Customary Monstrosity

I work in a university bookstore. My official title is not very descriptive so I shall say that most of my days are spent shipping out web orders and receiving in merchandise. I am not altogether happy with this experience. It has surprisingly less to do with books that one might imagine from the label. In fact, I have yet to use even one of my many time-honed bookseller skills. But it’s something to do for wages until I can find some way to open another shop of my own… one that will be a bookstore in actuality, not just name.

I am not happy with the experience, but until this past weekend I have also not been miserable. But this weekend was homecoming; and in this small, private university (translate: “expensive training ground for the privileged”), that means all the chickens come home to roost. It involves much theatre and ceremony. And football. And beer. And apparently spending thousands of dollars on school-branded merchandise — which is what I sell in this bookstore. So it also entails misery.

I have decided I do not much like alumni. I’ve never been given much reason to consider the breed before now, so I did not know how loathly they are. Maybe I should be more forgiving. They are rather pathetic, after all. This is a group of people who are willing to spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on a weekend trip to savor the echoes of the one time in their lives that they got to live in the glory of the sun. It’s very sad when you think about it. The best time of their life… was before they had even achieved independent, self-determined adulthood… But it’s hard to think about anything when confronted with the actual beasts in question.

No, there was not a lot of thought on campus over the weekend…

I have lived a comfortably cocooned life. I’ll be the first to admit — cheerfully so — that I haven’t met too many people that I truly don’t like. Because I don’t do things or engage in activities with the sort of people who are not very much like me. But these are people who are very much not like me. In any way. This are people who do not even conform to what I would minimally expect of humanity. These are assholes. Monstrous assholes. I do not like assholes.

And it pains me. Because the kids in this school are so very nice. Polite. Quiet. Generally responsible for late adolescents. Bright. And thoughtful. I adore the kids. I want to adopt them all as grandchildren and bake them Christmas cookies and help them with differential equations and dispense useless social advice and let them figure out my phone for me and all the other things that elderly women do for youngsters. So how is it that these wonderful people mutate into such entitled monsters after graduation!

In short… it’s the economy, stupid…

On Friday afternoon, before the weekend proper even began, a woman, surrounded by her children, was trying on clothes. We do not have a dressing room. (This is a bookstore, after all… ) We have but one mirror lurking in a corner. So this woman was in front of this mirror, right there on the small and rather tightly packed sales floor, pulling sweatshirts off the racks and wedging her body into each of them. She then dumped every reject onto the floor. Our very unclean, well-trodden floor, upon which her children were dropping bits of granola bar as they not very patiently waited on her to choose something. She made no attempt to not step on the discard pile as she preened and pirouetted and relentlessly complained about the baggy fit of each sweatshirt. (Which, for the record, are all going to have about the same lumpy and saggy appearance given that they are all the same stupid lumpy and saggy shirt, that being the point of sweatshirts.) She did eventually put all the rejects back on the racks, though not all were hung on hangers. Some she just shoved on top of the bar that holds the hangers. Because she and/or her spawn broke more than one hanger and left the sharp fragments on the floor in front of the mirror with the granola crumbs… Fortunately our school colors are somber enough to mask most scuff marks, but there were spiky-heeled bootprints on a couple of the lighter grey shirts.

She bought nothing but the granola bars.

And left the empty wrappers on the check-out counter.

I realized then that my job is not to sell things. It is to be the object of abuse. To make people like this woman feel so superior — indeed, to be the thing that is inferior — that she does not have to concern herself with cleaning up her own damned mess. This is a policy to make wealth feel respectable, worthy, special. To lure wealth into the door by telling it that it can have whatever it wants. The customer is always right. She is privileged. She is entitled to show utterly appalling disregard toward the work of others. She pays for the right to rain down this abuse just by being a potential buyer. She pays for my labor and then generates more of it. Even though she paid nothing… and she could never afford to own me…

I am singling out this woman, but I should say that she was not uniquely monstrous in this crowd, nor any crowd of shoppers… though she was singularly parsimonious in the midst of a feeding-frenzy of drunks who otherwise were tossing money at my co-workers as I hustled about, trying to keep the racks supplied with more alum fodder.

She bought nothing, but that is beside the point. (The point being the abuse…) Though it does illustrate a truth that any retail worker learns within one week: this policy — the customer is always right — does not work. Making wealthy people feel superior does not create sales. It merely encourages a higher level of entitlement, raising the bar of abuse that much higher with each encounter. But it is not profitable. It does not generate revenue. It is only because those who clean up the messes, who are the objects of abuse, are paid so little that this compact does not lose money. Notice that this policy of specialness for custom ends at the sales floor. Nobody working behind the closed office doors — and therefore paid a living wage — is ever expected to cater to customer whims or clean up the pile of rumpled sweatshirts. That would be a loss.

That there are not more red lines on the books has far more to do with the pittance paid to workers and the very high mark-up on many kinds of retail merchandise (notably not books, hence we sell mainly sweatshirts in a bookstore…). Which merchandise is almost always manufactured by people who are paid even less and abused even more (these places are called sweatshops… which is uncomfortably similar to what they make… and what I sell…). And these sweatshops fabricate this cheap merchandise out of materials that are themselves whole chains of wage-slavery and degradation. In other words, this whole culture is founded on abuse. Of course, that will tend to turn the heads of the weak-minded and make monsters out of adorable teenagers.

In any case, we can plainly see that this policy does not generate sales. It is fairly clear that it is only designed to mask abuse, give it a veneer of respectability. It, in fact, has its roots in slavery where wealth sought to exempt itself from labor and set itself above all things through the horrifying abasement of other humans. The concept is the same. Money buys the right to coerce labor. Money equals superiority. Even the potential to spend money sets the customer above the worker. This inevitably leads to abuse. This creates monsters. It’s a monstrous economic culture.

I can tell you what this policy does not lead to. It does not create a stable work environment or a clean and pleasant shop. It does not foster a low-turnover staff who are friendly and knowledgeable and willing to be helpful. It does not make for an attractive shopping experience. It does not make for happy customers. It does not make smiles.

I had a shop that did all those things. I also worked in a shop that did not, that paid lip service to the customer always being right. (What nonsense! Only a blind idiot would ever believe they are always correct…) The interesting thing about my experience is that when I opened my bookstore, I took many of my former co-workers out of that miserable place with me to be my employees in the new store.

And the contrast was sharp. We came from a place with few smiles, a grimly grimy facility, a workday we struggled to survive. It was not unusual to see red eyes, either from tears or from drugs to numb the routine pain. My co-workers and I were not happy — even doing this thing that we loved. But these same people made a completely different store when given back their right to dignity. I did not allow customers (or anyone else) to abuse my staff. My employees were all empowered to send offensive people out the door — or come get me if an abuser proved intractable. (I had no problem with trotting out the stern matron disdain and embarrassing the nastiness right out of even the worst of them… several of whom later became rather good customers…) I had a sign hanging above the registers: “Be nice or leave.” And we stuck to that, no matter how many dollars we might send packing. Those dollars could not make us happy.

And my shop was happy. Not only that — though that in itself was priceless! — but my staff became much better booksellers. Giving them the respect they deserved and forcing customers to do the same gave my employees the confidence they needed to develop new skills. They became experts in the rarefied world of children’s literature. They were keen-eyed merchandisers, making a seductive shop that drew people from one desirable delight to the next. They were creative salespeople, inventing all sorts of ways to generate add-on sales and repeat shoppers. And customers loved my staff. Well, who wouldn’t love someone who could recommend a book their kids will read over and over again? And those same children clamored to be allowed to come back to pick out more books! In this day and age, my shop was regarded as something of a miracle.

Simply because I refused to abuse my staff. Because my customers were not always right. Because they did not have the right to make work in my shop. Because their money did not buy superiority and exemption.

My current employers have not learned this lesson. Because they have not had to. They sell sweatshop sweatshirts with poorly paid employees who have no reserved dignity and who must struggle to tolerate the abuse from monsters who might maybe spend money on this cheap — but so very dearly paid for — crap. My employers make money on abuse. They let others — their employees, the manufacturer workers, even the monsters themselves — pay the costs. And the cost is always unhappiness, wasted lives, ruined people, monstrosity. 

So I was not altogether happy with my job before this past weekend’s festivities. Now?… Would anyone like to fund a bookstore start-up? I’m thinking I’m not willing to abide much time in this miserable place. For one thing, I don’t want to see any of these kids I love turn into alumni…

And I might take it as a badge of honor if I’m fired for refusing to become an object for abuse.

©Elizabeth Anker 2022