You can always tell if someone ever worked in retail or not by how they treat salespeople. Everyone should be required to work as a clerk at a store during the holiday season at least once in their lives, experience the physically and mentally exhausting work that follows, which also requires you to at least create the illusion of remaining chipper and unconditionally friendly throughout.
Only those who have worn the name tag understand that when you go to a store, you’ve left the real world. You’re in an alternate dimension, designed to get you to open your wallet or purse and leave behind as much money as you have on you, in exchange for a few baubles and widgets. The people at the store wouldn’t prefer to talk to you, an abject stranger with a favor to ask, if they hadn’t assumed a starring role in this little melodrama, in which you, the customer, are the star.
I spent years in retail, and although this is my first Christmas season in 13 years that I haven’t been in those trenches, I may yet find myself there again. Much like Liam Neeson, I have a certain set of skills that make me particularly adept at a task, only instead of tracking people down and beating them to death, I happen to be good at a certain brand of easy going diplomacy, glad handing, maybe a little subtle charisma, and perhaps most importantly, knowledge and enthusiasm beyond my years for many different kinds of music. Running a music store, albeit one coasting inside of major national bookstore chain instead of busting and risking my ass building Rocko’s Records, proved to be my path of least resistance in life, keeping the rent paid for the duration of my young adulthood.
When I look at the glory days of around 2004, I still get a warm, bourbon warmth inside. Even though the music industry was in decline and the competition was fierce among the brick and mortars, fighting for the last scraps in a post apocalyptic (Well, post itunes) world, I was hanging in there, keeping the numbers good. Sales might not be so hot when the weather was, I would spend a lot of days doing something close to nothing around mid July, but coming into the Holiday season, it got to be my time to get my shine on. There’s an undeniable comfort to knowing that you did something, got something right. Somebody got something they needed. I got a little job security out of the sale.
I was the man that could find the album with the guy from the, you know, that thing, oh what’s it called, it was on that show. I was the guy who could answer the phone and handle the person who didn’t know for sure if I would have it but I’m “probably too young to know” while I was ordering that thing someone else couldn’t find for you as you stood before me, even as I’m also ringing up a line of customers. Women say men can’t multitask. Women who haven’t met me. Every holiday season, it was Game On. Back then, Black Friday was an insider, industry term. It meant that if your sales were in the yellow, or even the red, you would soon take measures to get them into the black. Once the concept made it into the lexicon and zeitgeist of the public at large, the bloodlust for bargains grew ubiquitous. What chance does common courtesy, any sense of decorum stand when a mob of peckers want to buy a handful of merchandise at rock bottom prices?
I understood salesmanship innately. There’s not a tremendously long list of things in the world that I’m good at. I can’t throw a ball. I can’t balance a check book. Totally uncoordinated. Overweight. I wouldn’t describe myself as any sort of mental heavyweight. But if I have a product that I believe in, I will sell it to you. If you hire me to do that, you will make money. Proving that I could do that and being at it for years in a spot that was a short stop on life’s journey for most of the other employees meant that a few eccentricities of mine were tolerated. Since I didn’t want a promotion once I got the position I wanted, an unspoken understanding arose. I was granted latitude to bring my own attitude down from a latitude, because I could back it up with bucks. When corporate mandates regarding ill advised product placement and absurdly constructed “planograms” (If you know that word, you’ve worked retail) would come down, upper management usually kindly looked away as I usually disregarded it in favor of pushing things that sold. When customers I became friendly with came around, nobody made a fuss if I leisurely spoke with them during lulls, and was trusted enough to make the call. Nobody ever left empty handed, after all- if you weren’t gonna buy something, you knew better than to come around if you’re any friend of mine. It was a great arrangement for a long time.
It started to wear on me, though. The handful of loopy visitors that used to be novel and whimsical seemed to grow much more burdensome, malevolent, annoying, and sometimes even troubling. As well as developing into sort of a legion, no longer the exception and more often the common faces, as most of the upwardly mobile people moved towards buying their stuff cheaper and easier online. With less business from rational humans, it got trickier and trickier to blow off the nutjobs, lonely weirdos who would come to my store and stand near me for some kind of comfort. I had to let them, pretty much no matter what. At one time, it stroked my ego to build a Jonestown style crowd of followers, who would only talk to me, only buy things from me, and seemed to think about me very frequently. It got old, not to mention weird, and made me start to develop into a deliberate stranger.
See, the person at the store, they’re like a kindness prostitute. They have to be nice to you. I’ll admit it- I got extremely good at a very sharp kind of passive-aggressiveness. Judge me if you want, but when your hands are tied, you have no choice but to fight dirty in a scrap. As Black Friday became more and more of a cultural phenomenon, as capitalism lost it’s luster, and as I got older and grew weary of the grind, the thrill was gone. Every year, there would be one person, a new one every time, who would try me. Like the Ghost Of Christmas Past, someone would always cross a line and set my frazzled nerves on red alert. Someone who obviously never had to be on my side of the counter. Because the fact was, I was bluffing. It’s not like I had the option of coming around and wailing on anybody. I needed the gig. Last year I came the closest I ever did. When I couldn’t perform an impossible magic trick for a doofus, he had the temerity to say “I don’t care if you hate me.”
“I don’t hate anybody, pal.” I told him, “But the guy behind you in the long line you’re holding up sure does.” I was right about that, as it turned out.
It wasn’t my call to get my hat and hit the bricks for good, but it wasn’t such a bad idea. Now that I’m out, I’m prone to turn around and walk away from loons I encounter. There’s so many crazy people in the world. So many thousands upon thousands of conversations I didn’t want to have, but had to. What’s the line? Hell is other people? Sartre must have worked at a store at some point.
So this year, don’t be a dipshit when you go shopping. Don’t shop on Black Friday. Don’t shop on Thanksgiving, certainly not on Christmas Day. Be patient. Because there but for the grace of God you are, the one without that motherfucking name-tag on.