Wednesday, March 18, 2009


When I was 23, I upgraded to a new job for the third time in a year and took a slight detour on the way to teaching. This job turned out to be unexpectedly enriching, although I complained about it a lot at the time.

I upgraded my retail job from the casual kitchen and home store to a more upscale design store. It was in an old bank building with ornate embellishments on the ceiling and large windows. The store was beautiful and expensive. It was a place to see and be seen.

I worked with a group of women who were all hired because they projected the right image. There was exploitation all around. The salesgirls were treated like ice cream flavors of the month by customers. "Have you seen the new brunette? What about the tall blonde?" Men came in to shop and flirt, sometimes asking someone out (I told my guy friends . . . NEVER, NEVER ask a salesgirl out. She is being paid to be nice so you'll spend money and she is a captive audience. She can't leave the store to escape you.) There was always someone being stalked. It was an effective business model but it was missing one element that the owner's son eventually remedied.

It was hard work . . . unpacking truckloads of merchandise; long days on our feet; cleaning and dusting the expansive shelves of Iitala glassware, Blenko vases and Sasaki dishware. We built furniture, hauled heavy boxes up and down the stairs, and constantly rearranged displays. But it was also fun: gossiping, dancing, singing -sometimes running and sliding across the wood floor - as we worked. My co-workers became my good friends over the next several years.

Within a year of working there, I was promoted to store manager. I learned how to be the bookkeeper, assistant buyer, HR department and overall invisible right hand of the owner and her son. The owner was in her 70s and her son was in his 30s.

The owner had grown up in a super wealthy family on the East Coast. She fell in love with a man her family thought was beneath her, so they tried to bribe her to leave him. Instead, the young couple eloped and moved to California. Her husband had been an avid smoker, and smoked in the design store office for years in her presence. The office was the original bank vault with no windows or air circulation. After years of secondhand smoke, doctors had given her a permanent tracheotomy . . . she had a hole in her throat that she breathed and coughed through. She could only speak in a whisper and few people understood her. Her husband had long ago died of lung cancer when I worked for her.

The son was a little on the awkward side. The person I can most compare him to is Michael, the boss from The Office. He was always making outrageous statements and creating spur-of-the-moment rules for employees. But he would also lose his temper, usually when I wasn't there and the store was busy. I often had to do damage control after my weekends, soothing crying employees or screaming customers on the phone.

The son had gotten into some trouble at a young age and moved in with his mom to get his life back together. The owner decided to set him up to be in charge of the store. This is where I came in. I basically did all the work of running the place behind the scenes while the son took credit, posing on the sales floor with the pretty girls and high-end merchandise. I do have to give him credit for being the one who stood up to his mother and insisted that we hire attractive men for the sales floor. And that he did. I have no idea where he found them but suddenly we had a number of male model types standing by the register. They never worked as hard as the women but now we had something for everyone.

I learned something of value from the owner, not really business and management skills because she had me figure that out on my own. I did her husband's work and she wanted nothing to do with it. It was her unbelievable design sense. She could look at a catalog of whatever it was - frames, table linens, vases - and be able to select a magic combination of colors and styles that embodied more style as a whole than they could individually. I learned a lot from her about color and architectural lines. At the time, I was completely over everything being about image, but now I appreciate having more of a discerning eye because of it.

The owner was actually very mean to most of the employees but almost none of them knew it. I would be sitting next to her in the office . . . an employee would walk in and the owner would say in her whispery voice something like "I've never seen such a complete idiot. Was she whoring around on the way to work?" smiling all the way. The employee would smile sweetly in response and I would translate something like "Your outfit is so nice but do you have a sweater? Your top is A LITTLE see-through for the sales floor."

The owner and her son were very good to me . . . I received regular raises, bonuses and merchandise. I still have the dishware and flatware to show for it. I kept this job for four years while I gradually took classes at night for my teaching credential. At the time, I couldn't wait to finally do something of more substance but I have to admit that I've missed it occasionally. The store has since gone out of business. The owner passed away several years ago. The last I heard, the son was working in construction.


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