I have never worked much at retail stores but there have been a few positions, when I was young and could stand on my feet for hours. What made me think of my retail jobs was reading this article about a guy who went to work at Target as a cashier. Very witty observations.
When I finished college, I got my first retail position, working at Gateway Books in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. My parents had built a house on the lake and it was actually closer to zip into Oak Ridge than to go to Knoxville. However, we tended to gravitate to K-town, probably because we had lived there for years before the move.
Oak Ridge is a fascinating place. It was built in WWII to manufacture the atomic bomb. The town is surrounded by mountains and there are only a couple of roads going into town so it was a perfect location to make an atomic bomb, it was thought. The government kicked everyone out of the valley, bought up all the land, and started bringing in workers from all over America to build the town and work in the huge plants where they were working on the bomb.
Oak Ridge was very big on security.
I remember still seeing this billboard when I was a kid, as we drove out of town:
Oak Ridge was/is a nuclear engineering place. It's also located in a rural part of East Tennessee. There are coal mines [or there were in 1984; not sure about now] a short drive away.
After I finished college in June of '84 I couldn't find a job, so I called the only bookstore in Oak Ridge, Gateway Books, and asked if they needed any help. They did. I worked there about 6 months before heading off to paralegal school.
It was a great learning experience, working there. I had loved reading since I was 7 years old, but the business of books was entirely new to me. I had to wear comfortable old lady shoes from SAS because in 1984 I couldn't find any other well-made, comfortable shoes for professions where you're on your feet a lot. Hated the shoes. Then again, I rarely saw any cute guys in there that were around my age and not married.
The store manager was Norwegian. She had been here in the US for twenty years but her accent was still hard to understand sometimes. One day she was telling me to "doos de boos" and I made her repeat it three times, growing more frantic each time as I realized I had no idea what she was saying. Finally the assistant manager, an older Asian lady, came over and said "Dee, she's saying DUST THE BOOKS! She hates dust."
The store wasn't very large but it had a good selection of books. The two sections that always needed straightening and cleaning were the computer books and the porn. Yes, there were tons of magazines (of all kinds) and a couple of high shelves had specifically pornographic magazines. There were some brilliant nuclear engineers working in town, and they all wanted computer books. I was so glad that wasn't my section because I had never actually used a computer at that point in my life and the books were a total mystery to me.There were also guys (who didn't look like rockets scientists) buying the porn. This was long before the internet, and actually before most people even owned VCRs. Porn was still mostly in magazines then.
My assigned section was the children's section. I had to make sure it was always neat when I was working. The Pat the Bunny books and little cloth books were always a disaster, I remember. Darn those messy toddlers. That was the summer the movie Dune came out, and we had tons of promo stuff for it -- too bad it wasn't a good movie. The original book series always sold well.
I got a store discount and I blew most of my paycheck buying books. I was trying to save for an apartment but that didn't happen. I only made a little over minimum wage. The manager also allowed me to borrow books and take them home, as long as they were returned in good condition and could be sold. I hated bringing them back. Good thing I was living with my parents and didn't have to pay rent!
There was a middle-aged lady who worked with me who was a good employee, but not terribly well educated. One day she was obviously very frustrated and she finally said to me "I just CANNOT find this book this customer called about! Can you see if you can find it so we can order it for him?" I looked at the notes she had made while talking to the customer. This is what she wrote down: "title: How to Win A Pullet Surprise." I tried very hard not to giggle as I re-wrote the title to "Pulitzer Prize." She had thought he wanted some kind of chicken cookbook.
At the front of the store there were several racks of romance novels. Sometimes the little mountain ladies would come in and load up on the Harlequin romance novels and other serial romance books. One day a little mountain lady softly asked me "Do you have the number 26 of the love sweat series?" I thought, "love sweat"? Is that romance or porn? I went over and looked and looked but I saw no "love sweat," and started telling her that we didn't carry that, but the assistant manager walked over and pulled the book off the shelf and handed it to her. "She wants the Loveswept series, Dee." I felt like an idiot.
I thought I was fluent in hillbilly.
Coming in on Sunday morning was always an adventure. The store opened at 8 and there were plenty of customers. The store ordered a lot of copies of the Sunday editions of The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other notable newspapers from around the country. The papers all came in on Saturday and were put out on Sunday morning. Lots of men who would breeze in, throw some quarters on the top of the pile, grab their paper and walk out, in just a few seconds. I learned to look on the stacks for the coins. Lots of folks moved to Oak Ridge from other places to work in the nuclear plants. Our store manager would take special orders for their hometown newspapers, and usually about once a week the customer would come in and ask for their newspapers. They weren't charged shipping or an extra fee, and they could keep up with their hometown news, which I thought was really nice.
I was always sad to see books pulled off the shelves because they hadn't sold. The covers would be torn off and they were sent away as "remainders." I thought it was such a shame they weren't donated to schools or nursing homes or places where they would be appreciated. I think they were just incinerated.
At Christmas, the Norwegian manager had us working like crazy to accommodate the holiday shoppers. Oak Ridge didn't have an enclosed mall or many stores, and the bookstore did a LOT of business as the holiday approached. One day I worked with another clerk on my feet for 9 or 10 hours straight. We'd take turns, one bagging and one ringing up. The manager brought in Norwegian wafer cookies and they were put behind the counter for us. When it slacked off a bit I ate about 5 lbs. of those incredible cookies, called krumkake.
One day a dumpy, acne-ridden teenaged girl came in, eyes glazed, and she kept mumbling and asking me to recommend a book. I tried to talk to her about what she liked, and showed her some books. I finally realized she was high as a kite on some kind of drugs. That was creepy. I don't remember what actually happened; I think she just staggered out of the store.
Most of our customers were affluent folks, often well-educated and highly literate. Oak Ridge in those days was such a town of contrasts - the rocket scientists and their families, and the mountain people. I don't know if that's still true now.
The weirdest experience I ever had working there at Gateway books was one Saturday night near closing time. A rough looking man came in and my fellow clerk, Mike, quickly said "I'll help him, Dee" and hurried over to talk to the man. He completely cleaned out every porno magazine and book we had in the store. Mike loaded box after box into the back of his car, and came in and rang up the sale - something like $300 - a huge sale in 1984 dollars. I was fascinated. "Why did he buy all those?" I asked, when the man had left. Mike [about my age, 21, and very much a product of a rural East Tennessee upbringing] said "He's going up to the coal camps, sell those things again. He'll make a huge profit."
Wow. I hated the porn but I grudgingly had to admire an entrepreneurial spirit when I saw it.
I had to quit the job in January of 1985 because I was headed to Atlanta to paralegal school. I didn't miss the work, or the lousy pay, but I missed the people I worked with. I missed the excitement of seeing the new books come in. I worked really hard and I was always exhausted when I left, but I had some good memories of my time there.
Even now, the words "Pulitzer Prize" make me giggle...