August 2004

Ben McLeod

features

Working the Clinton Signing

We got the nod to host Mr. Clinton’s only midwestern book signing stop just after Book Expo, the tour’s only midwestern stop between Denver, Colorado and Atlanta, Georgia. I wish I could say the initial reaction on the part of the crew was all pride and excitement, but mostly what I recall is anxious sideways glances and apprehension.

Over the following weeks as the details firmed up and we began to get information we could pass on to the public we began to talk about it in the cynical voices of seasoned retail veterans, assessing the preparations and ever-changing Situation like weary combat veterans bitching about an upcoming assault none of us expected to come back from. We parsed out details through an always ringing phone to callers from down the block and as far away as New Hampshire (a fella who wanted to use his frequent flier miles to come here for the signing only to be forbidden from doing so by his wife). Someone postponed his cancer surgery to come. We were told we would be boycotted if we allowed that "confirmed sexual predator" into the store. We answered the same half-dozen questions over and over until it just became easier to launch into the monologue as soon the receiver was at one’s ear and mouth.

While we -- we being Barbara’s Bookstore -- are an independent -- in that we aren’t owned by a larger concern -- we do have about nine actual stores, six in Chicago and three back East. This makes us neither fish nor fowl as far as the "indy" book world is concerned. The particular store I work at is near the University of Illinois-Chicago, and they wanted to help us in any way they could with the whole Bill Clinton thing. The 25th Ward’s alderman’s office also spoke up, offering whatever help they could provide. The Chicago Police Department wanted to make sure the whole thing would be well controlled and safe, and of course the Secret Service would be the final word on actual security. The book’s publisher, Random House, would of course be involved, and Mr. Clinton’s staff needed to clear any decisions made by anybody.

So just sit back and let your mind wander for a minute on the inscrutable web of bureaucracy and garbled communications that naturally sprang up all around that single calendar date, July 1st.

Upon arrival at the store each day I would check our logbook for any new developments, and every day whatever had been written there last had already changed, so I run down whoever looks least frazzled and pick their brain regarding the latest poop from whoever was making decisions that day. And try and relate that succinctly to fifty callers an hour, callers who generally just wanted to know how to get a signed book and bore nobody any ill will, but there were some real angry folks out there.

The only sane and fair way to handle the signing was to issue tickets, one per customer, that would allow each ticket holder a place in the line. Then each person could have their one book signed and be on their way. This seemed like the fair and simple way to run things. But the tickets sold out on Day Two, and all the advertising was still up, and the majority of the interested public found out after the whole thing was already sold to capacity. The largest number of calls were the angry, disappointed, and frustrated unlucky who found out too late, who each wanted to talk to a manager, who each wanted to complain about why we hadn’t promoted it in advance, who each wanted to say that really, had we ever done anything like this before and why hadn’t we planned things better and what were we thinking? Tickets were going for $300 on eBay. Signed books were available there too, long before the event, the sale details saying they had been signed in Chicago at Barbara’s Bookstore and could be mailed on July 1st.

When the book (and the tickets) were available for sale on June 22nd there were about 600 folks outside the store before we even opened. On June 30th, the night before the event, there were about 60 people waiting, lined up at the gate to the long cattle-run of barricades set up by the University before we even closed the store. By the time I arrived the next morning the crowd stretched down Roosevelt for blocks.

Having done plenty of security work in the past I was placed at the front doors to the store to let in small groups to be cleared by the Secret Service. The inside of the store was completely under the control of the Secret Service and Clinton’s staff, a crowd of younger folks and guys in suits who didn’t introduce themselves. The outside of the store was the domain of University Security, University Events Staff, and the CPD. The actual bookstore employees such as myself were pinned in between, me at the door, a handful of people doing the Will Call table out in the blasting sun and another small gaggle behind the registers fighting the multi-headed hydra of the ever-ringing phone.

At some point the line got stopped and no explanation was given. Around six hundred people were stuck out on the sidewalk with books and tickets and coolers and umbrellas and lawn chairs, agitated and growing ever more disgruntled. Inside people were milling around in an intra-bureacratic whirlwind of accusation, bargaining and shoulder-shrugging.

Eventually the Secret Service was deployed to shunt the barricades around and place tables in a line under an awning. Apparently Mr. Clinton would be coming outside to briefly greet the crowd and sign a handful of books before he was whisked away to his next whatever. This was clearly not our gig anymore, so a couple guys and myself, standing around smoking decided to take all the Will Call books and gear. Loading the boxes onto a handcart we made our way to the back door of our office. Walking in and unloading (and me noticing the mess made of my desk by whomever had been using it that day) we realised we were about finger-poking distance away from the former President of the United States, who was quietly talking to what looked like a photographer. No Secret Service or cops in sight. We kinda milled around for a few minutes, went through the fridge for water or soda, picked warm lunchmeat and cheese off the deli trays sprawled across the desks, and went back outside.

About a half block down a pair of police officers and a Secret Service fella were standing around a CPD car. Walking over we said that we felt we should point out that umm, The Dude is right there, with nobody around, and we just kinda walked up to him and maybe was that like, not secure?
The SS man smiled and shrugged. “He’s the boss. He can go where ever he wants.”