Love and War and the Ties that Bind

Outsiders don’t understand the retail environment, not the real retail environment. Sure, you may have spent a summer or two while in high school scooping ice cream, folding clothes for display tables, or restocking DVDs, but that isn’t the same as working the job day in and day out, forty hours a week, for years. The hours are typically awful, the benefits vary wildly, and nothing personal, but often times the customers suck. It’s when you’re mired in the thick of it, trying to please your corporate office, your district manager, and your customers, that you learn to count on your fellow retail co-workers. Like a military squad put together in a Hollywood film, it doesn’t matter where you came from, once you’re there, it’s you guys against the rest of the world.

In fact, there are many similarities between being a full-time retail employee, particularly management, and serving in the military. You have a chain of command, often times a strict training regimen, and communal rites of passage that create the ties that bind. Whether it’s your first shoplifter, or your first time shouldering blame from your corporate office; another person you work with has been there, and these are the battle scars that forge a retail battalion. You spend a lot of time comparing wounds from previous tours of duty, and even more time talking about what you’re going to do when you get out; be it out after that shift, or out of the retail game all together.

Once you’ve been there, you really don’t ever leave. I’ve been out of retail for roughly 5 years, and I still refer to the stores I worked in as mine. We don’t carry that. That’s not our policy. When in a store, I study how the staff behaves. What do they do to prevent shrink? How do they allocate coverage of the sales floor? Much like a soldier trained to defend himself with muscle memory, a former retail manager reflexively examines how stores are run. Sometimes we’re the understanding customer, other times we’re there to tell you to sell that line of B.S. to a less informed shopper.

On Tuesday, June 1, 2010, retail lost one of it’s finest. Crystal Jenkins, Community Relations Manager for the Saratoga Springs, NY Barnes and Noble, died in a single vehicle accident. Crystal was everything you wanted for a retail brother-in-arms: friendly, hard working, organized, caring. She treated her customers well, and her co-workers better. In describing her to the authors participating in the “A Magical Buffet of Authors” event I said, “You’ll find her to be incredibly sweet and ruthlessly organized, just what you want from an event coordinator.” Crystal was one of the greats, the likes of which will be hard to find again.

Getting ready to go to her funeral, I stared at myself in the mirror while buttoning my blouse. I had on my black boots, black dress pants, a burgundy dress shirt, my hair was up in a hair clip. Without any intention to do so, I realized that I was dressing the way I did when I still worked with Crystal at Barnes and Noble. I realized that I was donning my uniform from when I served by her side.

There was a lot more to Crystal than just her job. However, I feel no shame or remorse in defining and celebrating her by what she did at Barnes and Noble. Since her funeral was standing room only, with me literally rubbing shoulders with other former co-workers, I know that there are many people that feel the same as I do. Oddly, or perhaps less odd than originally thought, many of them were dressed the way they did when I worked with them.

Yes, like a Medal of Honor I still have my Barnes and Noble name tag.