In Defense of Retail: Geoffrey Owens Isn’t Alone

I won’t give Fox News the dignity of of linking out to their article on Cosby Show star Geoffrey Owens’ apparent employment at Trader Joe’s. Last year, I was similarly employed at a grocery store and was spotted by a professor at the university where I used to work. The last time I saw him, about 15 years before, I was in law school. To see me bagging groceries apparently sparked pity in him, if I could label the look in his eyes, as I chatted with him, without shame, about our mutual acquaintances. Let’s say that again: without shame. Because if you think working at a grocery store is shameful — for anyone — the problem is with you, and not me.

But let’s back up a bit.

After I had that encounter, I submitted a piece to the Globe and Mail about it, and about working retail in general. They never published it, but it was still on my laptop hard drive. I’ve cut and pasted it below. It’s a poorly written piece, but this is my blog, so instead of doing substantial edits, I’ve added in new text (in italics) and simply used strikethrough to eliminate the text that isn’t really relevant to the two points I want to make, which are:

  1. Some people excel at retail. Many people make careers out of retail. Working the floor of a store in a uniform does not mean you have a “lesser” job. If you’re really good at it, you have a host of skills those toiling in office towers could only imagine. Society sees it as a lesser job for one reason: the wages are typically low. Remember wages — everywhere — are based on bargaining power of employees. If you are in a situation where your bargaining power is low, your wages will be low. It doesn’t mean your job is any less important, or any less demanding of specific skills.
  2. People choose where they work for a number of different reasons. That means you can’t assume a person with a professional education (i.e., me) or a former actor (i.e. Geoffrey Owens) is working retail because they are hard-strapped for cash. Frankly, the reasons why someone chooses to work retail are none of your business, but off the top of my head I can think of three that have nothing to do with money:
    1. Other people working retail don’t judge you for working retail. People who work retail come from everywhere, every background and age and ability. As a result, it’s usually pretty easy to make friends in a retail environment. Retail accepts everyone, so everyone who works retail tends to accept everyone else.
    2. You can have some interesting experiences. One year I was working at that big box store (mentioned in the piece below) I challenged myself to write something (a blurb, poem, whatever) after every single shift. It became a book (and soon an audiobook) that’s now on Amazon.
    3. It can improve your mental health. For many people, just being busy — par for the course in most retail settings — is enough to help them get through to the next thing, the next day, the next season.

One last note about Geoffrey Owens. The fact that his story has been met with nothing but support and praise says, to me, that he must be a pretty good guy, because the universe (and the internet) has a way of bringing all of our faults to light. Working retail is not a fault.

Working Retail Isn’t The End of the World

While bagging his groceries, I recognized his pale features underneath the cap. It was an old but vibrant memory; he was a professor at a university where I’d worked almost 15 years before. I’d left the job to go to law school, and here I was bagging groceries. As usual in these situations, I felt compelled to remind him there was nothing wrong with having an honest job. Life takes many twists and turns, and being in the world is not something I’m ashamed of — if anything, it helps me thrive.

I’d just come back to retail after an absence of three years. Yes, having a regular paycheque was part of the motivation. Little as it was, the weekly deposits of part-time, minimum wage earnings provided a kind of reassurance against the wildly unstable swings in freelance work. I work as a ghostwriter, composing everything from website pages and blog posts to tweets and marketing copy, usually in my pyjamas, navigating around my fat cat who likes to lie on the keyboard.

It’s not a bad gig. I fell into it 7 or 8 years back, after my short-lived career as a political aide came to a screeching halt. I’d only ended up in that role (of political aide) after biding my time searching for an articling position in order to get my license to practice law. It was 2006, then 2007, then 2008 and 2009. In the ensuing years I’d done something I’d never really done after a mediocre career in university administration: worked customer service. To my shock and delight, I enjoyed it. Dare I say, I loved it.

I want to really emphasize this point. I really loved customer service. Some days were better than others, but working retail made me feel a part of my community. It also let me interact with all sorts of different people.

An uninformed observer might say I loved it because it was easier than anything I’d done before in my long and diverse employment career, which included graveyard shifts at a gas station right after high school, chopping fish in a cannery, filing (oh, so much filing), data entry, bookkeeping and phone survey interviewing. But I discovered I loved retail because it forced me to be happy, every day. It required me to be friendly, interested and engaged in the lives of perfect strangers. I turned out to be very good at it. After years of assuming myself to be an introvert, I discovered I could be outgoing in the right circumstances. Despite the fatigue, low pay, uniform and name tag, working retail regularly lifted my mood.

Remember, as a freelancer, my primary occupation is a solitary one. I have a relatively small social circle and a roster of work colleagues that numbers exactly zero. Going to a store a few days a week got me into a different headspace. It shifted my energy. There were regular customers with whom I had extended conversations on a weekly basis. I was a part of their routine, as they were part of mine.

Before starting in the grocery store two months ago, I worked part-time at a big box store for nearly two and a half years. And it was awesome. If you want to know what it was like, watch Superstore Season 1.

There I learned the agony of reusable bags, which despite their environmental benefits are difficult to pack. They tend to be deep and awkwardly shaped. Bagging is time consuming and customers rarely offer to pack the bags themselves, as if offering to do so would somehow cause the cashier some offense. As a cashier, let me tell you — no one will be offended if you offer to pack your own bags. Especially in a grocery store, when packing is taken to an entirely new level. There are eight and a half hours between the start of my shift and the end. After countless bags of potatoes and 4 litre containers of milk, I am lucky if my aging body is not so sore as to render me completely immobile the next day.

But I am new. Most of the staff at this grocery store have been in the job for a decade or more. The location was recently sold by one chain to another, and those with union seniority and grandfathered pay rates — salaries those of us new to the store will never reach no longer how long we stay there — are exhausted, bitter and sick of the food business. At least those who talk to me are. In addition to doing time at the cash register, I do shifts in the deli, where I slice meat for customers and prepare those in-store entrees that I can’t justify buying on the salary that I make.

The senior staff in the deli seemed to like me, although the rumor spread quickly that I had a law degree and had chosen to work in a physically demanding environment for low pay just to get out of the house. When one of the newer employees was fired someone joked it was because the closing shift I’d served with her was a disaster — “they were going to fire you, but I told them you were a lawyer and would probably sue them.” I wouldn’t have cared if I was fired. Maybe I would have sued, but only for the intellectual exercise. 

It was hard for them to believe I would do this voluntarily. I was often at pains to explain it, especially in a society that does not value work for the sake of work. That professor who came through my cash was not the first. A few weeks prior, one of his colleagues and I engaged in an awkward conversation as he seemed unable to believe he should feel anything but pity for me. 

There are remnants in that grocery store of that old, gender biased guard that I imagine once permeated blue-collar workplaces. I was warned a soon-to-retire employee in the deli may come on to me or make lewd comments. When he eventually made sexually nuanced jokes I found it didn’t bug me — until he made a comment about a co-worker with an implication I was invited to join with him in objectifying her. I witnessed an older male worker, who barely talked to me, yell and berate a woman who’d worked her butt off alongside me for the entire shift. I regret I did not step in and stop it, and my discussion with her later made me realize she often encountered similar treatment, laced with layers of sexism.

I realized that may be the crux of why now, many years later, I feel I have a place in retail. For many workers, it is not a protected environment. People still need advocates and visibility — or at least co-workers who are on their side. Everyone who ends up in retail is invariably looking for another job, but few will ever move out of their class. Even those of us with varied employment backgrounds will probably end up back there, if not for the paycheque, then for the experience. 




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