My Apple Store Day

8:00 AM

Bastard. It's closed. Well, that's just fine. I can't say that I didn't give it a good try. Within the hour, I can be back home and in bed.

It's not that I've never been awake this early. When I'm in California, for instance, and my body thinks it's 11 AM, I often find myself waking up at 8 AM local time...without the assistance of an alarm clock, mind you. And I'm certainly no stranger to it here at home in Massachusetts, either. Many's the time when I've yawned and stretched and taken a long, admiring look at a brilliant sunrise, and then decided that I probably ought to go to bed soon.

I am at the North Shore Mall in Peabody, Massachusetts and I'm standing in front of the shuttered entrance to The Apple Store. Don't ask me why. I myself am a little unclear about the point of all this, and I'm the guy who sent me here.

It all started with an email from a reader. "Have you ever tried to sit on one of those benches at the Apple Store?" he said, referring to their signature (and sole) furniture. They're square arches that look like the sort of thing a designer on "Trading Spaces" would build out of medium-density fiberboard and a couple of four-by-fours, in great haste and only after the last-minute realization that while a stack of old truck tires makes a dramatic visual statement, it's no substitute for a sofa. "The seats at the bus stop are more comfortable! You should write a column about that."

Yes, I have indeed sat on one of those benches at the Apple Store. I have sat on them in at least eight different Apple Stores all across the country. Whether in Massachusetts or Georgia or California, the benches are exactly the same. Eerily, everything else is, too. Teleport from any bench in any Apple Store to the same bench in any other and the view will be exactly the same: a big projection-screen in front of you. Genius Bar to one side of it. Door to the bathrooms on the other, next to the section with printers and printer supplies. Behind you is an alley of games, with personal-audio on the wall to one side and tower Macs opposite. Turn left or right at the end to avoid bumping into the long console of registers, turn again to get around the table of PowerBooks by the entrance, and you're out. Store after store without variation. It's as though Apple chose to just build one store in a low-rent industrial park somewhere and they keep going from mall to mall, converting a section of bare wall to an Apple storefront using special ACME Teleportation Paint.

I appreciate reader feedback but somehow I suspected that a column about benches wasn't going to fly with my editor. He's a sweet man but we were still battling over a promising topic entitled "A Raccoon As Chief Technology Officer: The Case For," and in this business, one learns to pick one's battles.

Still, I had a lot of mixed feelings about the Apple Stores and this email only stirred them up some more. Why in the name of all that is good and absorbent is Apple involved in retail? That's what I thought when Steve Jobs announced the first handful of stores, and it's still on my mind. Other companies have tried it and made a great start. But the Gateway Stores of yesterday are the Payless Shoes and the I Can't Believe It's Not Falafel franchises of today.

Plus, it was the start of a potentially bad trend. Apple Computer is the last holdout of the First Wave of personal computer companies, and thus they're the only ones holding on to the old business model by which one company has a lock on sales of both the hardware and the operating system which makes it run. But that's OK. If you question whether there's an advantage to having a hardware line that reacts quickly to the changing needs of the OS and vice-versa take a long, steamy look at Windows, for God's sake.

I'm happy with that arrangement. But I can't help but notice that I'm running an Apple OS on an Apple laptop, and Apple's producing more and more of the important apps I need. If this Apple OS and Apple laptop wind up running chiefly Apple software, and the whole lot can chiefly only be seen and bought at Apple stores, what does this say for the future health of the company? Shouldn't Apple take the money and resources it's putting into its own line of retail stores and invest it in consolidating the Mac's presence in other establishments instead?

The counter-argument to this is that it's been tried and it's failed. Apple has formed alliances with major chains before. Unless the Mac presence is championed by salespeople and management in that specific store, the Macs ultimately get broken and shuffled off into the corner. Salespeople who don't understand the Mac use it to perpetuate myths and ignorance instead of countering them, and the ultimate effect is the opposite of what's intended.

Plus, there's something to be said for establishing embassies in foreign lands. Even if the stores weren't terribly profitable, they'd serve an important purpose simply by being there. The most powerful antidote to being told (by a commission-driven ignoramus) that Macs are completely incompatible with Windows is seeing Windows Office documents opening under Mac OS X with a simple double-click, or Macs booting up Windows XP inside its own window.

I keep meaning to spend more time in Apple Stores, just to get a feel for them. The email about the benches reminded me that I've never visited the store in Peabody, even though it's only a forty-minute drive away. If I spent a few hours there sometime, I was sure that I'd settle a preconception or two.

But if I spend three or four hours there, just milling around, won't it look suspicious? I wondered.

And then I smiled.

Of course it would.

Instead of just getting a sense of what makes the Apple stores unique, I'd find out something about the employees, too. How long could you hang out in The Store before the personnel would stop Thinking Different and start calling the cops?

It was a brilliant idea, sure to entertain and illuminate, clearly the stuff of future legend, and it took my editor several hours to convince me that I was a total idiot.

I mean, I still thought it offered an extra dimension to the expedition, and added a certain jenny say-kwah to the resulting column. But I also thought back to my own days in retail. I, too, had certain reactions to people loitering in front of the good machine with all the great games on it and I sure wouldn't want them shared with hundreds of thousands of readers in a few months' time.

So instead of promising my editor that my journalistic integrity was at stake and threatening to quit over the matter (a reliable tactic; nothing puts him in a charitable and malleable mood like a good laugh) I phoned Apple and made arrangements through official channels.

Instead of trying to see how long I could stay there before getting the boot, I signed myself up for the long haul, the Le Mans of competitive retailing, the Fear Factor of mall culture: I would stay in the store all day, from open to close. All day.

Bravado-puncturing moment number one: I forgot that this was early December. The store stayed open an hour later during the holidays.

Moment number Two: I learned that this weekend, they'd actually be opening an hour earlier, at 8. A quick base-12 calculation revealed that I had unwittingly volunteered for a 14-hour session in a mall store.

A store which, I dimly recalled, features hard, uncomfortable benches as its sole items of furniture.

Oh, yeah. That's the thing that got me thinking about The Apple Store in the first place.

Bastard!

8:05 AM.

Well, before I could convince myself to (in no particular order) get back in the car, go home, and go back to sleep, I took a brief walk around the North Shore Mall and returned to find that the gate was up and the store was open. Oh, well. That's a lesson to you kids out there: when there's an opportunity to quit and go home, don't dilly-dally about it. You only get what you want if you work for it.

I enter to discover that a Santa-looking older man got there ahead of me and is energetically negotiating the purchase of a tower. From his sheaf of notes and his sheer level of focus, I gather that this visit is merely the latest in a series. But at least it's progressed to the Added Options stage. The salesperson is discussing RAM configurations and the small-office software the guy's gonna want, and promising that they can install all that stuff for him before he leaves the store. OK. One point in favor of having Apple Stores. I have never actually witnessed an OfficeMax employee shake his head and tell a customer that the problem with Macs is that they, like, can't be upgraded but I think that's only because I usually dash in, grab another pack of those storage cartons, and run back out again. So on top of getting good advice, this guy (assuming he finally stops cutting bait and makes with the Mastercard already) will get build-to-order service, more or less.

In the meantime, I am introduced to the assistant manager and the Genius Bar dude, both of whom apparently like their jobs enough to be here at the crack of 8 AM.

8:30

A woman comes in looking for "The SIMS Deluxe." Finds and buys. Damn, another future discoverer of the cure for cancer, cut off before she even began Step One ("This cancer thing; isn't it time somebody did something about it?"). If Alan Ginsberg wrote "Howl" in the Y2K's, it'd still begin "I saw the greatest minds of my generation destroyed by madness," but then it'd continue to describe friends who were obsessed with making sure that one of their SIMs successfully got it on with either Wonder Woman or The Huntress in the Justice League house they SIMed next door.

Point Two in favor of Apple Stores: The Macintosh games library doesn't seem quite so paltry when you put all of the ginchier titles together like that. It almost makes me forget how long I'll have to wait before "Enter The Matrix" is available for Mac OS.

8:52

A woman is looking at an iBook. "I hate Microsoft!" she says, and I both think and hope that this isn't the first time I'll hear that phrase today. (Correct.) Specifically, she's complaining that she'd like to switch to a Mac, but she has this one crucial Windows app that's based on Microsoft Access. Salesperson shows her VirtualPC. It's possible that the single most important set of shelves in the store are the three that hold cross-platform solutions.

I'm sure it's no accident that it's located all the way up front, as close as possible to where folks are looking at new Macs. "But I can't use my Windows Office stuff, right?" Sure you can; you can use the same apps, too. "I've been told that you can't have Macs and PCs on the same network." Poppycock; OS X has Windows-compatible networking built-in. If your sysadmin is doing something silly that prevents your machine from working, buy this package that makes a Windows server think your Mac is a PC. And of course "I need to run this app that ain't available for Macintosh" leads to the information that for $180 or so, a Mac can run damned-near anything an Intel box can.

9:00

I notice that there's a Victoria's Secret store right across the mall from the Apple Store.

9:01

It took me a whole hour to notice that there's a Victoria's Secret store right across the mall from the Apple Store?

9:05

Assistant-manager takes to the podium near the screen and starts giving a "Getting Started" class on Mac OS X. She's got about 8 or 9 new Mac owners arrayed on those benches, two of whom brought their shiny PowerBooks.

9:26

Class is disrupted when a trio of youths enter and make a beeline for the kiddie table. The fact that they're (a) of assorted ages and (b) happily hanging together makes me think that somewhere in the parking lot, a Mom is about to load an X-box into a Cadillac Escalade.

The five-year-old girl hops behind an iMac and starts playing Digital Barbies, a significant improvement over the old analog edition. The seven-year-old boy is messing around with something that is too aggressively colorful and eye-catching not to be an educational game. The ten-year-old finds his way into TonyHawk and in moments, discussion about the flexibility of the Dock as both an application launcher and a document manager is overtaken by Rage Against The Machine's "Guerilla Radio." Rage might be imploring the listener to Turn That **** Up, but those learning X are providing a different mandate. The guy at the Genius Bar, unaware that he's about to become part of that Army of Pigs Trying To Silence [their] Style, mutes the sound. And now we know why these musicians keep finding new things to Rage about. No simple trick, considering their royalty checks.

9:52

I haven't been here two hours and already I don't know how I'm going to make it. The big problem? Shutting up and saying nothing. All around me, people are asking people questions about gizmos, devices and technologies. Under normal circumstances, I'll leap right in and keep helping and helping and helping, relentlessly and mercilessly, until they're forced to roll up into the fetal position at my feet and play dead, much like when confronted by a brown bear.

A man has just asked a salesperson about a digital camera. He wants to achieve a specific sort of effect and I come very close to snapping. Only my force of will prevents me from pinning the man's neck to the wall with my forearm and thoroughly explaining to him that what he's describing is "shallow depth of field," and you create it by leaving the aperture at its widest setting... so he'll be particularly interested in the Nikon and the ease with which the user can override its automatic settings.

But the salesperson covers that and recommends the Steve's Digicams site for further information. Phew.

It's not arrogance, I swear. It's like a story I once heard about George Gershwin. A friend asked him whether he enjoyed himself at a recent party. "It was torture. Torture!" he moaned. "They had this beautiful piano and I kept walking past it and past it and past it, but they didn't ask me to play it!" All today I'm walking past piano after piano. I suspect that when I get home tonight I'm going to be giving my goldfish a long and detailed lecture on the differences between Airport and Bluetooth.

9:54

Back at the Basics class, a demo of Sherlock leaves 'em wowed. "Wait a minute; you're saying my wife can track my flight? " a man asks, in a tone that suggests that this revelation upsets an alibi he was hoping to use later on.

10:16

I notice the artwork. It's actually custom wrapping-paper designed by a guy named Rex Ray. It looks like something you'd see hanging on the wall of Dr. Hartley's psychologist office in the old "Bob Newhart Show." I say so not disapprovingly.

Stacked up at the Genius bar are complimentary sets of "fridge poetry" magnets with the same design. It's Apple-themed (the individual tiles are largely Apple trademarks), and I'm sure that they were designed to ensure that they can't be rearranged to make smutty phrases. I prove them wrong, though I suppose it depends on whether you think "HOT Jaguar LoVE BUDDY" is more suggestive than smutty.

10:30

I notice that the demo iPod (connected to a set of Creature speakers) is playing the "Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy" audiobook. It's made it to the bit where Peter Jones is describing the form and capability of the Guide, and I miss Douglas Adams all over again. What would he have thought of the iPod? I imagine him writing this text back in the Seventies and imagining this device absolutely studded with buttons and indicators. When he described a new edition of the Guide years later, it was all smooth curves and had a lack of any prominent controls. And now here we have a portable media device with 20 gigs of storage (enough for at least the pertinent parts of the Guide), consisting of smooth curves and a lack of prominent controls.

I miss Douglas Adams. Yeah, I said it a few sentences ago. Don't make me say it again.

10:42

A man in his late thirties is buying an iMac as a Christmas present for his parents. It's a page straight from a commercial. "It plays CDs and DVDs!" he tells them. "You can hook up a camcorder and make your own movies! I can email you photos of the kids and you can look at them!"

Actually, it might even have been lifted from one of those commercials selling pre-paid funeral plans. "My son!" the mother says, turning to the camera. "Buying me all kinds of fancy doo-dads to keep me in touch with the grandkids! All I really need is a warm hug from them every now and then, and the knowledge that when my time comes, my children won't suffer all those funeral expenses not covered by Medicare!"

But it's sweet of him.

The interesting thing I've noticed is that most of the customers have been in their fifties and up. Somehow I imagined a preponderance of Star Wars Generation folks like me. We're here, but we're not buying.

The store is definitely starting to get busy.

11:12

OK. I'm ready to stop watching people. I'm starting to run out of merchandise to manhandle. I turn to the dual-processor G4 with the humongous Cinema Display and navigate to the Quicktime page. My neighborhood is serviced by EvilBastardLizardScum Cable, so I don't have broadband yet, so this is a rare chance to watch streaming video the way God proscribed it in the Old Testament.

I quickly catch up on my movie trailers. Finally get to see the trailer for Jerry Seinfeld's "Comedian," recommended to me as probably the funniest trailer ever; it's possible that it's funnier than the film itself. I go through the new X-Men 2 trailer, the Daredevil Comic-Con Teaser Footage, and just for fun, all of the Star Wars Episode II previews.

I see the trailer for Disney's upcoming features and it just makes me sad. "Jungle Book 2"? After thirty years, isn't it kind of late to start coming up with new crap for this kid to do? And how do they get "101 Dalmatians 2"? Maybe it's just the fact that I've been stuck inside a store for three hours, but this nomenclature just gets me mad. We've had 101 Dalmatians, 101 Dalmatians the Movie, and 102 Dalmatians. Doesn't this mean that Disney has relinquished claim to post-digit supernomenclature on this franchise? Doesn't a "2" after "101" imply that this movie comes between 101 and 102, or at least is a remake of the first live-action version of the original animated feature?

I just want some consistency here, folks. The fact that Disney is cranking out unnecessary sequels to old product -- much as Apple kept coming up with new numbers for the same Performa and Centris hardware -- is pathetic enough to pass without comment.

11:37

I am recognized. Thank God!

I realize that the surest tip-off that someone is an arrogant SOB is the fact that they feel the need to constantly mention that they're not one at all. But I say again: It's not that I came here hoping to be recognized as one of our Industry's most famous and influential pundits. That's part of my humility.

But - dammit - if I can spend 14 hours inside an Apple store and not be recognized by anyone, not one single bloody solitary damned person, well, then I'd need to seriously re-assess my opinion of how incredibly fabulous I am.

We have a long conversation about the soap opera of Macworld Expo (Boston or New York? Apple in? Or Apple out?). Here and there he's greeted by store employees (bolstered to a half-dozen hale and clear-eyed men and women since the store opened). Seems he's a regular visitor.

11:44

Lots of kids arrayed around the kiddie table, mostly early teens. I envy them; they have the only semi-comfortable seats in the store.

I'm impressed by how the employees treat 'em. They play and play and play , and they're not being shooed away. One kid calls a salesperson over and asks about an iPod. He's treated like he's made of money. Which he is, given that it's the holiday season and he might be one of those kids who's skilled at playing one divorced parent against the other. But given that my first brush with a police officer came after a salesperson saw me and a pal walking into his store and barked "You two just turn right around and roll out with the tide" I'm glad to see that The Man isn't hassling The Kids.

(The cops got called because I proceeded to do as asked. I ran out, stopped at the entrance to the store, then ran back in, walking backwards and making "ssshhhhhhRRROOOFFFshsshhh!" noises (punctuated with the occasional seagull call for added effect) throughout. Repeat until the nice man with the gun arrives.)

Many of the kids keep running from machine to machine, trying to determine what hardware they'll need to run "The SIMS Unleashed." Noooooooooooo!

12:05

Lunch. Thank God. I retire to a P. Drunken McStoopid's-style restaurant/bar and get a sandwich and a bowl of chili while I enjoy the sensation of blood traveling through my legs.

12:37

There's a promo for the Brady Bunch Christmas Show on the TV above the bar. It includes the scene where the Brady Boys carry in the Christmas tree and it occurs to me that there really ought to be an official name for the sort of pathetic, spindly and familiar-looking tree that you always see in TV Christmas shows. It is the only sort of tree that's available in Southern California in mid-July, when these shows are filmed.

1:27

I finish lunch, pay the bill, tip like Sinatra, and leave. There's enough time to do a little Christmas shopping before I return to the Apple Store. I start in the Hallmark Store and locate the Star Wars ornaments that I couldn't find at home. Then I cave in and buy the new Enterprise ornament, too.

1:54

I'm in the parking lot for the third time in the past half-hour.

The other reason why I'm here at the mall is to continue a beloved holiday tradition of mine. I'm the victim of two conflicting behavior patterns: (1) I believe that road rage and anger-based driving are the cause of needless and stupid death and injury; and (2) I drive in Boston. Which means that I'm constantly being cut off, tailgated, hassled, and cursed at by my intellectual and moral inferiors (I swear, I am so totally not an arrogant jerk.) every day of the year, and yet after each incident, I must breathe in, breathe out, and continue to drive defensively.

But Anger is a great constant of the universe, and unlike vacation days, they don't roll over to the next year if you don't use it. It just keeps building and building and building until the day comes when you're explaining to a police officer why you've got dozens of deliveryman hats in your closet and hundreds of horseflies buzzing around in your crawlspace.

Hence, the Tradition, which commences thusly:

I exit the mall on a busy Holiday shopping day. Ideally, it's the first shopping day after Thanksgiving, or the last Sunday before Christmas. I choose an exit that's not terribly convenient to my car, and as such by the time I reach it -- dangling my shopping bag like a piece of cheese all the way -- I've got three cars trailing behind me and two SUV's have collided with each other to reach my car from the opposite direction.

I stop at my car. I pat myself down for the keys. I locate them. I fiddle with them, looking for the key to the trunk. I finally locate it, pop the trunk, put my bag inside, close it...and then walk back into the mall without acknowledging all of the car horns and promises of dark, bloody vengeance that slap against my back.

And I feel much, much better about the guy who tried to pass me on a curve, and then forced me to hop onto a sidestreet so he'd have enough room to avoid a head-on collision with the F150 that was about to clobber him in the oncoming lane.

It's just something I do. I'm committed to our fragile planet's ecology, you see. I take all the anger and frustration and helplessness I've collected over the year, and I simply release it back into the atmosphere where it can be recycled.

2:07

Back in the store. I've just taken a two-hour lunch break. Well, the sad thing is that my retail-store record is actually 2:28. See, it was a large department store with an enormous warehouse and it was easy to claim that you were trying to track down a missing SKU.

2:09

Ewwwww! A woman is changing a baby on one of those wooden benches! I bet that doesn't make it into Steve Jobs' next promo video...

2:12

An employee finally asks me why I'm doing this. I tell her the story, and ask her what sort of reaction I would have received if I had simply shown up unannounced and proceeded not to leave. "Probably none," she said. "We get lots of people who come in and sort of, well, stay. "

I think I now have one of the little discoveries that I came for. If the Apple Store had thick, comfy Barnes & Noble-style chairs instead of those punitive-style benches, people would be using the Store as office space. Give me a comfy chair and good broadband and you've got a guest for life. Or at least until I need a Coke or something.

2:14

Another full house at the kiddie table. I think parents are just dropping the kids off. Which is perfectly safe because after all, it's 1954.

2:17

Holy cats! Someone is dropping off a PowerComputing box at the Genius Bar! For service? Or is there a Euro-designed Apple-logoed magnesium and chrome chipper-mulcher installed in the back room specifically for the arrival of Mac clones?

2:58

A woman makes the switch to Mac OS X. Was it the advanced networking? The Unix underpinnings? The slick, new Aqua interface? The subtle power of the Dock and a million other significant enhancements?

Nope. "Will I have the same problems with system extensions and control panels as I do in 9?" she asks, and when she's told that both entities have been burned to the ground, plowed under, and then salt was poured into the earth so that nothing could grow there ever again, she can't get her credit card out fast enough.

3:10

The joint's hopping. Handcarts are burning rubber from the cashier to the storeroom and back. In one hour, an iMac, two TiBooks, an iBook, and three iPods are sold, to my knowledge. Whee! Maybe there really is something to this Apple Store concept.

3:21

A kid's been parked at a Mac since I got back from lunch. He's doing nothing but listening to digital music...first through iTunes radio tuner, then listening to the sites of unsigned bands, then listening to tunes from Grand Theft Auto 3. Thank God for the RIAA. Thanks to their ongoing defense of liberty, this barbaric practice by which publishers' target audience gets to sample music with the permission of copyrightholders shall soon be at an end.

But he's made the mistake of monopolizing the Mac that I intended to watch more movies on. I could take him down, but I settle for making some notes and intending to mock his stupid pants in print later on. They've got these weird criss-cross straps that connect his hips with the backs of their opposite knees. With the benefit of age I know that he'll be in a hopeless situation if he's ever chased by a bear. Both major North American species can run upwards of 30 miles an hour. Does he think he'll get away with all those straps tripping him up? Well, if he does, he's just as dumb as he looks. And in those pants, that's really saying something.

3:22

A couple is asking about French localization. OK, interesting question. Particularly for a couple that really doesn't look French (no beret, no weird little bicycle), nor do they sound French (at no point did they make that popping noise by slapping a hand over their open mouth).

After all these hours, I have perfected my sidling technique. I maintain a strolling pace and whenever I hear something interesting, I turn to a nearby Mac and check a few websites. Then I turn away, retrieve a pad from an inside pocket, and jot s note or two. Chiefly, my technique has been nervously honed out of a desperate desire not to look like a narc. Originally I'd intended to take my MiniDisc recorder along and wire my jacket with a microphone. That way, I could just scratch my nose and talk into my cuff. Problem was that I'd look like I was about to call in Detective Vic Mackey and the rest of the Elite Strike Team.

Oh, and the guy who set up this visit went on and on about "privacy rights of Apple's customers," blah blah blah.

3:31

I succumb to temptation and look at those Sony travel speakers with new and mercenary eyes. 2002 was the heaviest travel year I've had in living memory and many's the night when I plopped into a hotel bed with my iPod and headphones, trying to find something to distract me from the knowledge that I go straight to New York in the morning, and straight from there to California from there, and I woulda killed for a nice, compact set of powered speakers like this.

$99. OK, it's above my usual impulse-buy level but I'm gonna go for it. I'll buy 'em just before I leave so I won't have to carry them around.

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