The Cornell Store

23 02 2011

So, this entry is a little different from the norm because normally, I cite several outside sources to try and put together something coherent enough to pass as a blog entry. But this post is a little different, because most of it will be anecdotal. I worked at the store from the start of my third week of Cornell up to the Wednesday of senior week, including full time for at least one summer. So I learned a lot about the place (plus, I think I was the highest paid student employee by the time I left, so my wallet was happy). Plus, one of my favorite things to do on break was to smuggle a book about some random Cornelliana upstairs to the breakroom, so in a way, my job encouraged this blog.

Obviously, I’ve graduated and moved on. Rule of thumb was (probably still is), if you want to keep your job, don’t write anything about the store. Hence, I made the store conspicuously absent from my posts, even when I was sorely, terribly tempted to do otherwise. Which played out quite fortuitously on one occasion.

So, over at Fast Lane, Elie Bilmes, for all of his wonderful posts, managed to rub me the wrong way when he posted an entry casting suspicion about the store’s $100 gift card giveaway. It hit a sour note because over the years we had repeatedly been accused and verbally attacked by customers who thought we were stealing their information and tracking them, such that a couple of my coworkers were driven to tears. We actually had a professor taken from the store by CUPD in my first year because he struck an employee who he thought was stealing his identity by swiping his ID card.  Anyways, the $100 gift card giveaway wasn’t fake. We kept a list of the winners (a book of sheets containing name, ID#, student/faculty/staff, date won, claimed, and the cashier who made the sale [cashiers get $5 bonuses if one of their customers wins – an incentive for them to ask for the ID card]) in the back of store services, the department I worked in. I thought of posting something, but I knew I wasn’t willing to take that risk of getting in trouble with my employer. Seeing the questions still on the entry, I’ll address them now – no, you technically don’t have to buy something to enter your ID, but the ID has to be swiped in to say you were in the store that day (online orders don’t count). But we would think you’re a really big dork if you just came in for the sake of getting your card swiped. There was a winner every day the store was open, and for a while we did publish the winners on large tablet sheets which were placed on the structural columns. I guess no one noticed.

Anyways, it happened to be a couple of days after the post when I was working on a Saturday, and who should come up to the counter but Elie Bilmes. I think, for the record, this is the only time I ever met Elie, and I didn’t even introduce myself. I rang him up and then told him that I saw his entry, and I could show him the proof that we have winners. He politely declined. But I went to the back anyway, pulled out the clipboard of sheets and, from across the service area, offered him a closer look if he thought it was fake. Shortly after, the update was posted to the entry. Anyways, if I still worked there, admitting I did that could possibly have been enough to get me fired for a breach of privacy or something. Not a risk I was willing to take, so I’m only sharing it now. Sorry Elie, I wasn’t trying to be an ass, but I probably came across that way.

Which, I’ll admit that near the end of my four years, I wasn’t very lovable. I was very capable, no denying that. But I learned that the more I was paid, the bigger the amount of BS that seemed to come my way. And as my older coworkers graduated, the younger ones looked to me as the next step in the hierarchy. Especially on weekends, when we had no full timers. I think my tipping one was the occasion an architect berated me for not having Rockite in stock and calling me cheap hired help, not even realizing I was a student too. The damnedest thing about that was that there was an architect who used to come in, buy over a hundred pounds of Rockite, and sell it over at Rand for a profit. Yes, the architects had a black market.  I couldn’t decline selling Rockite because someone was “buying too much”.

The store had about $21,200,000 in total revenue in 2008. I remember this on a stakeholder packet that had been printed up sometime early in my senior year. However, after expenditures, our profit was an almighty $200,000, roughly. The store was majority-owned by CBS – Cornell Business Services, so profits went into university operations. We made virtually no profit selling textbooks. What money we did make came from novelty item sales – clothing, candies, mugs and the like. The store had about 40 full time staff, plus a few more at the warehouse on Palm Road, and about 50 part-time students interspersed through the departments. Some students worked only 7 or 8 hours, others like myself fell more towards the upper end of 13-15. The Statler Hotel gift shop and Sage print shop generated a grand total of 2.5 jobs, and the gift shop operated at a loss. It was only kept open because the hotel needed it for its three-star classification. I didn’t mind covering the Statler. Even though I had to wear shirt and tie, it was so slow I could do homework there. Plus I got to meet Robert and Helen Appel, namesakes of Appel Commons.

While I worked there, Cornell stopped doing long-term maintenance on some of the mechanicals because they planned to close the store down within the next five to seven years and demolish the structure, which of course caught my interest. The store mulled over moving to a space in Collegetown or to a location halfway between the Arts Quad and the Vet School, a proposal that as a far as I know is still on the table, albeit mothballed due to the Great Recession. Still, I don’t expect the current ca.1970, 33,000 sq ft structure to be around way too much longer (only about 22,000 sq ft is selling space). Which is a win for aesthetics, but it will be a loss for my nostalgia and for many of my memories. I used to joke that working at the store kept my sanity and reminded me why I was in college. But given some of the more frustrating times, there was a little more truth to that than I let on.



One response

24 02 2011

Don’t worry, I thought you handled the situation well and I left the store convinced that the drawing was legitimate. I didn’t expect that I would actually be confronted in person about it, but it all worked out well.

Also, I’m glad to see that you’re keeping up with the blogging. My schedule is so unpredictable that I haven’t been able to do too much (on Meta, not mine). I am heading back to Ithaca for a couple of days in March, so hopefully that will give me some inspiration.

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