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Novel — Ninety Days in the '90s, Chapter 1 "Sell Out"


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Ninety Days in the '90s is a story (MS complete, 8th draft) about a failed Wall Street trader-turned-record store owner who time travels to the mid-'90s to "reboot" her life. For any of you 1990s music aficionados out there each chapter is named for a seminal 1990s album or song.

(Chapter 1 is only five pages. Sorry if this post is long.)

Chapter 1  — Sell Out

Darby looked out toward the stacks and aisles in Martin’s old record store. Nothing mattered anymore but starting over, and she was taking that and this new gig day by day. It was easily 10:45 A.M before she finally flicked on the lights, to watch each fluorescent beam brighten the quiet space, row by row. After their buzz swelled down, she walked up front to unlock both dead bolts, knowing full well customers might start rushing in around noon.

Scarcely three months before she became Revolver’s new owner, everything came crashing down. Back in New York, Alan had left her, and the last few trades that killed her Wall Street career wiped the floor with her emotionally. Why she’d ever bought Twitt Coin, that fake crypto stock, left her scratching her head from Manhattan all the way back to the Midwest.

At 11 Spacey arrived and removed her shaking, dumbbell-sized headphones. Her smile and perky energy broke the morning’s dense silence.

“Morning, dude!”

“Hey, Spacey.” Darby said back, always happy to see her.

Smart, moody and unintentionally hilarious, Spacey was by far the most dependable of the three employees Darby inherited. Darby figured Spacey to be mid-twenties and pegged her more Gen Z than Millennial, because Spacey had excellent tastes in punk and ‘80s alternative. Spacey had a gift, too, of keeping Mark and Conrad in line, always making sure her fellow young music experts minded customers mulling about the store, even while they bragged about concert conquests and their own ambitious vinyl collections.

Darby also loved that she swore often, hated social media, and began most days talking about the perils of pop and the goodness of old, vintage things. But today Spacey was amped up about some business left over from the prior day.

“So—check it out,” Spacey said. “Something weird happened after you left.”

“Something weird—like what?”

“Some old guy bought up those CDs you dumped into the ‘Bargain Buys’ bin.”

“Really? Which ones?”

You know. The bubblegum music.”

Top 40 was one sub-genre Spacey would not go. A week before, when Darby had unpacked boxes of moving junk that unveiled some bad music she owned, she poked at Spacey, “You like Macklemore?” (Darby didn’t.) Predictably, Spacey just eye-rolled.

“So, yeah,” Spacey went on, “he traded in some hair metal. Poison and Twisted Sister.”

“Oh, no.”

“But he took all the BTS and Jonas Brothers. We sold out our teeny-pop!”

“Just so you know, I never ever listened to that stuff.”

“Riiiiiiight,” Spacey joked. “How’d you end up with that crap anyway?”

Darby’s ex had terrible taste, but she was rediscovering her own inner music snob.

“When you’re with someone whose idea of music is flavor-of-the-month fads and one-hit wonders, their stuff ends up in yours. Especially after a breakup.” Darby barely tolerated her uptight ex’s Third Eye Blind and Maroon 5 “adult contemporary” thing. She loathed his sleazy Nicki Minaj fetish. And she hated his Nickelback, god dammit. Dumping it all into the $1 bin meant expunging the past, she hoped. “That time he brought home Smash Mouth—I should have told him it was over.” Putting it plainly, Darby proclaimed, “The 2000s were rough on me.”

Spacey couldn’t waver on that point. “No shit, man.”

****

Revolver Records sat in Bucktown, a neighborhood that tried and mostly succeeded in maintaining its rep as a nonconformist’s paradise. This edgy enclave was a block stocked with by-the-slice pizzerias, resale shops and brownstones, perfectly wedged between tree-line boulevards and the busiest L-train stop. Ever since the late ‘90s, Bucktown seemed to let down its guard, so the corporate world snuck in a few Game Stops and Gaps, plus a now-closed Williams Sonoma. There were way too many coffeehouses, probably six or eight, but just one record store, Revolver Records. The whole place felt like a posh hideout for twenty-somethings, maybe too a Gen-X wildlife refuge, where failed forty-somethings like Darby could flee from life’s judgments. Back 90 days already, Darby began to savor the more-fun times.

At 1 o’clock Mark and Conrad stood out front, babbling ahead of their afternoon shifts. The girls could hear their histrionics through the storefront windows.

Conrad: “The Clash is not a punk band.”

Mark, angrily: “How can you say that?”

“Proto-punk, not punk rock. Punk looks, but not punk sound.”

“Wrong, wrong… wrong!” Mark argued. “The Clash were ‘band zero’ for punk!”

Mark was vaping and came to work clad in a wide brassy brown tie expertly clashed against a sea-foam green button-down. In that outfit and his Nickelodeon curls, Mark looked like a short Ron Burgundy knockoff or a 1970s game show host. Conrad, old school and looking cool, finished up his hand-rolled cigarette, in battered jeans and mirrored sunglasses that made him, all svelte and handsome, look like a 6-foot-3 Lenny Kravitz. Conrad also had on one of twelve Iron Maiden shirts that defined his daily statement wardrobe.

After nicotine fixes, the debate swept inside. And Mark still wasn’t having it.

“The Clash were inventors and visionaries! You metalheads don’t know punk.”

But Conrad had sharp opinions and sharper goals, like getting under Mark’s skin. “Man, all they did was recycle Elvis. The Clash: Favorite band of people who don’t like punk!”

“What? What! How can you say that?” Mark looked for a lifeline.

All three of them looked at Darby. But she didn’t know why it was on her to deliver a verdict. Just because Darby was old didn’t mean she had answers.

“Music is music, boys. To each their own,” she said.

“Lame!” Conrad declared.

Spacey was chewing gum and blew a big, annoying bubble and popped it loud. Like every day, she would break the tension with well-placed snark.

“You guys should work at the mall. I bet Hot Topic’s hiring.”

****

It felt perverse now to think that Martin’s death had come, strangely, at the right time. Revolver was surrounded by hordes of youngsters eager to part with so much cash, and the business basically ran itself. Above the shop, his building had a two-bedroom apartment where Darby could live, no cost. Inheriting it all felt like a petty, terrible consolation for losing her favorite uncle. Neighbors said COVID eliminated other shops up the block, and Darby felt terrible that she hadn’t been back to visit before Martin passed. She felt guilty too—and a little like an imposter— over inheriting a minor indie rock institution that she had taken no part in building.

On top of that, the upcoming Labor Day holiday marked the anniversary of her first exodus. Departures in 1996 came after Darby’s best friend Alex Spiro deserted town, and after a hot-and-cold but failed relationship with Lina.

When the store closed she went upstairs and reluctantly unpacked her last lingering moving box. So far she had avoided it, knowing it held dusty keepsakes and old, sentimental things. Out of the box, Darby lifted pictures of her and Lina. They both grinned big in a photo booth strip from one night out. There were wrinkled group photos of friends and party highlights. And other things: A house key, a long-expired Illinois drivers license, papers in envelopes, including her acceptance letter from the Manhattan School of Management. And a ticket stub from Dreaded Letters’ first concert. Darby tossed the letter, but the ticket she’d have to show Spacey.

Unveiling her final packed-away moments conjured her recent pasts. The big money she made back in New York no longer mattered, as she had it no more. Almost marrying a New York socialite also counted for nothing. Only starting again had meaning, and moving back created a chance. She knew her old plans to conquer the world hadn’t worked out. Maybe that crypto stock’s ticker symbol—TWIT—should have been a clue.

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The writing is really strong here, and the dialogue is also pretty convincing. I have two remarks/ questions: 

1. In the contemporary time-period (there is mention of Covid here), when I have not seen a record store in ages, how is an Indie record store managing to make a profit and also employ four employees (Darby, Spacey, Conrad, Mark)? Can't Indie fans get their music over Spotify and the internet like everyone else? I think you'd be better off just making Mark and Conrad two burn-out dudes that loiter around the store. Second, I like Mark and Conrad's dialogue, but it would be even better if it revealed something about Darby's personality or current situation. When she says, "To each their own," wouldn't it be better for one of them to say something sarcastic about the judgment calls that caused her to fail on Wall St? Something like, "And yet we still revere you, O Wise Queen Solomon, for it's precisely that kind of judgment call that made you such a success on Wall Street!" It might not be quite this, but something that ties their dialogue back to the humiliation that she feels from failing among the big wigs.

2. "Twit Coin" does not sound like a stock (i.e. equity). It sounds more like a crypto currency. Crypto stocks usually end with something like "-base," as in "Coinbase." Crypto currencies usually end in "-coin."

There are a few places which I think need correction:

Top-40 was one sub-genre Spacey would not go. : -->go for? or do?

Darby’s ex had terrible taste, but she was rediscovering her own inner music snob. -->Darby had never really minded that her ex had had terrible taste, but now she was rediscovering her own inner music snob.

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