Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Retail Bluz

I keep having the dreams. A whole 15 years after the fact, I keep dreaming about working in retail stores. Just two nights ago, it happened again. I was at my first record store job and I was in charge of closing down the register. I was in a panic because I couldn’t remember how to run the closing reports.

That’s usually what happens in my dreams… I’m back at some store I used to manage and I need to perform some routine function, but after all these years, I can’t remember how. It’s kind of like my dreams where I’m shoved onstage with a guitar, but I don’t know how to play.

It’s funny that I rarely dreamt about retail work when I was actually doing the job. The exception was during the Christmas season when I’d be working 12-hour days all week. Then I’d go home, fall into bed and dream about still being at work. I’d wake up going, “WTF?? Can I ever get a break from this?

Now here I am again, long down the road, and still, my old Retail Life haunts my dreams. I worked in retail for about as long as I’ve worked my current job (almost 15 years) but I never dream about that

It probably shouldn’t surprise me. It was a pretty tumultuous time with a lot of highs and lows. It was a lot of stress for a young person to handle. I always say that if it weren’t the music business I was in, I’d have quit after six months. The hours sucked, the pay sucked, the work could be thankless, but the perks made it worthwhile. I wrote about the “perks” (ie: free records/CDs, posters, tickets, meeting lots of rock stars and bluesmen) in great detail some time ago, but I never really talked about the work.  Maybe my dreams are a way of telling me that I’d better get started if I ever want to truly leave them in the past.

My introduction to working retail was my first job at our local family grocery store. I didn't learn much about “retailing” per se; I was just a hired grunt. Those were the days when stock clerks still bagged your groceries, took them to the parking lot, and loaded them into your car. The most recently hired was always the “first call” for bagging and others were called as necessary, by reverse seniority. Sadly for me, I set a record for the longest time spent on “first call,” as no one was hired after me for about a year and a half. But man, could I ever bag me some groceries… I was part boy, part octopus. And I once fit 12 grocery bags into the trunk of a Camaro. Try THAT some time… and no fair using those piddly plastic bags! These were the big brown paper bags.

Once they got some new blood in there, my favorite part of the job (besides the smell of fresh bread baking on a Saturday morning) was stocking my shelves. Each stocker had an aisle for which he was responsible. Mine happened to have cereal, Pop-Tarts, and bagged candy on one side, with toilet paper, Kleenex, and napkins on the other. I liked it because most of my items were in boxes, which squared up nicely.

My job was to know what we had in back-stock and use it to fill in holes as the product sold down.  What I really wanted to do was to learn how to order, but they wouldn't trust me with that job. Their loss… it turned out to be something I was pretty good at later.

After a brief sojourn into factory work, (aka My Summer in Hell), I got a job at the worst gas station ever. I shouldn't even count that as “retail” but it was just too strange not to mention. This was one of those “cheapo” gas stations, not a name brand. It was a real fly-by-night operation, and I could probably do a whole post just about my year there.

But just to mention the highlights, there was no indoor read-out on the gas pumps, I almost always worked alone, and they didn't even have a freakin’ cash register. They kept the day’s money in a cigar box so I had to make change out in my head. It would have been nice if someone had shown me the tricks for making change, that I later learned at the record store. At the time, I was trying to do it like a math problem, which was a Big Problem for me. I am a Words Guy, not a Numbers Guy. It was no wonder that my “drawer” was always short. 

Not to mention, anytime you only have one person on duty, the situation is an easy target for theft. If I’m out at the pumps, anyone else can go into the little “shop” and pilfer the cigs without batting an eye. Eventually, they got those fancy digital gas pumps, but they never hooked them up… they just sat in the garage bay.

And talk about scams, this place even went so far as to post their gas prices on the big overhead sign in freakin’ liters! This was the early 80s so their public stance was that they were trying to get with the times, as the country was supposedly moving toward the metric system. In actuality, they knew that if they threw $.49 up on the sign instead of $1.19, people would come flocking in. And they did, right to me when they found out that the gas was 49 cents a liter and not 49 cents a gallon. Then they’d yell at me like it was MY idea…  And even worse, they’d ask me for the conversion to gallons. There’s that “math” again.

Such a chickenshit operation…

I got my job at the big record store in town just by being at the right place at the right time. In July of 1982, we were having a Barn Party, and I heard a friend of my brother’s (who worked at the store) say that her boss wouldn't let her have a night off to go to a concert, so she quit. The next day, I went down there and asked for an application, saying that I heard they had an opening. The manager interviewed me the next day and hired me on the spot. (I made sure he knew that his former employee was a friend of my brother’s, and not mine.) Overhearing that one little comment, at a time when I was unemployed, led to a 13-year career in record retail.

Sometimes I wonder how my life would have turned out if I had not been there at that particular moment. For better or worse, that was a true turning point.

I worked at that record store during my senior year in college. I was already studying radio and working at the college radio station, so it was pretty much my dream job. I had access to new music, sometimes even before it was released. It totally widened my musical knowledge base. Going into that job, I thought I knew a lot about music. What I learned is that I didn't know shit. I mean, I knew the one area that I liked, really, really, well, but that didn't amount to diddly-squat compared to everything that was out there.
This was where I had my first record store job; a 64,000-square-foot behemoth. This shot is from the later years, after it was bought by a larger corporation. Before that, all the art and signs used to be handmade.

Same store, shot from the front. Even between both pictures, you can’t see it all.

I even learned that I liked stuff that I didn't know I liked, like blues and jazz. And there was nothing like discovering some killer track by an artist no one knew about, just because we had a promo album to play in the store. I loved being able to introduce friends and family to new high-quality jams.

So, I started at the record store as just another clerk… running the register, putting out stock, helping customers, taking inventory, putting up displays… basically learning the business from the ground up.  And I learned that when you give change, there’s no math needed! You just start with the total cost and then count coins and money up until you reach what you were given. Now why couldn't the gas station schmoes have taught me that? It would have saved us both a lot of hassle.

Starting at entry level is the best way to learn a business and move up the food chain. I always liked being able to say that I started at the bottom and have personally done everything I ever asked anyone else to do. Retail cred, yo!

Once I got out of college, and every radio station in Ohio aggressively ignored my demo tape, I moved to full-time status at the store and became a “3rd Key,” or in other words, someone besides the Manager and Assistant Manager who could open and close the store. The weird part was that the person who was the previous 3rd Key self-demoted and continued to work there part-time. It was unsettling having to “manage” the person who had just been doing the managing. And it didn't help that he was considerably older than me.

Though I did my best, my first attempt at retail management didn't go so smoothly. I had trouble remembering all the instructions and details I was given, and sometimes didn't use my best judgment in making decisions.

Like one time when no other managers were around the electrician who was repairing all of our overhead light fixtures asked to be paid. Not having been given prior direction on the matter, I forked over about $600 to the guy (which I did properly document). The problem was that he wasn't done with the job, and the Manager didn't want to pay him until everything was finished. I handed over any leverage we might have had.

I got in pretty big trouble for that and was even demoted for a short time. But instead of acting all pissy, I decided that I would be the best employee I could be, so I worked my ass off and cooperated with management. I wrote down everything I was told to do. It wasn't long until they made me a key-holder again and then when the Manager moved up to District Manager, everyone else moved up a notch and I became Assistant Manager.

That store was where I learned the broad principles of how to be a manager. It certainly wasn't everything, mind you, but it was a good start. I learned how to set up back office systems and run with them. I learned correct money-handling practices. I learned how to order stock correctly, as a product was selling quickly and then slowing down. It still took many years before I thought I had a good handle on things and enough self-confidence to act accordingly.

I had a feeling that this would run long because I’m really just getting started.  Look for the story to continue, on Thursday evening.  Up next: Your boy gets his own store. Hijinks ensue.


Valerie said...

I used to work at a pet store cleaning up dog poo. Every now and again I'll have a dream that the dogs keep pooing and I can't get it clean. Then a child poos in the cat litter aisle. Followed by all the chinchillas escaping into the walls. True Story. Sadly enough, that's still better than my current job in insurance.



bluzdude said...

It's funny how that stuff sticks with you. But I've had a lot of crappy jobs, but I never had to clean up poo. Cleaning the employee bathroom was bad enough.

Jessica R. said...

I have dreams all the time that I still work at the grocery store I worked at when I was 16, but can't remember any of the produce codes. I also have dreams that I've managed to miss going to a class in school for weeks.

Crazy how that stuff sticks with you.

bluzdude said...

Yeah, those are practically the same dreams I have. It must be a "same birthday" thing. I still have the school dreams... 30 years later... Sorry if I can't give you any hope that they'll go away.

Judie said...

Rod still has those dreams about being back at work, and the circumstances are always very bizarre. I don't think I have ever dreamed about the best job I ever had as an international flower broker. In fact, I don't think I have ever dreamed about ANY job I have had. Most of my dreams tell me that I should seriously be in long-term therapy! Hahahahahaha!!!

Anonymous said...

I worked for a short time in the Eurodollar pit at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. It was like Eddie Murphy in Trading Places. All the colored jackets and screaming and paper on the floor. I still don't know how any business was transacted. Anyway, it was rough because I constantly dreamed about being in the pit with the roar of people yelling. Then, I had to get up at 4:30am. Didn't last long. Like you, I'm not a numbers guy.

Anonymous said...

Man, if I started writing about what I dream about, everyone would think I was crazier than they already do. By like A LOT.

That is an interesting tale of your formative working years. Looking forward to part deux.

bluzdude said...

Mine are ripe for analyzing as well. It’s just funny how often the variations of the retail dream keep popping up. (Just like the “Exam Week and I Forgot to go to Class all Year” dream.)

bluzdude said...

I wouldn’t be long for any job that entailed getting up at 4:30 every morning. It could be a job applying body paint to SI models, and I’d still be grumpy about it.

bluzdude said...

I only ever write about dreams if they’re 1) Reeeally weird (and I can remember them) or 2) recurrent. Up next, The Tornado Dream. (OK, not really, but that’s another one I get several times a year for the last 40 years.)

Unapologetically Mundane said...

Loved reading this. I spent so much time at record stores as a kid and later was exposed to so much more music working at a library where we would pop in CDs from the collection every morning while shelving reserves.

That store looks to be about ten times the size of the B&N I worked in here. Ohhhh, endless Midwestern space.

bluzdude said...

OMG, you could have fit a bowling alley in that place... huge high ceilings, 64K feet... it was unreal. Too bad the original company ran out of money, trying to keep it full of product. It was a lot more fun to work there before the big corporate take-over. We had more autonomy.

Of course, after the take-over, it was nice to be getting product in again...

Valerie said...

I would much rather clean dog poo than the employee bathroom. The one at my job is rank. People disgust me.

Anonymous said...

I always hated retail, but that's probably b/c I worked at the wrong place at the wrong time, and for the wrong people. A record store in the 80's and 90's does sound like a dream job.

And I know what you mean about those kinds of dreams; I dropped out of HS, got my GED a couple years later and graduated from community college, yet I still have dreams about being in school. I'm 32. Wtf, brain?

BTW, Go Orioles! Hope they knock those damn Yankees out of the playoffs like they did to my Red Sox last year.

Cassie said...

My high school years were spent working in a newsroom. I had to hear about all kinds of things I probably shouldn't have been hearing, and learning how to tell people to fuck off in a kinder, more professional manner. It did, however, teach me that people are willing to sell you anything if you're willing to buy it.

bluzdude said...

My manager at that record store used to be able to destroy a bathroom. You couldn't even go into the back room. We called him "King Colon."

bluzdude said...

The O's are giving them a good tussle, that's for sure. But I just hope your Sox don't return the favor to us, for last year. We finish the season with them.

bluzdude said...

Working in a newsroom would be as cool to me as the record store. I'd have loved it.

My dad taught me that lesson long ago. I'd be going on about how much one of my beer cans or albums was worth, and he'd say, "Tell me about it when you have the money." An item is only worth what someone will give you for it. That's Word. I never made anything off all the "valuable" crap I had.