working retail in december: a horror story
Those of you who have worked retail during the holiday season will understand my reluctance to speak about this before now. The memories are horrific, brutal and sometimes cause flashbacks that leave me curled up in a fetal position, sobbing and begging to be sedated.
1983 was my first holiday retail experience. It was a baptism by fire, as I landed a job at the busiest record store at the busiest mall on Long Island. Record World, Roosevelt Field, a/k/a/ RF#1. On my first day - two days before Thanksgiving - I was handed the requisite blue vest, a name tag and a few whispered words of advice: don't let them get to you. My co-workers were referring to the barrage of customers that were at the gated entrance to the store fifteen minutes before opening and still clinging to the cassette racks as we were trying to close. You have not seen a whirling dervish in action until you have seen someone hell bent on getting everything on their kid's Christmas list.
I, however, was no wimp. I could handle any customer, any crowd, any cash register breakdown or old woman sobbing over the Julio Iglesias albums. I immediately volunteered to work the irons - the opening to closing shift - nearly every day. From Thanksgiving until Christmas, I would not have a day off, and most of the days would be the full work shift.
In the beginning I had superhero powers. I never got tired from the long hours. I manned every spot in the store; the cash register, the cassette department, the imports. I spent time downstairs unpacking boxes upon boxes of shipments, sorting albums, slapping stickers on them and writing the title, artist and store # on the plastic sleeve of every record with a blue sharpie.
By the second week in December, I was spending more time on the floor, helping customers find exactly what they were looking for. During the holiday season, this usually consisted of frazzled mothers trying to remember exactly what it was their son or daughter had asked for. This resulted in a lot of guesswork, humming and/or singing. It also involved many loud gasps of horror when the mother matched the title of the record with the album on the wall (the wall was where the albums were displayed in rows of pockets). So many dropped jaws and wide eyes as parents spied the cover to Quiet Riot's Metal Health. That's what my child is listening to? Oh My God! He's a devil worshiper! I knew it!! And the mother would run screaming from the store and head straight over to Catholic Supplies, where she would beg for some holy water.
The kids were just as bad. They would come in without a list, trying to buy music for their parents. Getting the title of a song out of them was like pulling teeth. How about if I sing it? Yea, sure kid. Sing away. A tuneless dirge would emerge. No words. Just la la humm hum la da dee. I begged for lyrics. Just one or two would do. Uhh. Love. And umm...heart. I would lean in close to the kid and say sweetly, Well that narrows it down. And as soon as the kid smiled I would yell, To about 3,000 songs! Eventually I would convince the kid to settle for a Billy Joel or Lionel Richie single, unless the kid was really rude and obnoxious, in which case I would convince him that the song he was humming was actually Frank Stallone's Far From Over , knowing full well that I would be going to hell for inflicting such pain on an innocent person.
The closer it got to Christmas, the more of a frenzy people were in. They fought over the last copy of Synchronicity. They mobbed us when we opened a new box of Madonna cassettes. And every once in a while, I would have to step over some fur-coated, blue-haired grandma who fainted when she saw the larger-than-life cardboard cut-out of Julio. And I started to feel the result of all work and no play. I was tired, cranky and I lost my voice.
My co-workers made signs for me to hold up so I could still help customers. Two days before Christmas, the only sign I had to use was "Sorry. We are out of that title right now." I faced the wrath of customers who, through no fault of mine, had waited until the very last minute to pick up that Echo and the Bunnymen album and sorry, we are out of that title right now. I listened to the complaints that the register lines were too long (this is when everything was done by hand) and the store was a mess and the floor people were rude. We had to chase people out of the store ten minutes after closing and even as I was vacuuming and closing up cases they would say "oh, are you closing?" I lost my patience and I lost my fixed greeting smile. No longer was it "Welcome to Record World, how may I help you," but "What you really want to buy your kid is clothes. Go to The Gap and leave me alone."
This was all played out to the constant background music of the crapfest of pop music that came out that year, especially Huey Lewis and the News's Sports album which, to this day, makes me break out in hives.
Had I known that the next year I would be doing the Record World Christmas stint again and would be subjected to the non-stop playing of Do They Know It's Christmas, I might have appreciated Huey a little more.
I tortured myself through Christmas of '86 and decided that I was going to retire from retail after that. I could not handle another holiday season of bitchy parents and surly kids and girls screaming and drooling over New Kids on the Block albums. I had used my holiday bonuses and store discounts to accumulate a nice collection of imports and that almost - almost - offset whatever mental damage that job caused me.
Despite all that, I still refer to my term at Record World as the best damn job I ever had. But I never did work retail again.