The Day I Almost Burned Down the Mall
When Poor Recovery and Bookselling Come Together There Can Be Sparks
I almost burnt down the Monroeville Mall in Pennsylvania.
Not on purpose, mind you; it was all due to the vacuum... and the part-time evening bookseller.
I can explain. Back in the 1990's the Waldenbooks staff could only dream of having a housekeeping person. The whole store staff (OK, exaggeration: usually the manager/person with whom the manager was angry/newest bookseller) did the daily cleaning. This included dusting, trash and running the vacuum.
One morning, as my Assistant Manager, Bonnie, counted down the register drawers I walked the store and saw that the store was a mess; no one had recovered it the night before. Recovery is a fancy word for cleaning, straightening, putting books back where they belong, and all the other tedious housekeeping jobs our small staff needed to do in order to make an inviting place for people to shop. Worse yet, the nighttime vacuuming hadn't been done. Rats. (Not real rats. That's another story. This was just an expression of disgust.) Someone was going to need to vacuum.
That someone would be Bonnie.
I listened to her progress as I took over the drawer-counting. I could hear her start outside the stockroom door, running the vacuum through the maze of Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Pets/Test Prep. I heard her turn the corner into Childrens' section.
Wait. What was that? That wheezing sound? Was that Bonnie? No, it was the vacuum. The bag of the old and creaky vacuum must be full again. Probably sucked up a craft piece from a Klutz book....
Hmmm.. that doesn't sound right. There's some banging. The usual muffled exhortations from Bonnie about crappy machines, (OK, THAT sounded right) and a whomping noise, (that was new and didn't sound good).
I headed back to see if Bonnie needed my expert handyperson assistance. (By that I mean to say I would helpfully unplug and re-plug the machine, or thump on it, or turn it over and stare at the impenetrable casing on it's bottom-side. You know; useful stuff that managers with no true understanding of the situation do.)
But, no, there she was, coming toward me down the center aisle of the store, jerking the handle of the machine as she moved. All was well. Until it wasn't. There was another whomp!- and dust came out of the back of the machine. No. That wasn't dust. It was smoke.
Now, that's not good.
I took off up the aisle towards her as she dropped the handle of the machine, turned, and raced back towards the rear of the store where the vacuum was plugged into the outlet. Except. No. Except it wasn't plugged in back there. And Bonnie was not built for sprints.
I got to the vacuum and lifted the handle just as an interesting jet of fire licked out of the base of the bag. I heard the rear door chime and knew Bonnie was in the backroom. The front gate was down and latched about 25 feet in front of me. The outlet was about 10 feet behind me. My keys were in my pocket. I was on my own.
The fire was going to hit that dust-filled bag. (Oh dear Lord, when was it last emptied? Who the heck knew?)
Stop asking questions and THINK!
You are in a store filled with BOOKS!
On a CARPET!
Stuff that BURNS!
Where was Bonnie?!
What if the SPRINKLERS go OFF?
What if they DON'T?!
I grabbed the handle in one hand, wrapped the cord around my other wrist and pulled the plug from the outlet. Bending over like an only slightly squashed crab with a headache, I scuttled towards the gate, quickly jammed my key in the lock with the cord hand and used that same hand to throw the gate up and open.
As the gate lifted I whirled the flaming vacuum through the widening space -sideways: low and horizontal, like a crouching shotput- into the mall common space outside our gate and onto the marble mall floor.
The machine popped upright like a Weeble and the fire, fed by the whipping around, jumped into the vacuum bag and roared into flame.
It was mesmerizing, it was horrific, it was OUT of my store!
I stood there tingling and scared speechless as Bonnie rushed by me panting. (And man! She was MOVING!) She had a fire extinguisher in her hand and, aiming it first at the base of the handle, promptly put the fire out. She drained that extinguisher of every foamy-fire-suppressing-molecule.
We stood there side by side looking at the foamy greasy smoky mess. Out of breath, zinging with adrenaline, gasping for air. Neither of us really in any physical shape AT ALL for what we'd just done. Worse yet we hadn't had any coffee yet and the registers still weren't open yet. We became aware of two older gentlemen sitting on a bench taking in the whole thing.
One said quietly to the other "That's gonna be hard to clean up." Yes.
So where was Bonnie? She ran to the backroom ~the restroom, actually~ to get the fire extinguisher. (She told me she has seen the directions hundreds of times as she answered the call of nature and when she saw fire that's the first thing she thought of. 'Peeing?', I asked? No. She thought of the only fire extinguisher she could recall. ) As she did she passed the one at the registers and another half-way through the store. Me? I never even thought of the extinguishers. I passed them hundreds of times a week and never noticed them.
I've had this incident on my mind this week. What else do I miss every day? What do I pass by? Take for granted? What solutions are around me that I just don't see? That's what turned up in my memory this week.
A reminder to look a little closer. Reflect on how blessed it is when your coworkers become your friends.
And change your sweeper bag! ____________________________________________________
If this story made you smile or perhaps just glad I'm not your manager, click on the heart below to let me know.
Here are some other stories from my bookstore days: