I’ve had a mix of jobs, three paid ones to be exact and several unpaid. I’ve already discussed my joyous time at the pub (if you haven’t read it and are interested, click here), have briefly commented on the horror that was working as a hostess, but for today I want to talk about working in a bookshop and about retail in general. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the strange world of weekend jobs.
I’m pretty lucky in the sense that I actually enjoy my job. Despite the fact that I lose every weekend, it’s a great environment to work in with great colleagues and, every now and then, some nice customers. However, there are a few things that become very apparent about people in society today just from the interactions between a customer and employee. What some people fail to understand, is that just because someone is an employee does not make you, the customer, their boss. In fact it does not put you in a superior position whatsoever. Most people will nod and say ‘yes, yes, I know’, but those same people do not then act like they know it. For example, I had a man bark at me the other day whilst I was in the middle of speaking to another customer, “You, get on the till, I need to pay”. Yes, I know, frightfully rude, but you’d be surprised at how many times I have this interaction daily. Some people treat staff as if they are there to serve them personally, and so they can treat them how they wish. From insulting someone’s drink they’ve made you to muttering how incompetent you think they are, already you’re assuming and placing yourself in a supposed position of authority which you do not have.
Now it’s not all doom and gloom – I did have a customer last week recite me one of him poems because I had run all over the shop with him to find a book and then gift wrap it for him. It’s customers like that which brighten your day, because who doesn’t like it when people are nice? If only everyone thought this way.
There are stereotypes all around us, as we well know, but one of them that is always present in my mind is that opinion that the older generation seem to have in thinking that the younger generation, particularly teenagers, are all rude and disrespectful. Working in a bookshop, I can of course only comment on the individuals that frequent my particular store, but it’s still interesting to see. You may well be surprised to hear that my favourite customers are those that are usually under 25, especially the teenagers. If you have a long line of customers, it won’t be the teenager huffing and puffing and pushing their way to the front to yell at you because of course it is your fault that there are a lot of people shopping on that day. It isn’t teenagers who get angry when you make a mistake – more often than not, they’re the ones who laugh it off and say ‘don’t worry, I make the same mistake at my work all the time’. Now don’t get me wrong, of course there are a few bad seeds, but in my experience the vast majority of the younger demographic is that they’re understanding and perfectly nice. The older generation? It varies much more. That lady in her seventies approaching the till could easily be about to tell you that she likes your shirt and just wants to chat for the next ten minutes about her grandchildren, but she could also be about to snap about how long she’s had to wait and how unacceptable it is that I’m the only one on my till as my colleague is on their break (how dare they). I’ve often found older people to be generally ruder when they talk to me, as if I am clearly beneath them due to the fact that I work in retail. My favourite interaction has to be with an older gentleman who used a word and then went, ‘oh, I’m sure you don’t know what that means’ and began to explain it. I stopped him, informed him that I knew perfectly well what that word meant. He then apologised insincerely and said something along the lines of ‘you must read a lot on your days off work then’. He was very surprised to hear that I’m at one of the leading universities in the country studying Classics with English. He tried to dig himself out of his neat hole that he’d made by saying he assumed that I worked at the shop full-time, as if that said something about my intellect.
I feel the need to insert another funny customer story here to ease the tension, so I’m going to go with a personal favourite. It was a normal Saturday and a rather attractive guy strolled into the store with some friends and began looking around the notebooks. I, like the great employee that I am, went over to offer some help to see what he was looking for. ‘A present for my friend who likes writing’ was the answer and, boom, I’ve got this in the bag – was the first, naive thought that passed through my brain. I skip over to a display of fun books, one of them being a great book called ‘642 things to write about’ which has, literally, 642 different things to write about. They range from asking what you’ve inherited from your mum to describing your ideal partner – it’s a great book. Anyway, as I’m pitching this product, I say ‘let me show you an example’ and open the book to a random page. I point down to one of the ideas and we both look down as I start to read it out loud, only to discover that it said ‘Describe I time when you tried to orgasm, but couldn’t’. I was mortified, he was mortified, and I ran away with a ‘well, they’re not all like that, but I’ll leave you to browse’. Ah well, he still bought the book so it’s a success in my mind.
Back to the bad stories. The last ‘revelation’ if you will that I want to discuss is that I’ve found how far we are from equality. I’m bloody lucky that I am a white girl from a family that isn’t struggling and grew up in a really lovely area. I’m bloody lucky that I got into a good primary school that had great teachers which helped me get into a good secondary school which forced me to work my arse off to then get into a good university. I don’t encounter much discrimination directed towards me, especially as I went to an all girls school, but I do of course experience what most girls do: catcalling, wolf whistles, derogatory comments, disgusting individuals on public transport, misogyny – all that good stuff. Your typical issues of an everyday white girl, and the usual issues that some people call ‘white feminism’ typically deals with as we don’t also have to worry about whether the colour of our skin affects this as well.
I’m going to stop myself here from getting too into this discussion and get back to the bookshop interaction.
Sexism still exists, clearly, but it has never been so apparent as it has been since I’ve worked in retail. There have been several times when a customer, 9 times out of 10 a male customer, has approached the till and, despite me being the closest and saying hello, they’ll move further along to address my male colleague. There have been times when I’m dealing with a customer – again, the usual is a middle-aged or older man, typically middle or upper class – and when I answer one of their questions, they’ll usually ask me to check with someone else. For example:
“Do you stock Filofax?”
“Sorry sir, I’m afraid we don’t.”
Customer spots male colleague, “Well, can you check with him?”
Goes up to colleague, earns a frown because we’ve never and never will stock Filofax and I’ve known this from day one, return to customer and say, “No, we don’t.”
Every. Damn. Day.
I really wish the world were a better place sometimes. I truly do. For now though, I’ll have to keep dealing with people that have authority issues and problems with women saying no. Till next time.