June 2005

Ian Daffern

features

Breasts and Bookstores

Pamela Anderson got the idea for her new show Stacked from me. More on this later.

I work part-time at a used-book store on trendy College street in Toronto. Working there isn’t like Man vs. Beast or America’s Funniest Police Chases, but we do have our crazy walk-on characters and eclectic staff. I just never dreamed that if the show was ever made, my role would be played by Pamela Anderson. But now we have the bookstore sitcom, Stacked.

In this new show, the former Ms. Tommy Lee plays Skyler, a chic party girl who attempts to turn her life around by applying for a job at a bookstore, also called Stacked. The store is owned by a pair of brothers: Gavin, the uptight failed-author, and Stuart, the regular guy who has taken a shine to Skyler. Both brothers are strict book nerds. The cast is rounded out by a kooky coffee-shop girl to offset Pam’s glam with her chubby-girl insecurities and Christopher Lloyd, reprising his role from Back to the Future as the store’s improbable rocket-scientist regular.

I’m here to tell you how Stacked measures up against the real thing. I set up a little experiment, screening the show in our store for the owners and see what stuck.

Now Stacked basically has only two jokes. One, Pamela’s got really big boobs. Her breasts are magnetic, drawing the eye like a magic trick. During the episode we were watching, in which Skyler competes for her job against a more apt, would-be employee, Gavin says to his brother: “C’mon, Stuart, she doesn’t fit in here. This place isn’t called Hooters -- it’s called Stacked!”

Two, you can’t judge a book by its cover, ho-ho! Luckily they milk the most out of that line in the very first episode. However, its spirit lives on as Skyler’s ditzy-blonde wisdom trumps the pompous smarty-pants every time, just like in real life.

This makes Stacked a kind-of silicone version of Frasier, trading the Cranes’ high-culture references and working-class foils for literary allusions and a devotion to chick-lit and self-help books.

But the thing is, I think I actually like this show. I don’t know how long it will last, but it’s fun, and it’s funny. Stacked is packed with references, so there’s more than just tits to titillate the literati. The show throws in props for everything from Lemony Snicket to the always hilarious PEN/Faulkner awards. It probably won’t be long till Salman Rushdie takes a seat on Pam’s lap.

However, the marketing possibilities are also on display, as our store’s owner, Joyce, pointed out: “It’s interesting that there is this poster in Gavin’s office for The Known World, which is a real book. All the other books are fake, so I’m thinking, the company that publishes the book is probably the same one that makes the show.”

At our bookstore, we have a dynamic between the two principle owners that is platonically perfect for a sitcom, yet so nuanced you would swear they were cribbed from a really smart film about booksellers from Sundance, that maybe you heard about but likely won’t see till it comes out on video. They even finish each other’s sentences. Take this first impression of Stacked:

Joyce: Well. It’s got…
Lewis: …Cliché. It’s got boob jokes. Most of the jokes play off on her body.

And there you go.

The owner, Joyce, is a former Yorkville hippie, a blousy blonde who is about as far from Stacked’s uptight intellectuals as you can imagine. She’s a huge advocate of junk culture, consuming mass quantities of celebrity tabloids, chick lit, and sitcoms like Will and Grace and, well, Stacked. And yet, she also has a comprehensive knowledge of art-house films and opera. She’s the opposite of a snob -- a cultural omnivore, with the kind of innate human duality that would bust the brains of your average television executive.

Co-owner Lewis is always there, looking after his own stock of academic books and working an online shop on the side. Lewis is so fussy he once was unable to say the word "snob," for fear of leaving a bad taste in his mouth when describing his own predilections for imported Swiss chocolate.

When they’re together, he needles, she whines, and they carry on all day about any topic imaginable, for the most part blissfully unaware of customers. Which is just as well.

Compare this with one of the elements that most misses the mark in Stacked. the overly sincere owner, Gavin: “I love working here, this place is important to me, ‘cause I care about books!” These are sentiments you would never overhear around our shop. I mean we like books, but what the fuck? Y’know?

This one-note characterization is what Lewis takes most umbrage with, as he muses, “I wonder what Lawrence Ferhlengeti of City Lights would think of this show? You know, the famous beat poet? Owns that book store in San Francisco. He’s kind of a cool guy. And the impression of this show is that all people in bookstores are nerds. And I think we’re cool. Look at us. We’re all freaks and weirdoes! We’re not just boring nerds. Don’t you agree?”

And we’ve got our supporting cast too: the part-time worker who needs to drink three times the amount he’d earn in his hours to make to overcome his public paranoia; the sketchy computer help with an unhealthy obsession for photographing my girlfriend; the distinguished auctioneer who smokes out the storeroom above with his chronic weed habit.

The bookstore backdrop that makes up Stacked is beautiful, perfectly neat dark wood shelves, and flawless displays. Our panelists concede its possibility. “It would be very rar," Lewis says, “cause you’d have to wonder how they pay their rent, and support the café. It’s very unlikely that a bookstore would have a cappuccino machine if it wasn’t a Barnes and Noble.”

We sat in the bookstore for the full twenty-two minutes, ignoring all three customers. At the end of the show, Joyce makes her call, “I don’t know if I would put it into the Seinfeld category, but its certainly better than most American sitcoms. Oh Lewis, you haven’t seen what’s out there. It’s like a desert.”

Of our three panelists, one was already hooked, the other bemused, and the last laughed out loud whenever there was a particularly mean joke.

Here at the bookstore we are all stuck together by the nature of work. Why these bonds survive is not quite nearly so expressible. The phone company stopped leasing us Call Display phones after one too many units were "rendered inoperable." As Lewis says, “Yeah most bookstores we know are very unconventional. Whereas on Stacked, everyone is cardboard and flat -- it’s more like a small chain bookstore.”

I always thought the actual give and take and interplay between the staff here is very much like a sitcom; a situation that you can never leave, populated by the most bizarre eccentrics imaginable. Their fates are entwined for years on end, or at least until syndication.

Maybe that’s why we like sitcoms: My god, there has to be some release from the vexing clashes, the niggling irritations, and the boredom of retail. Stacked succeeds. Maybe there’s a lot more under Pam’s covers than we give her credit for.