I have worked for two independent boutiques over the course of five years and eight months – not to mention countless extra hours over stressful Christmases. Retail work requires long hours on your feet, pleasant customer service, and a certain level of restraint not to spend your wages in your place of work (the latter has always been my greatest challenge). It is often a job that college students seek out of necessity, eagerly awaiting their exit to pursue a career that corresponds to their degree.
I graduated from university three years ago and am yet to bid adieu to what has become one of the most defining and enriching experiences of my life – being a shop girl.
I fell into this line of work to gain experience and make money that would afford me the independence and freedom that ensues with a wage. Those experiences shifted over time; from travelling to ensuring a constant and dependable income while pursuing a career in writing.
Strangely, working in retail has helped my writing in a number of ways. I am forced to always be present, astute and engaged with people when I am working in the shop. Trust and communication are fundamental structures that you have to establish with everyone who comes through the door and each individual exchange requires a totally unique approach. To be successful in courting a customer, you need be proficient in reading situations; body language, confidence levels and finding the opportune moment to open a dialogue before allowing yourself to follow the ebb and flow of wherever that conversational stream leads you.
I had my first taste of being a shop girl in a unit that imitated a Tahitian style tiki hut; sheltered by a straw roof (which was covered in a blanket of dust for insulation that failed to keep in heat during the freezing winters), porcelain flamingos, an old bar disguised as a counter and cramped rails of vintage dresses, flannel shirts and denim shorts. It was a tropical honeypot for all sorts of people. In the beginning, I was noticeably shyer than I am now. Unwittingly, I harnessed my social naivety by becoming malleable in the face of unexpected interactions with some questionable characters. I needed to think on my feet, improvise and constantly sell something – be it finery or my personality. Adeptness at selling was paramount both to the vocation and progressing through life.
The Victorians are celebrated as a people who worked tirelessly to build the framework of a progressive and productive future whilst dressed impeccably, if not excessively. The idea of modern shopping as an act of therapy was lovingly nurtured by the Victorians. This soothing indulgence revolutionised retail and opened up a world of opportunity for women not just as consumers but professionals. In the early part of the nineteenth century, the infancy of this new shopping culture, it was deemed immoral and unsightly to see a girl serving patrons behind a counter. However, the rapid gendering of these realms soon squashed these judgements. To be a shop girl demonstrated a sense of aspiration, a desire to acquire the dream that you sell to yourself.
This line of work with the prerequisites of standing, smiling and serving, provided an opportunity for women to gain a sort independence and a voice within the professional sphere, specifically in the United Kingdom. Women working as shop girls were often accused of subsidising their poor wages with prostitution. It is funny to consider the reality that a lot of women today, myself included, depend on this job to subsidise the meagre income accrued in the pursuit of various passion professions like writing.
The insufficient pay was one of many inadequacies that inspired figures like Margaret Bondfield to unify and help other women in the workforce. Regarded as an invaluable advocate in the fight and protection of women’s rights, Bondfield was active in all aspects of bettering employment for women. Some of her roles included were; secretary of the National Union of Shop Assistants, Warehousemen and Clerks, a founding member of the Women’s Labour League in 1906, chair of the Adult Suffrage Society, and parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Labour in 1924. Margaret Bondfield continued to develop solutions to the challenges posed by changing social and cultural attitudes to work. She was involved in researching and fortifying the framework of benefits including minimum wage, child allowances and the benefits of a national health service. All of this innovation, passion, and determination for betterment came from the humble beginnings and social observations made by her as a shop girl in Brighton.
The depictions of shop girls in film often portray a bored young woman (always an aspiring artist) who inevitably finds herself entrapped in a torturous love triangle, typically falling in love with an older man or woman (always wealthy) only to realise that they need to focus on themselves and establishing their career. Todd Haines’ Therese in Carol and Steve Martin’s Mirabelle in Shopgirl clouded their protagonists with pathos and promiscuity, presenting a conflicting representation of this experience.
Fortunately, you are rarely propositioned by moguls. Instead, you tend to (well, I seem to) entertain the confused ramblings of people who, perhaps, do not partake in regular human contact. Take one of my favourite conversations. A year ago, a slightly dishevelled man suddenly appeared in the shop – all I could do was give him a welcoming, if not worried, smile. The man expressed an immediate interest in some woollen blankets made in County Donegal; the ideal gift for those dear but perhaps not so near. In a meditative state, he proclaimed,
“Yes. This would be perfect.”
Realising that I had overheard, he told me that he knew a family, he was resolute that he could not tell me their name, who would love one of the blankets. Mindlessly, he continued, ”You see they live in America, I can’t tell you their name, I would get in a lot of trouble, you see. Yes, indeed. But, I can see this in their house. They love Ireland, you know. I probably shouldn’t even tell you that. No, no. Yes, this is perfect, don’t even ask me their name.” I hadn’t, and I didn’t intend to.
“Let’s just say they live in the White House.”
All I could muster was a slightly muffled, “Oh, lovely!”
I’ve always been gracious to the imaginations and stories told by certain people, especially in this setting. Maybe I’m too polite and should stop them, but I can’t help but listen because I’ve always valued and invested in the importance of kindness in human interaction. I used to eye-roll at clichés, but now I can appreciate their message, never judge something or someone before you give them a chance to reveal a glimpse of their plot. On another occasion, I was waiting with someone just a little outside of the city centre when she nervously appraised the sinister gait of a haggard man who passed us. I met her assumption with, “He gave me a Christmas card a few years ago, drew a colourful martini glass on the envelope, olives and everything.” I still have the card. He wished me all the luck and good fortune in the coming year.
When you remain in a particular place you become familiar, regulated even, with the routine of the community. It’s fascinating to watch the people go about their business, and then, inevitably, become pit stops in their day. I have been surprised with cakes from customers and given my fair share of treats to neighbouring dogs. Older ladies have gifted me with thoughtful handmade pieces, the hallmarks of an afternoon whiled away, and then shared stories of various costumes they made for their children when they were growing up. It’s like you become a member of their family. That’s clichéd I know, but I’ve learned to dispel my cynicism.
I was only able to fully appreciate how fulfilling and enriching this work is after I worked in an office. Dolly Parton sang about the nine to five existence and, as with most songs, I knew the melody but always fluffed the words. This describes my time in the office. I had no difficulty maintaining the rhythm of work, but I never knew the words to confront the politics. What the office lacked were the unfiltered personalities I was used to encountering on a regular basis. I would have more sincere conversations with someone I may never see again than with a fellow tea drinker (and there are many in an office) whom I would stand beside, waiting for a kettle to boil, day in, day out. I discovered an affinity with the transience of retail, every day an anthology of short stories.
Through this job I have learnt that you cannot grow on your own. You need people. It’s like assisting a customer with pieces for creating a new outfit. They may gravitate towards a dress, the starting point, and then you start making suggestions to add a necklace or a heavy scarf for added texture. These become layers that present a story, superficial yes, but personal and meaningful. It becomes a project that you built together, you have connected.
I cannot imagine what it will be like when I do eventually finish this chapter in my life, to not have this definite structure of uncertainty.
One thing I can be sure of: the Obamas never got the woollen blanket that was so perfect for them.
Zara Hedderman is an arts writer from Dublin. She is a columnist and contributing writer for State Magazine and shares the work of artists you need to know about at No Culture Icons. Zara is also the founder and editor of Mumbles and Stumbles, a website devoted to music, culture, and sometimes fashion. Jokes and puns are her number one guilty pleasure and she regularly tweets humorous, homemade jokes at @Zara_Hedderman.