Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Great Crown Books Robbery

And now for something completely different...

Umlaut was once a Sci-Fi / Fantasy book nerd. As a result, I spent a good number of years working in bookstores and I cut my teeth at a suburban branch of Crown Books. I'm not sure how ubiquitous Crown was around the rest of the country, but they were in MANY strip malls around the S.F. Bay Area in the 80's. The nerdish image of CEO Robert Haft Jr. in Crown's advertising spouting the tagline "If you paid full price, you didn't buy it at Crown Books." was annoyingly iconic.

Crown was started by the Haft Family, headed by their patriarch Robert Haft Sr., who made his initial fortune from his chain of Dart Drug stores before expanding his empire with chainstores like Trak Auto and Crown Books. At its height, Crown Books was the 3rd largest bookstore chain in the U.S..

Eventually I worked my way up to the bookstore equivalent of Fry Cook: Assistant Manager. As the Asst. Mgr. I was generally in charge of the store for a couple of weeknights and one weekend day per week.

It was at Crown Books where I also met Old Umlaut friend Hayne. Umlaut and Hayne worked many a weeknight assisting the book buying public and making fun of them behind their backs. This friendship continues to this day and led to many karmic events over the years (awww..). In terms of The Great Crown Books Robbery, Hayne was a key figure.

One of my duties as Fry Coo...err.. Assistant Manager when closing the store was to insure that all of the cash from the registers and the office change drawer were locked in the store safe. I performed these duties faithfully for 3 or so years until one fateful night in 1987.

For reasons I can't remember now, on that night I didn't lock the office change drawer in the safe; the drawer contained $200 in coins and bills. I was no doubt in a hurry to get out of there.. and I was due to be back at the store the next morning anyway. What were the odds that someone would break into the store on that very night?? WHAT WERE THE ODDS??!!

So get this: On the ONLY night I didn't lock the change drawer in the safe, some burglars attempting to break into the shop next door (a high-end eyeglass place) fell through the ceiling as they made their way through the ventilation shaft. I shit you not.

How did we know they fell through the ceiling? Because of the big hole in the ceiling panels and all of the shelves in the Children's Section were broken as if something heavy had fallen on them.

Evidently once inside the bookstore the burglars decided to see what could be had and pried open the change drawer in the office. It was probably the easiest $200 they ever made by falling through a ceiling.

I ask you again, WHAT WERE THE ODDS??!! The next morning all Hell broke loose.

After a heads up phone call from Hayne, I got a call from the store manager. He and the District Manager wanted to talk to me. A day or so later (if memory serves me correctly) the manager brought the hammer down and said I could leave the company voluntarily or involuntarily. I walked... Not out of guilt, but it felt like the right thing to do for some reason.

For another perspective on this incident, Umlaut asked his former co-worker Hayne about her memories of what is now known as The Great Crown Books Robbery:

I was 17, a high school Junior at Cupertino High School...and that means that more than likely I was stoned most times I was working at, headed to, leaving from, or in the general vicinity of, my job as Stooge #1 at Crown Books.

This particular Sunday I worked the opening shift, I think I came in around 10:00 am and some fuckery was going on in our little strip mall. Things weren't right, and I could tell...a CPD (Cupertino PD) or two, a flustered Manager, and some big mess in Children's. I think the District Manager had just arrived as well. That was always serious.

When I walked in, I looked around a little confused and the Manager (Jeff?) came up to me in a nervous, hushed tone..."We got robbed last night...they got the cash drawers...did you close last night...did you lock up the cash drawers...who worked with you?"

I could sense he was looking for someone to blame, since I was generally blamed for shit as a kid - I knew how that went. And no, for the record - I didn't close the night before.

And this Manager, acting all serious in front of the District Manager, was the same middle-aged, half-hippie, married guy who asked me one day while we were both standing at the counter and no one else was around, "Do you party?"

"Huh?" Do I go to parties? Weelll, yea...I do...why?"

Yea, okay, so I may have been a stoner in my own way at that time, but I wasn't a cool stoner at all and didn't know "the language", didn't know "party" meant "smoke pot/do drugs". What a weirdo to ask me that...I think once he tried to tell me his wife did astrological charts and I should get one done sometime...told me some weird thing about my aura...creeeepppyyy...

Anyhow back to the scene of the crime: During the hub-bub, I sneaked into the cubby hole we called "The Desk", not even big enough to call "an office", and stole Brain's home number out of the index card box (very professional place, Crown was). I went over to Long's Drugs to use the pay phone and called Brain. Had to protect my Assistant Manager, I was operating like "I had his back", making sure I wasn't followed into Long's.

I might have woke him up...did his Mom answer? Was Brain supposed to come in at 11:00 that morning?

"Brain, it's Hayne...from the bookstore...we got robbed last night."

"WHAT?! Are you serious?!"

At that point, I could see why he might not have believed it - It could have been a lame joke, we got kinda punchy with the practical jokes there.

"I am totally serious...we got fucking robbed (giggle) and (Jeff? The manager) is acting all serious and kinda acting like it's your fault. The District Manager is here."


"Are you supposed to come in at 11:00 today? I just thought I'd tell you so you don't get surprised... the District Manager is asking about it, too."

"What happened?! They really stole the money?!" Brain was getting the seriousness now, I, however, was now and still snickering.

"Yea, I guess they tried to rob the Sunglass place (what was the name of that place?!) and they totally fell into Children's, it's a total mess, they broke all the shelves (laughing). Anyway, (Jeff?) is all mad the cash drawers weren't in the safe...he was asking me all about it."

"What?! We have never put the cash drawers in the safe, he trained me!"

"He's being an asshole, he's all scared. Well, I snuck over to Long's to call you, so I should probably get back...sorry, bye. I'll try and find out more if I can, bye."

After that, all I remember is being in Children's trying to clean up, looking at the hole in the cheap strip mall ceiling...and laughing, but trying not to be heard by the Manager and the other 'crime scene' people there. I remember joking about it and saying "All I can think of is that Eddie Murphy joke in Raw when his Aunt Bunny falls down the stairs... 'boom, ugh, chunk - oh, Jesus, Lord help me, I'm falling down the stairs! - boom, ouch - oh Lord, please help me! - boom, thud - my shoe!'... hahahhaheeheh... ahhh. That was so funny!"

I know we joked a lot more about it after that, but that was before Brain was "let go" and before our innocence was lost. I never felt bad after that when I stole merchandise from the store. Corporate booktores sucked.

But I can't remember exactly what other jokes we made and if they were even funny anymore, I laugh when I just think of the image of two stupid idiots falling through the celing to rob a store for a maximum of $300.

In the aftermath of what should have been a dark time in my life, Karma stepped forward (as it has MANY times in my life) and sent me on another rewarding path.

Very soon after the fallout (pun intended) from The Great Crown Robbery, I was hired by a great indie bookstore called A Clean Well-Lighted Place For Books (ACWLP). To make a long story short: The subsequent years and experiences I had at ACWLP were some of the most influential of my life.

One of the ironies of working at ACWLP was that many people who shopped at Crown Books also frequented ACWLP. I had more than a few customers say to me "Didn't you used to work at Crown?" FUNNY.

As for Crown Books: In 1993 Robert Haft Jr. was fired as CEO of Crown Books by his father, which led to a drawn out legal war pitting son against father that lasted for years. After staggering through bankruptcy in 1999, Crown Books was finally liquidated and a bullet put in its head in 2001. The final act of the Haft Family Saga came in 2004 when Haft Jr. sued his father for $2 million. Two months later Haft Sr. passed away at the age of 84. If you're really that interested in this soap opera, click HERE for a Washington Post story on it.

Robert Haft Jr.

Part of me would like to believe that maybe The Great Crown Books Robbery of 1987 set the downfall of Crown Books into motion... Which probably also means I'm responsible for the blood feud that tore the once mighty Haft Family apart.

Never underestimate the power of Umlaut... and remember: "If you paid full price, you didn't buy it at Crown Books."