Give my regards to the Broadway

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.

The Broadway(not my Broadway, but close enough)

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.

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.

duane-eddy-album

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.