The following is an article I wrote pre-blog–pandemic sorting?
I wrote this in hopes of publishing it in the former East Bay Express sometime in the late 90s. It never made the cut but I like it anyway. So here goes-it’s only political in the vaguest anticorporate way. I cannot remember the name of the store but I frequently wore their hippieish ballerina length cotton dresses. If you remember the name, please drop me a note.
How I Spent my Christmas Vacation
I should have known how things would work out when my prospective boss, a diminutive blond with the terse expression of an annoyed nun, (redundant?) mean-mugged me and noted, “We don’t usually hire people with previous retail experience. We have our own way of doing things here.”
I had closed my own little vintage clothing, local art and quirky kitsch shop just a few months before. I thought it would be fun to work in a store again as I have worked many a Christmas retail gig, shoppers, decorations, hubub, yeah I like a bit of brightly colored chaos at the holidays. The extra cash would come in handy too with my kids heading home from college expecting to find their stockings filled with underwear, candy, at least, and a well-stocked fridge so I appplied for the short season.
Fourth Street Shopping, Berkeley style
I picked the Fourth Street area because it is (is it still?) the hottest shopping district in the East Bay. I used to tell my Grand Avenue customers that my shop offered most of the things you could find on 4th Street but for half the price- I’m still convinced Anthropologie copied me- so I thought it would be cool to sell the shiny new reproductions everyone wants on the street everyone wants to emulate.
I must have imagined happy shoppers surrounded by cheery carolers. I never really found out how the shoppers felt because the store that hired me, frowned on talking to customers other than to pressure them into giving out as much personal info as possible. “Say it in a light, airy way, can I have your address including zipcode?” young Jessica would admonish me. “We need the demographics on our customers so we can possibly open a store in their area. It’s really for them.” Uhuh.
Manuals, manuals who’s got the manual?
I’m not going to mention the name of the shop even though there are more than one of its type on the street. I didn’t spend a good part of the first two evenings I worked there reading the manual for nothing-there is a strict rule forbidding employees from revealing their trade secrets lest others follow their guiding principles. Those principles being- hire women who can work under an authoritarian structure, tolerate anal retentive rules, and who prefer little or no social interaction.
During the interview I detected a taste of the monastic when I found I had trouble grasping the principle of not complimenting the perp, I mean customer, ever. Not even an, “I like that color on you” should pass my lips. I assured the manager, prim Priscilla-name changed to protect me- that I wasn’t accustomed to issuing false compliments-as you all already know. How about, “that’s a good fit,” surely no one follows their manual that rigidly!
Morning Pre-Opening Pep Talks, Careful
My first Saturday, having read the manual and mastered the dress code, no should pads, no visible socks (years before I had gotten in trouble for not wearing a bra to work in a bank), I arrived fresh for the compulsory pre-opening pep talk or rather daily discouragement. The store management felt it was necessary to hold one of these drills every day while shouting ten hut ( I made up that part.)
These went on for 30 minutes during which the managers held pop quizes about product knowledge. I also learned that merchandise is never referred to specifically but as “product.” This is the current (so now in 2020, this is really old business and I still hate it) business-speak that turns everything into commodoties, from clothing to school children.
The manual stated that there was to be no leaning on furniture, much less ever sitting on the job, standing at attention only, not kidding here. We arranged ourselves in front of the locked doors and studiously ignored customers pulling at the doors. These shoppers, women only, erroneously assumed that sales peple standing by the door with nothing to do, meant that the store was open. Apparently they hadn’t read the manual.
I’ll admit, I’m not accustomed to standing at attention, having never been in the military. I tired to look interested and concentrate on the lesson at hand so that I wouldn’t be distracted by the confused, occasionally voiciferous customers at the door. I folded my arms, what cheek.
Learning the Trade
I was assigned a manager to shepherd me through the day so that I did not spend an errant moment staring out the window when I could have been folding or learning to fold in the proscribed manner, not one of my skill sets, it seems. I was admonished more than once for not getting the customer to give the desperately desired info out freely. I was also reproached when I wasted two whole sentences chatting with a coworker during a lull in the work day, the insubordination.
Jessica or Sarah or Amy, spelled Aimee, told me, “We don’t want the customer to feel they have interrupted a conversation you may be having with another salesperson, (were we calling them associates yet?) You may discuss product however.” I couldn’t understand what difference it would make to a customer what you were discussing so long as you turned your attention to him, her, (edite-or them) when needed. The very idea that you might have a thought of your own on their time, seemed to be the essence of the problem.
Absolutely No Whistling
The manual was clear-no singing along to the upbeat and slightly hip version of muzak that was piped in during selling hours-another rule I frequently broached unknowingly. Indeed I was caught not only singing along but even whistling along more than once, nothing in the manual mentioned whistling, but I did not issue that rejoinder.
But once again the mother superior, Jessica, or whoever, mean-mugged me to the spot and issued her most stinging criticism yet. She told me that it had been noted, discussed and agreed upon by ALL the managers that I had committed a major aux pas at that morning’s pre-opening drill. Did I fail the pop quiz I thought? No but I had exhibited the grossest unprofessionalism while my coworkers discussed product-I had folded my arms. I was too astonished even to respond, not that a response was remotely desired.
Did I tell them to take their job and shove it, as I imagined Jack Nicholson would have? No like any good victim or brainwashing or abuse, I had aready learned to hold a vacant stare during the reiteration of the ridiculous rules. I pretended to have no opinion, a particularly difficult feat for me. I had realized by the 2nd day that neither reason nor argument would sway them from running their organization like an assembly line of pert, cotton swathed automatons.
Some friends who heard of my experiences, my almost indoctrination, said that it sounded more like a cult than a clothing store patronized mostly by young women and earth mother types. They suggested that maybe it was full of former followers of EST, yeah, that sounds about right. Perhaps it was just the brave new world of big business and little people, a world I had taken myself out of years before but had almost forgotten why.
So, on my last afternoon there, when I was allowed to cashier without a minder, I found myself enjoying the opportunity to chat very briefly with the customers, my favorite part of owning my own shop. For a moment I thought I might not quit just yet.
Then another saleswoman who had been hired almost as recently as I, put an end to my reveries. She broke in to reprimand me in that chirpy upbeat voice only brainwashed women can manage, “That’s not the way we do things here. We don’t talk to customers about anything but product.” Oops, this is where I came in.
So just remember during these stressful times of essential workers who have few rights, buy their own masks, then go home to hopefully hug their families, be nice to your sales “associates” whenever you can. Have a safe and healthy holiday in whatever way you celebrate! Goddess Bless Us Everyone!