s dead we’re gonna sell a boatload of books on him, and if we don’t get our order in before 5:00 they won’t ship ’til Monday.”

There was a silence that you could have dropped my soul into. The conversation sort of died after that.

The conversation was dead… but Sinatra wasn’t. As everyone knows, Ol’ Blue Eyes bought the farm on May 15th, 1999 – a Saturday. The nameless rep from New York had been wrong. The awful truth was that we had to endure three more months of Sinatra’s continuing existence before we finally got our man.

And our sales.

Because that’s all we cared about. Whatever got the tides of warm cash flowing across our registers and into our greedy little pockets was the only thing that mattered. Compassion and empathy had no place in the world of hard commerce. And dead celebrities sold.

Well, some of ’em anyway.

Because let’s face it, nobody’s going to tearfully hand us a twenty thanks to the premature demise of Carrot Top. We had no Death Wish for Charles Bronson. David Schwimmer wasn’t going to make our registers ring.

And it didn’t have to do with popularity, either. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a huge star, but he won’t cause vast outpourings of tirades and public lamentations when he passes on. Some stars are just more interesting – more loved – than others.

No, the gruesome part of our job was deciding which celebrities would have the most successful deaths.

One of our favorite office gossip topics was betting on who’d cack next, and how big a splash he’d leave.

“Reagan.”

“Oh, come on. Not only has he been dying for years, but half the people hated him when he was alive! Brief flare of nostalgia, but by the time they rush out the quickie retrospective books he’ll be gone.”

“Katherine Hepburn.”

“Longer than Reagan, but still not great. She hasn’t made a movie since, what, 1980?… nobody our age will remember who the hell she is. She’ll get some serious press because she was the last of the Hollywood greats, et cetera…”

“…and don’t forget she wrote her own book….”

“Right. That helps. And she was – is – famous for being mouthy, so people who don’t know much about her will be curious to see how bad she was. But two months later and it’ll be Katherine who?

“All right, then, Mister Bigshot – who do you like? Yeltsin? Bob Hope?”

“Charles Schulz.”

Who?

“Guy who does Peanuts, man. You know. Charlie Brown, that shit?”

“Oh, that’s a real winner.”

“You think so, huh? Consider this, my friend: Who doesn’t like Snoopy? When Schulz cacks, suddenly everyone realizes – no more Linus, goodbye Peppermint Patty, sayonara Woodstock. Then everyone realizes that hey, that Schulz cat did some pretty damn good work after all. Everyone wants to read up on his old stuff, see if it’s as good as they remember…. Next thing you know, someone comes out with a retrospective, and bang! We’re selling books.”

“You’re kidding.”

(Crosses arms.) “You just wait. You weren’t here for Dr. Seuss, my friend.”

Eventually we began to start discussing healthy celebrities. Healthy celebrities we both loved and hated, because you could never prepare for them -why, why didn’t Kurt Cobain drop us a note the week before his death? We wouldn’t have told anyone – but they invariably made the biggest splash. (*Insert Obligatory JFK Jr. Pun Here.*) But again, not all celebrities are created equal, in life or in death.

The trick was that you needed three elements to come together at once: Surprise, youth, and tragedy.

Surprise was essential because, well, you needed to shock people to make the headlines. Okay, Doctor Ruth could kick off tomorrow, but she looks like she’d been having her facelifts by a mortician for years. Who the fuck cares? You were expecting it. I mean, Mother Teresa died the same weekend as Princess Di – but that wrinkly wench never turned any kind of profit for us, damn her heathen soul. If Mother Teresa had possessed the slimmest scrap of business sense, she would have hired a radical Muslim to gutshoot her during High Mass because he despised her views on abortion. But no, she just passed away. And another potentially good celebrity profitmine passed into that good night as well.

Youth is a large factor of a good surprise celeb death – the younger the celeb, the less you thought they’d buy it -but if surprise is what pushes your ship down the gangplank, then youth is what gets those engines runnin’. Who wants to stare at snaps of Jimmy Stewart’s wrinkled puss all day long? Do you want to try to interpret that fleshy roadmap of Zsa Zsa Gabor’s crumpled mug every night for a week? No, youth is what makes the death palatable. You can watch pictures of dead people all day if it looks like you could molest the corpse.

And the final element – tragedy – is what differentiates a JFK from a JFK Jr. There has to be some majorly unfinished business in their life… the feeling that the dead guy was cut off prematurely from a grand and glorious future. To be really tragic, not only should Joe Funeral here be on a tremendous creative jag, but preferably he should have just overcome some personal hurdle… getting off drugs, new start with the wife, just pumped out a kid, et cetera.

When JFK died, he had both tragedies; a whole Presidency before him and a whole brain behind him, all over his wife’s dress. How could JFK Jr. beat that? With George magazine? Oh, puh-lease. And so JFK still has twenty books a year published on him, while JFK Jr. will be lucky to have the back page of Entertainment Weekly devoted to him in a couple of years. Of these small changes are great deaths made.

We started having discussions on current celebrities, stars who didn’t have a cloud in the sky as far as we knew:

“Pamela Anderson?”

“Ricky Martin?”

“George Lucas?”

“Clinton?”

(Pamela nobody would care about; she’s no Monroe and her “tragedy” would be the loss of a Baywatch reunion. Ricky Martin might have a shot at Buddy Holly status in the Latino community… but probably not. Lucas would, of course, inspire frenzy and panic – but he was ugly and not particularly likeable, so it was a mixed bag. Clinton, surprisingly, we agreed would be a maelstrom, as he had tragedy up the wazoo and the unsolved mystery to of his personality to boot. But where in hell was John Hinckley when you needed him?)

But we all sighed. Because we knew, deep in our heart of hearts, that there was no replacement for Princess Di. Every night we prayed that someone would become as famous, tormented, and deeply loved as The People’s Princess, and then die horribly… but it never happened. But unlike celebrities, hope never dies.

(Hope never dies either, but that’s because he’s a vampire. What, you think he went to every war because he liked servicemen? No, Bob Hope loves entertaining the troops because they let him suck the blood out of the bodies in back when he’s done. Trust me. I heard it from an old Marine pal of mine.)

But here’s an interesting fact that you might not have known: Much like Sinatra, a celebrity’s stuff will go up before he dies… if he has an extended illness. That’s for two reasons: One, every savvy buyer in America discreetly stocks up on, say, Sinatra merchandise because they know that if the Grim Reaper isn’t knocking, he’s at least pulling into the driveway. And two, the public, who has heard the brave tales of how well Celebrity X has been coping, will suddenly see those piles and remember, “Hey! He was pretty good after all! Jeez, it’s been so long since I watched that movie, I should buy it…”

I’ve often wondered whether anyone tells the celebrities about their deathbed sales spikes… and how they interpret them. Was Mel Torme in the hospital, thinking “My God, my record sales are way up! If only my lungs weren’t in small black sticky piles on the floor… dammit, I could be making my comeback now!” Is Don Knotts choking out his last breath, saying, “They’ve – kapf – finally discovered my genius, and now it’s too late! My God! The irony!”

And I wish that I could still be at Walden. Stocking up my books, my Andy Griffith soundtracks, my original Disney copies of The Incredible Mister Limpet. And when I had the perfect stock situation, I’d lean over into Don’s ear and whisper tenderly:

“Don, they’re waiting for you to die. They just happened to read about your impending demise in the papers and they’re getting their last remembrances in before you fade away, never to be remembered again.”

And as the doctors futilely try to rescuscitate ol’ Barney Fife, I’ll look in the hospital room and smile. Because for the first time ever, we were able to time the Andy Griffith promotion exactly.

Even if he did need a little help.

1 Comment

  1. Sabine
    Feb 25, 2013

    I had the same experience when I was working at Waldenbooks, but it was for Octavia Butler, and I was the senior keyholder of a tiny little store in Northeastern Pennsylvania. I was the only person who cared, really, but I did sell a whole bunch of copies of Parable of the Sower…

    Mainly because I lied about it being on the local summer reading list as I couldn’t stand to watch her stuff go unread. Better living through people not paying attention to the directions they were originally given, whoo!

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