A Crisis of Purpose Down at the Dollar Store

Michael Penn, Mr. Hollywood Jr. 1947

Acquired today for $1.00 from a Super Dollar Tree in Indianapolis. Sigh.

When I was younger and closer to starving, dollar stores were a good place to pick up certain items such as cleaning supplies and Christmas stocking stuffers. I was quite enamored of the concept of a variety store in which every single piece of merchandise is priced at exactly $1.00. Granted, the undiscerning shopper might err and purchase items that are actually less than a dollar at other stores. Some discretion is advised on that front. Otherwise, as long as quality control isn’t an issue, they’re a convenient option for cutting costs when you’re on a meager budget.

I visited such a store today with my wife when we took her grandmother errand-running. The Super Dollar Tree down the street from her house is where she stocks up on her birthday and holiday cards a few times per year, plus whatever other impulse items she can hoard on her way to the register. As she did her thing, I wandered off to check out their selection of books, to see what works had been downgraded from original retail price to rock bottom. I’m in no danger of running low on reading matter anytime soon, but the thrill of the scavenger hunt is tough to resist. One never knows when a diamond in the rough might turn up/ My last such acquisition was a dirt-cheap copy of Stephen Colbert’s I Am America (And So Can You!).

Surprisingly, I recognized almost none of the books on sale. In a complete departure from previous visits, I saw no famous mass-market authors, no celebrity autobiographies, and no formerly bestselling nonfiction tomes. I did see several self-help books whose authors probably need self-help encouragement of their own now. I noticed more than a few books about the Bible, but no Bibles proper. There were a few novels, including at least one Part 1 of a series that probably never earned the privilege of continuing to its planned ending.

Dozens of coloring books offered a plethora of options for children and bored crayon users. They even had a selection of “vintage” comic books packaged in pairs, the perfect gift for any ’80s/’90s collector who might be missing issues of Sigil, Negation, Cybernary, Cyberforce, or Mike Gustovich’s Justice Machine. The only Big Two comic was an issue of The Flash with an Alan Davis cover that I already have. Anyone audacious enough to expect an entire graphic novel had only one option, the trade paperback collecting Alex Ross’ Battle of the Planets reboot from a few years ago.

In another aisle was a shelf with an extremely limited selection of 100-penny CDs. Amidst a wide assortment of ambient-noise sleep aids and a couple of hymn collections, I found a few copies of Michael Penn’s 2005 album Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947, new copies of which sell for $4.49 on Amazon as of this writing. A dub copy of his 1989 debut March remains somewhere in one of my cassette racks, fondly remembered if not necessarily in heavy rotation. To be honest, I was a little saddened to see any known name on that shelf.

Then a stray thought hit me: as someone who occasionally fancies the notion of creating something book-shaped at some point before death comes a-calling, what if it’s my name on that shelf someday, dwelling in obscurity?

If we try an optimistic interpretation of that spoiler image shown to me by the Ghost of Career-Track Future, this would mean that I’ll be a Published Author in that alternate timeline. In and of itself, “Published Author” would be a nifty phrase to have embossed on a business card. Also, this would mean I successfully sustained the pure Joy of Writing for a book-length duration. On an even more foundational level, it would mean I had an idea someone else thought was fit for a book. Those are all encouraging things.

But I wondered: how fulfilled would I be, living as a zero-hit wonder? Heck, I’m a zero-hit wonder now who’s never earned a dime from writing in his life. Again, yes, Joy of Writing should prevail regardless of the net results, but how joyous would it be to tell people you’re a Published Author whose works share store space with imitation Transformers and discontinued baby-food brands? Even the beat-up books at a thrift store are in a higher position on the ladder of success — someone bought those and then donated them to charity. The average dollar store deals in merchandise no one wanted at regular price. Call it the Island of Misfit Everything.

I’d like to say that I captured that worrisome thought, resolved not to obsess on it, steered myself in a more positive direction, and assured myself that being published and failing is better than never having been published at all. The truth is, my wife and her grandmother distracted me and I totally lost the train of thought. For a while, anyway.

Before we left, I felt obliged to shell out a whole dollar (plus tax) for that Michael Penn CD. It seemed a shame to let it linger there unheard. Though much of the album is quieter and more mannered than I’d prefer, “On Automatic” stood out as a song that deserved a better life as a pop single. If I ignore any and all lyrical irony, it’s a welcome rebuttal to my brief internal panic attack.

4 responses

  1. I share many of your sentiments. I have noticed the same books at my local dollar store. I have the same though about wondering what it takes for a book to find that shelf. I , too, want to be a published author. It is the reason I am awake at 5:49 AM on a Sunday morning. Their are creative thoughts swirling in my head and I want so much to form a saleable book from them.

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    • That seems to be a tough puzzle for a lot of folks to figure out these days. With the advent of e-books and more self-publishing options available online, the game has changed somewhat, but it means the writer has to do a lot more of their own legwork if they can’t win a publisher over. I’m still sorting through some of that in my head as I try to figure out what else I should be doing here…

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  2. Perhaps if you get really desperate (before you become “End-of-Life Crossover”), you could self-publish and set up a table at the Dollar store to sell your books for a buck…

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    • There’s a thought. And who wouldn’t want to be nice and give some money to me when I’m a kindly 70-year-old man? 😀

      Or I could be like Dick Wolfsie and those other local folks who set up tables at the shows at the state fairground (Flower & Patio Show, Christmas Gift & Hobby Show, etc.) and ply their wares. But they always look so quiet and lonely…though a little showmanship could help with that, I think.

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