By Jacob Sprecher
You know this man. You rented the Up In the Air from him last week. Or maybe it was the Criterion Collection of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Or maybe it was Die Hard 2, which you never returned. But the fact remains: You know this man. Still not sure, though? Okay. Maybe this rings a bell: “Ooooh, are you ready for the bad news? Looks like The Great Santini came back three days late. Did you want to take care of that now, or wait till next time?”
His name is Michael Wagner. And since 1998, he’s been the late-night clerk at All the Best Video on Nord Avenue.
But this is no ordinary, long-term customer service rep. Working a job that all walks of Chico life frequent (from sweet old ladies, to stoners, to winos, to freshman and back), Michael’s face is inarguably one of the most widely familiar in the entire city, a mainstay creature comfort that’s not easily forgotten. And refreshingly, the genial over-the-counter personality you’ve become accustomed to is not an act: That’s Michael. Or as the great Del Griffith would say, he’s “the real article.”
Michael’s local existence began in 1997. He moved from his hometown of Modesto after high school (where he’d worked at Hollywood Video during his senior year) to attend Chico State as a communications major. It’s a move that Michael is still glad to have made. “I love Chico,” he freely admits. “I don’t ever go back to Modesto unless it’s to visit my Grandma. I don’t care for Modesto at all. Too much traffic.”
During his second year at Chico State, Michael happened into his current occupation as All the Best’s late-night clerk. And for reason’s even he can’t altogether explain, it just felt right. But working past midnight for the past 13 years, Michael’s preference for a night owl’s life has always been complemented by the job. When we spoke last Wednesday afternoon, he’d only been up for 20 minutes. “I don’t tend to get up until 3 PM or so,” he says. “If I tried I could probably go to sleep by 3 or 4 AM, but I generally go to sleep around 8.”
And what might you ask does he watch during the wee hours?
“A lot of infomercials. [But] I love infomercials! Oh my gosh, they’re so interesting. I like the way they can make a product seem like it’s really good, even though you know it’s not. But still they sell it…”
He even gave an “amen” to the passing of Billy Mays.
And perhaps it’s not entirely shocking that Michael might enjoy Billy Mays and the like. After all, his customer service is something of legend and often akin to the gregarious hosts of cable’s dreamworld overlords. Because for five nights a week, when you walk into All the Best between the hours of 4:30 and midnight, you are guaranteed service with a smile, no exceptions. And this, more than anything, is what drives Michael’s heel in the workplace.
“I enjoy helping customers,” he says without qualm. “I know that sounds weird, ‘cause most people with customer service jobs, that’s the thing they don’t like. I just think it’s lots of fun, being helpful and friendly.”
And that’s where we should all take a big breath of fresh air. Because there’s nothing worse than feeling you’re being placated by a do-good try-hard behind the counter. But when it’s for real? That’s where it’s at. That’s what brings people back to a place of business. But had it ever worried Michael that someone might think he was being anything less than authentic? No.
“I believe it’s my personality,” he says. “I always try to be genuine; I don’t wanna be fake. I’m generally happy all the time. Everyday. No day’s usually a bad day. And I know this sounds sick and weird, but if it’s a bad day–which again is rare–once I get to work and start helping people, then it’s a good day. It’s wrong! That’s not how it should be!”
It’s this type of genuine enthusiasm that keeps Michael’s face as a pleasant picture in recesses of Chico minds. Consider that there’s plenty of liquor store clerks that you see year in and year out, and most people don’t give a damn. Why? ‘Cause they’re usually creepy assholes. So it’s nothing out of the ordinary for Michael to be recognized in public, whether it’s “Oh, I know you. Where do I know you from?” or “Hey, it’s the video guy!”
But beyond the affable personality, Michael’s admitted preference for a simple life only adds to his iconic status. He’s just not the type of guy you’re gonna see out a whole lot.
“Sadly enough,” he begins jokingly, “I don’t usually ever go out and drink. I really–and this sounds bad–I really don’t do much other than work, and come back home. I really don’t. And it’s totally by choice.”
To that end, Michael has no desire to someday run his own rental shop, or any other sort of business for that matter. He’s “perfectly content just working,” and keeps to “the belief that you have to be happy at the job you work at.” He plans to hold his position at All the Best as long as the doors are open, which looks to be for no short while, as All the Best still operates as a profitable business despite the fall of rental chains nationwide.
So as long as you continue to rent movies locally, your’e gonna be looking at the friendly face of Michael Wagner for years and years to come. And as the great Del Griffith would say, “That’s a damn rare thing these days.”