Once again, I had to spend another summer job searching. There were no more office jobs for which I was qualified this time than there were the previous year. I bumbled around for a couple of months, with nothing panning out at all until one day I noticed a store under construction right there in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, it was a craft store, but under the circumstances, I just needed something.
Future-Ex wanted me bringing home something… anything… it didn't much matter to her where it came from. I don’t know if that was for monetary purposes, or just because it bugged the shit out of her every day when she had to get up early for work and I didn't.
Not long afterward, I saw an ad in the PennySaver saying that they were taking applications for the set-up crew and gave the date and time. Well, I've never been one for whom “craft” was ever a verb, but I sure knew how to get a store set up, so I went down and put in my application. Once they got a look at my specs, they practically jumped on me. I was sooo in, and I should have been! A stone cold retail “ringer” had just dropped into their laps.
They already had their management team in place, with one general manager and three assistants, so there was no need for me to even worry about it. But they had a plum spot in mind for me… I was to be in charge of the “promo” aisle.
Before I get into that, let me first describe this store, in case you’re not intimately familiar with large crafting superstores. There were a number of distinct departments, each with someone in charge of stocking the product. There were departments for (fake) flower arranging and wreaths, balloon bouquets, greeting cards, (ink) stamps and scrapbooking, model building, picture framing, knitting and cross stitch, dollhouses and miniatures, paint, pastels and artist supplies, and so on.
The managers of these departments had it pretty easy. The company sent the layout and the product, the managers put them up, and then the rest was just reordering and maintenance.
The “promo” aisles were the seasonal things. The company would send out the product and layout map, then I would put it up like the other managers did. But as the product sold through, I had to condense the goods, forever moving them forward up the aisle, to make room for the next event. Once the holiday or event was over, most of the stuff got marked down until we were rid of it. Some of the markdowns could be significant. Final price was always nine cents. Didn't matter what it was, from Christmas decorations to bags of candy… if it didn't go for 50% off, or 75% off, or even 90% off, it ended up at nine cents.
The scheduling was crazy. I mean, we had the Christmas stuff rolled out in freakin’ JULY. You had to figure, it takes a while to make all the wreaths or stockings or whatnot, so we had to provide lead-time.
I used to love the fall assortments, of imitation colored leaf clusters and swags. Halloween was cool too, with all the intricate costumes and masks. And any holiday with candy was brilliant!
Anyway, I was constantly in a state of condensing old stock and setting up the new. They definitely had the right person for the job. I could have done the other departments in my sleep. And because I had such an intricate job, it got me out of trying to meet the “quotas” everyone had to produce demo crafts for display. I told everyone I was “Crafting Impaired,” and hence I actually counted as an EEO hire.
But I made deals. The little old ladies that worked in the floral department would do my crafts, and I’d reach things on tall shelves for them, or move heavy boxes. In fact, one of them made me a Santa Hat, with “Top Shelf Elf” emblazoned in glitter glue. (I still have it, too.)
Things went so well with my promo aisles, they also put me in charge of receiving, or in other words, signing and accounting for all deliveries. Again, because I’d been doing that kind of thing in record stores for years, it was old hat.
The thing I liked best about working there, despite it being kind of an odd fit for me, was that I was just part of the team, for a change. I didn't have to manage anyone, nor was I responsible for anything but my own work. After my past experiences in stores, this was a welcome respite.
There were some really great people who worked there, from housewives earning some extra scratch, to empty nesters, to retirees, to a bunch of young kids either going through school or trying to figure out what they wanted to do with their lives. Everyone got along real well and we always had a blast. We had great happy hours and went midnight bowling and generally enjoyed each other’s company.
My friends from the store.
Unloading the trucks was always an adventure. We’d get our product in huge tractor-trailers, usually first thing in the morning. Everyone had to fly into action. These trucks were packed floor to ceiling with crap, like it was a giant Tetris game… usually boxed but not necessarily. Sometimes we had to get really creative, and luckily, we had employees in all shapes and sizes. I could pull out a lot of things that were stacked high, but sometimes we’d have to hoist the little girls up to the top so they could dig things out that had been balanced precariously on other product.
We’d toss all the stuff onto 4-wheeled handcarts and roll them out to the floor, dropping them off in their proper departments like we were bus drivers for low-cost Chinese goods. It could be a real workout.
We also used to store our fixtures in a stationary truck at one of our two loading docks. One time, I was helping another guy take a large 4 x 4 bin out of storage and onto the floor. It was definitely a 2-man job. Anyway, we each had an end and I was walking backward out of the truck, when I stepped into an 8-inch gap between the back edge of the truck and the front edge of the dock. It was kind of like when you think there’s one more stair but it’s not there. When I took that last step, my leg plunged down between the two right-angled edges until I was down to my knee… all the while holding up that heavy-assed display bin. And I was lucky I didn't tear the ligaments in my other knee that was still up on top, as it got twisted and torqued around. Holy ACL!
My buddy got the bin off me and hoisted me back up, but at first, I thought I tore my Achille's tendon. Had to limp on out to the emergency care unit nearby, but luckily it was just a bad bruise. It was my first Workman’s Comp claim, though, (for the clinic bill). I probably should have milked it more, but I was back at work the next day.
Christmases could get really crazy, but it was weird. Because of all the lead time needed, we really weren't all that busy for the two weeks leading up to Christmas, other than selling off the pre-decorated Christmas trees we’d made. But the day after… it was sheer madness.
See, word was out about our discounts on post-seasonal merchandise. We’d pull out the things that would easily sell the next year, like lights, fake trees and stockings and such, but everything else had to go. So people were in early and would run through like a 9-year old with a $100 gift card at the candy store, grabbing fistfuls of whatever they could reach.
The honest people would take their discounts and leave. But there were others that made me question my belief in the innate goodness of people. (OK, I lie… I’d abandoned that notion after only a couple years in retail) But we had folks that would fill 2 shopping carts with the best stuff and then just wait… for HOURS… until the discounts started to pile up.
My manager wouldn't play, though. I’d ask her, “When are we knocking down to 50%?”
She’d say, “Just as soon as THOSE assholes check out.” Sometimes she’d have to go over and tell them that under no circumstances would she go any lower on their ton of junk. She was the best.
In fact, my boss there gave me my first video taping job. Remember when I wrote about my starting a video taping business and almost getting to film a swing party porno movie? (And if you haven’t, you simply must!) That went on during my time at the craft store. And because I needed a boost, the manager contracted me to film the store’s 1-Year Anniversary festivities. It was mighty nice of her to do that for me (and of course I did a stellar job for her).
But despite the cool people and the highly doable job, I still wasn't terribly content. I mean, first off, I was only making about 15K a year, which was barely enough to keep up my end of the mortgage and utilities. And then there were the nights when I’d be running the dust mop around at the end of the night. That’s when I’d start thinking…
“So this is what it’s come to… 4 years of college, 12 years working for a living, and you’re pushing a fucking mop? Is this the life you want? You want to do grunt work all your life? What the hell is the matter with you?”
Next up, an exit strategy…