I’ve always worked in retail. Well, almost always. Save a two year stint in hotel hospitality which wasn’t really my forte, but yielded great stories, a few amazing friends & in retrospect, a wonderful sociological study of humans on vacation. But this isn’t about my time in hospitality.
I love working retail. I really do. I’ve had the good fortune to work in small local shops and big box national stores. All of them winners in their own regard, with important lessons & personal growth trajectories. I really do enjoy finding that “perfect thing” for customers, whether it’s a book or CD that might change their life, a new fragrance option they’ve never considered, a stunning piece of jewelry. While some might say that I lack ambition by “just working retail”, I can tell you that it started early.
There was a corner market in the town where I lived before we moved to the shore. It was an aging building, even in the late 1970s, with slowly rotting uneven wood floors and an aroma that was vaguely wet, sharp & decaying.
When I was about six, I stood with my mother waiting for her cold cuts (“1 pound of american cheese sliced thin“). Bored by this shopping excursion, I wandered to the cheese case, which had been picked over. The blocks of cheddar, swiss, muenster & so forth were in disarray. It upset me. While my mother pushed the one of the market’s creaky, rusty carts through the aisles, I organized their cheese. It was satisfying, lining up the blocks in the proper slots.
When I stood back to admire my work, my gaze caught the deli case to the right, covered in condensation & fingerprints. So I did what any budding retail worker with a sense of order (and without cleaning supplies) would do: I spit on the glass & started using my sleeve to clean it.
I had just gathered enough saliva for round 2, and was preparing to shower the right side of the case when my mother bellowed at me from a few feet behind.
“BARBARA LEE! DON’T YOU DARE!”
It was too late, I’d already sprayed the case & had my sleeve at the ready when she yanked me away & spanked me in one smooth motion.
I was bewildered & surprised, as I was just trying to help. “I just wanted to make it nice!” I stammered through my tears, much to the bemusement of the market’s deli clerks, who had been watching my reorganization.
She marched me to the front of the store, snuffling & wiping my eyes with the same damp sleeve, where we paid for our groceries under the dim flickering lights. The ride home was silent, after I’d been chastised for spitting. I didn’t have the words to make her understand that I wasn’t being rude or gross, I was just trying to help.
During the next visit, after I straightened the cheese, my scrutiny again fell upon the deli case. Again, covered in moisture & prints. While I stood there anxiously, wanting to “make it nice” but not wanting to get spanked, one of the deli workers remembered me from the previous incident & offered me a rag.
“Want to clean the glass?”
YES! YES I DID!
It became a regular ritual when we shopped at the market: Reorganization, glass cleaning, and compensation in the form of a few pieces of American cheese. I was helping.
The retail seed had been planted. Although I’m now armed with Windex & paper towels, I still have the same mentality. A clean, neat shop is satisfying. I tend to “help” when I visit other small establishments: putting items back in their proper place that have wandered to wrong shelves, straightening books as I browse.
And I recognize the young “helpers” when they visit me, organizing the marbles or the display of tiny candles at their eye level. We always know our tribe.