I've been in retail more years than I care to remember, so I received this book from a fellow Paperback Swap member with a great deal of interest. How many essays in this book about retail experiences would strike a chord in me? The answer is: about a third.
Granted, retail is one of those occupations that can stretch credulity some days. Hospital emergency rooms, policemen, firemen and other emergency services pros don't own the monopoly on strange encounters of the human kind. Anyone who deals with the public knows the perils of full moons and the first of the month. Opportunities are ripe for looking at a co-worker and saying, "We should write a book." It's that very thing that editor Jeff Martin tries to cover with his selection of essays in The Customer Is Always Wrong, and the results are rather uneven.
The low point of the book for me was Anita Liberty's essay entitled "No Good Deed...." For the life of me I don't know if the piece was honestly supposed to be funny and completely missed the boat, or if there was a layer of irony and sarcasm woven through the lines and I'm the one left standing at the pier.
The high points of the book were the essays written by James Wagner ("Other Things in Mind") and Elaine Viets ("Minimum-Wage Drama"). For me, those two essays spoke the truth of my own experience. Wagner brings up the phrase "the customer is always right," correctly pointing out that this is
"...a theory drummed up by an owner who didn't have to deal with the day-to-day public, who only had to take in their money and then spend it on cars, stocks, and vacations, the likes of which the people who did deal with the public would never see."
For anyone not familiar with Elaine Viets, she is the author of the Dead End Job mystery series. She's gone out and worked each of the jobs covered in her series, so she's been on more than one front line. Some of her observations are short and to the point: "The first rule of retail is that everyone wants to check out at once" and "Working retail is like going to the theater-- except you get paid to watch the show. Also, your feet hurt."
Although the choice of essays in the book is uneven, the book is more than worth reading for Wagner and Viets alone. If you've ever been on the other side of the counter, the book will have you reliving some of your own "glory days". If you've never worked on the other side of the counter, you should read this book. Unless you're totally self-absorbed, you'll learn a thing or two.
Working retail is often thankless, and you can be subject to tremendous mood swings. But in amongst the days that make you worry about your sanity are the ones that make you smile, make you laugh, and make you put on your comfy shoes and head in to another day with the Public. Because....Steinbeck rules! (Right, Elaine?)