Review: True Porn Clerk Stories, by Ali Davis

Russ Allbery eagle at
Fri Jan 10 22:08:38 PST 2020

True Porn Clerk Stories
by Ali Davis

Copyright: August 2009
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     160

  The other day I realized, as a cold claw of pure fear squeezed my
  frantic heart, that I have been working as a video clerk for ten

  This is a job that I took on a temporary basis for just a month or
  two until freelancing picked back up and I got my finances in order.

  Ten months.

  It has been a test of patience, humility, and character.

  It has been a lesson in dealing with all humankind, including their
  personal bodily fluids.

  It has been $6.50 an hour.

If you're wondering whether you'd heard of this before and you were on
the Internet in the early 2000s, you probably have. This self-published
book is a collection of blog posts from back when blogs were a new
thing and went viral before Twitter existed. It used to be available
on-line, but I don't believe it is any more. I ran across a mention of
it about a year ago and felt like reading it again, and also belatedly
tossing the author a tiny bit of money.

I'm happy to report that, unlike a lot of nostalgia trips, this one
holds up. Davis's stories are still funny and the meanness fairy has
not visited and made everything awful. (The same, alas, cannot be said
for Acts of Gord, which is of a similar vintage but hasn't aged well.)

It's been long enough since Davis wrote her journal that I feel like I
have to explain the background. Back in the days when the Internet was
slow and not many people had access to it, people went to a local store
to rent movies on video tapes (which had to be rewound after watching,
something that customers were irritatingly bad at doing). Most of those
only carried normal movies (Blockbuster was the ubiquitous chain store,
now almost all closed), but a few ventured into the far more lucrative,
but more challenging, business of renting porn. Some of those were
dedicated adult stores; others, like the one that Davis worked at,
carried a mix of regular movies and, in a separate part of the store,
porn. Prior to the days of ubiquitous fast Internet, getting access to
video porn required going into one of those stores and handing lurid
video tape covers and money to a human being who would give you your
rented videos. That was a video clerk.

There is now a genre of web sites devoted to stories about working in
retail and the bizarre, creepy, abusive, or just strange things that
customers do (Not Always Right is probably the best known). Davis's
journal predated all of that, but is in the same genre. I find most of
those sites briefly interesting and then get bored with them, but I had
no trouble reading this (short) book cover to cover even though I'd
read the entries on the Internet years ago.

One reason for that is that Davis is a good story-teller. She was (and
I believe still is) an improv comedian, and it shows. Many of the
entries are stories about specific customers, who Davis gives memorable
code names (Mr. Gentle, Mr. Cheekbones, Mr. Creaky) and describes
quickly and efficiently. She has a good sense of timing and keeps the
tone at "people are amazingly strange and yet somehow fascinating"
rather than slipping too far into the angry ranting that, while
justified, makes a lot of stories of retail work draining to read.

That said, I think a deeper reason why this collection works is that a
porn store does odd things to the normal balance of power between a
retail employee and their customers. Most retail stories are from
stores deeply embedded in the "customer is always right" mentality,
where the employee is essentially powerless and has to take everything
the customer dishes out with a smile. The stories told by retail
employees are a sort of revenge, re-asserting the employee's humanity
by making fun of the customer. But renting porn is not like a typical
retail transaction.

A video clerk learns things about a customer that perhaps no one else
in their life knows, shifting some of the vulnerability back to the
customer. The store Davis worked at was one of the most comprehensive
in the area, and in a relatively rare business, so the store management
knew they were going to get business anyway and were not obsessed with
keeping every customer happy. They had regular trouble with customers
(the 5% of retail customers who get weird in a porn store often get
weird in disgusting and illegal ways) and therefore empowered the store
clerks to be more aggressive about getting rid of unwanted business.
That meant the power balance between the video clerks and the
customers, while still not exactly equal, was more complicated and
balanced in ways that make for better (and less monotonously
depressing) stories.

There are, of course, stories of very creepy customers here, as well as
frank thoughts on porn and people's consumption habits from a
self-described first-amendment feminist who tries to take the
over-the-top degrading subject matter of most porn with equanimity but
sometimes fails. But those are mixed with stories of nicer customers,
which gain something that's hard to describe from the odd intimacy of
knowing little about them except part of their sex life. There are also
some more-typical stories of retail work that benefit from the
incongruity between their normality and the strangeness of the product
and customers. Davis's account of opening the store by playing Aqua mix
tapes is glorious. (Someone else who likes Aqua for much the same
reason that I do!)

Content warning for public masturbation, sex-creep customers, and lots
of descriptions of the sorts of degrading (and sexist and racist) sex
acts portrayed on porn video boxes, of course. But if that doesn't
drive you away, these are still-charming and still-fascinating
slice-of-life stories about retail work in a highly unusual business
that thrived for one brief moment in time and effectively no longer
exists. Recommended, particularly if you want the nostalgia factor of
re-reading something you vaguely remember from twenty years ago.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-01-10


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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