My life in retail

My parents bought records (infrequently) in the smallish music department of Leon Walker’s, a local appliance store — I believe the owners were patients of my father. I remember going in and asking for a copy of the first Duane Eddy album in stereo (they had the mono version in stock). Forrest, the owner, snorted “Why would anybody want rock and roll in stereo?” I eventually got the album elsewhere; as it happened, it was mixed mono and stereo.


But where I first started buying record on my own was at (don’t giggle, I didn’t name it) The Music Box, a couple of blocks from my high school. It didn’t hurt that I had a crush on Alice, who ran the place and who was married to Sam, a local disc jockey. As might be expected, it was much hipper than the appliance store, and she occasionally advanced me credit.

I worked for a while in the record department of a big, then-new local branch of The Broadway department store. My official title was “night manager,” which was a joke in that there were only two of us: the “day manager,” a very nice little old lady who’d been moved over from the sterling silver department and worked days; and me, who worked nights and weekends.

The record department wasn’t very large, and were stocked by a buyer in Los Angeles. But eventually I convinced them that I knew what I was doing (Mrs. Berman, the day manager, let me pretty much run everything), and was allowed to occasionally order for my own department. That, and my being allowed to play albums in the store, resulted in my probably being the only person in Ventura to sell records by the Shadows and the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. Right next door to Major Appliances, I was also called upon to sell stoves and refrigerators when the regular crew was at dinner, on a break, or whatever. But the manager of that department made me sell them in his name, so he could collect the commission. “I have a family to support,” he reasoned, “and you don’t.”

After I started attending college out of town, the Broadway was kind enough to take me back during vacations, where I worked in departments including Books, Men’s Furnishing (shirts, cologne, wallets, belts, etc.) and Pipes and Electric Shavers. Women would bring their husbands’ Sunbeams or Norelcos in, saying they didn’t work. Surprisingly often, I’d remove the head cover and reveal that the shave was clogged with whiskers, that nobody had bothered to clean out.

For two years, I attended college in Santa Fe, New Mexico. At the time, the only two places in town where you could buy records were a store that specialized in classical (never visited it, myself) and the local Woolworth’s, on the Plaza, which was racked with records they were pretty sure would sell a lot of copies. As it happened, I wasn’t playing much music when I was in school, anyway, and did my buying when I got back home and was able to drive the 60-something miles to Los Angeles, where they had decent record stores that occasionally discounted albums by a dollar.

Some years later, I visited a couple of friends who live in Missoula, Montana, where they ran a little record store across from the University. Musicians (one sang and played guitar; the other was a fiddler who allegedly once punched a guy out for requesting “Orange Blossom Special”), their personal tastes tended to the less-then-commercial, which was reflected in the store’s inventory. While I was there, I worked the registered and slept on the store floor after closing time.

Once I got into the writing/music game, I assured myself that I could always go back to selling things in stores. The more I worked outside retail, the less desire I had to return to it — nothing wrong with the job; it just didn’t “feel” like me, any more.

Then, a couple of years ago, and essentially broke, I decided to give it a shot during Christmas vacation. I applied to Radio Shack, and made it as far as the second interview, at the store’s local training facility and conducted by a guy who was something like 20 years old and already managing a branch. I’m not sure why I didn’t get the job (they don’t tell you), but I could see the guy blanch when he asked where I saw myself with Radio Shack in five years, and I replied that if anything I’d still be working Christmases. Not the response a go-getting lifer like him had in mind, perhaps. I didn’t get past the on-line job application form at Borders: they had no way of dealing with a resume as wandering as mine; all they could handle was a person who worked in one place for a period of time; then another place; etc. For much of my life, I’d been juggling several “jobs” simultaneously. Or none at all.


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