My first “real” job was as night manager of the records department at The Broadway dep’t store in Ventura. As the day manager (Sadie Berman, a much older woman who’d been transferred from selling costume jewelry) didn’t know or care anything about music, I pretty much ran things. And we eventually became one of only a few stores in the chain allowed to order our own stock.
OK, so it wasn’t my first job. I’d worked briefly in the kitchen of a local coffee-house, and even more briefly bused dishes at a Greek restaurant owned by a friend’s father. Of slightly more significance to my future, I signed on as a “management trainee” with the gas company. Commendably, though not so to my understanding at the time, the utility started everyone — even management trainees — at the bottom. For me, this meant driving out to the outskirts of Ojai (might as well have been Patagonia) early one chilly morning. Once there, I dug a hole, with two senior employees watching me, and a supervisor watching them.
The experience was enough to convince me that my future wasn’t in physical labor (though I greatly respect those whose is), or on the management career path in an energy company. Perhaps surprisingly, though, I remain pro-union with some reservations; featherbedding high among them.
Back to The Broadway: I was in Ventura, where I helped open Store #13 (yes, that occurred to us, though it evidently hadn’t to the owners). I can’t remember the year; probably around 1963. They’d placed an ad in the Star-Free Press, announcing that they were hiring; and, despite my lack of experience in anything other than working at a very low level in the hospitality industry, I decided to wait in line with all the other applicants, most of them equally inexperienced.
A medium-level chain; classier than Penney’s and Sears, not as much so as the May Company, the Broadway would hire off the street, which is why so many of the sales clerks were first-timers, housewives and the like. Pay was low, and a lot of the clerks didn’t know anything about what they were selling — including me, when I filled in at the pipes and electric shavers department!
When Miss La Belle, the HR person (probably in her 30s; blonde hair tied in a bun) asked me what qualified me for the job, I (only sort of) bluffed, “Ask me anything about music,” figuring that whatever she came up with wouldn’t be too obscure. Some time later, a woman asked about a copy of some classical album (Firebird Suite, maybe). We didn’t have the version she was looking for, but I sold her on another version, just released, that had been receiving some good reviews. Turns out, she was the store manager’s wife; and I was in, solid, from that point on.
The records department was next to Major Appliances: televisions, stereos, and stoves and refrigerators. There were advantages — I’d play albums on the stereos, and sold quite a few that way.
There were also disadvantages. Every day after school kids would gather in front of the TVs and watch some local (meaning L.A.) dance party telecast — “9th Street West,” “Shivaree,” “The Lloyd Thaxton Show” — that I didn’t particularly like. Also, when the Major Appliance guys (I could, but won’t, name them) were away, I was charged with selling the big-ticket items. The department manager “suggested” that I write them up under his name, pointing out that as a married man with children he needed the commissions more than I did.
He had a point, if not the ethical high ground, and I never discussed the matter with HR (or the personnel office as it was then known).
That job effectively ended when I left for college, though the store liked me enough that they’d put me back on the floor during breaks and summer vacation. I worked in the book department (where, mainly, I familiarized myself with the merchandise by reading it); and Men’s Furnishings, where I told shirts, handkerchiefs, ties and seeming gallons of Jade East, a sweetly noxious cologne in favor those days and that, to my amazement, is still on the market.
I spend most of my vacation time, however, in the aforementioned pipes and tobacco department, where I also sold electric shavers and, as I recall, binoculars. There was no orientation, so I had to learn the merchandise on my own. I read a lot of catalogs and stuff (the Internet being decades in the future), and generally faked my way to where at least I knew more than most customers.
Two memories stand out. First, women (invariably women) would bring in electric shavers — presumably their husbands’, for the most part — to be cleaned and fixed up. Often, the devices weren’t running. I’d flip open the head and a mass of whiskers and dried-up skin cells piled out, often unclogging the frozen blades in the process. Take it into the back room, blow the blades clean, and back to the customer with The Broadway’s best wishes. And if we had one in stock, I’d sell her a new blade assembly. If anybody had ever done that simple bit of routine maintenance, they certainly hadn’t done so before bringing the shaver into the store.
Second, the pipes — most unbranded — came into the store in a box (not individual ones, for the most part); most of them without a price tag. Try as I might to get some word from Downtown, none came. So I’d make up prices, based on what I thought the pipes looked like they might be worth and confident that the official markup was big enough that nobody was actually losing money.
As much as I enjoyed my stint with The Broadway, which ended in erly 1967, I didn’t see retail in my future. It was time to look for a career.