I worked at the Hollywood Samuel French store for eight years in and around the nineties, as a manager for two or three of them, and I’ve never been prouder of a title. I wasn’t surprised to learn it was closing (I am familiar with the internet), but I already miss its grimy magic. The theatre and film selection was incomparable, the music books drew Morrissey and Michael Jackson back repeatedly, but it was the culture of Samuel French, organically and unconsciously crafted by the underpaid employees of 7623 Sunset Blvd, that make it worth mourning.
Most of the staff were artists, and we always had a core group of theatre and film experts who (shocking) couldn’t make a living in their chosen field. They weren’t the most equanimous lot. There was an undercurrent of anger that flowed through the staff, who were forced to listen to lazier, less experienced, talented, intelligent, and/or knowledgeable versions of themselves daily regaling us with their successes while demanding free advice. Unless a customer was exceptionally appreciative, deferential, and humble, they probably experienced some of the fallout from this conflict.
I don’t excuse the behavior; I’m not unashamed of it; I only explicate it. If you wanted Zen, you could go to The Bodhi Tree. Here you had employees who would spend 15 precious minutes thoughtfully collecting a requested type of scene thanked with, “can’t you give me something you’ve never given to anyone else before?” Or the equally narcissistic demand, “can you give me a monologue that’s perfect just for me?” As a soft-core monopoly in the era before social media, we had the privilege of taking out our frustration on anyone too demanding. Several A-listers were told that if they wanted special treatment, they could try and get their plays elsewhere. Pre-twitter, no one person could ruin our reputation. Pre-Amazon, no one would dare try to put us out of business: there was nothing to replace us.
Of course, there was also plenty to keep us going, even beyond the limitless book-borrowing policy. Our favorites were when people came in with a specific description of a piece for which they’d forgotten the title, which the team in back would jump on with all the passion of agents trying to solve a bizarre crime. Sometimes we were just happy to help because you were nice, or because this was something we could control. We could prove that we were worthy, that we were real actors, writers, filmmakers, by demonstrating our superior artistic knowledge, even if our careers felt like failed crapshoots. In here, experience and diligence alone might occasionally earn sincere gratitude, or the feeling that you had something worthwhile to offer.
The peevish, hyper-literate employees are what made Samuel French special. Maybe they didn’t always give you exactly what you wanted, but it was always personal, not algorithmic. You could get lucky and catch an employee after a trip to NY, eager to share all the newest plays, or a film buff who just read the latest Tarkovsky criticism. Even if you didn’t walk out with the monologue that would make your career, you were the recipient of a personal, complex series of choices that couldn’t be replicated elsewhere, with all the quirks of human interaction sprinkled on top. We gave our hard-earned expertise away to people who by and large did not appreciate it, while the eleven phone lines rang ceaselessly and the queue at the register lengthened and the mail orders piled up and the shelves were stripped of stock. And we did it all for around $10 an hour. The store could have, theoretically, charged for advice, but then our bona fides would have been questioned; and if our jobs had been strictly customer assistance most of us would have quit. The consultation was inimitable because even if it was given grudgingly, it was given without obligation, and contained all the eccentricities, proclivities, and marvels that come with that.
Several of my coworkers went on to successful careers, but then they didn’t work there anymore. None of the hourly employees working in that store were exactly where they wanted to be. They were lurching down the same road as those who frequented it. An older employee once told me that staff were more themselves at Samuel French than any place he’d worked. It made for good staff rapport and four marriages, but the tradeoff was unhidden capriciousness. For better or worse, when you walked into Samuel French you got authenticity: battered bookshelves, card catalogues crammed with scribbled notes, a surfeit of resources; and the human equivalent in its employees, who contained multitudes.