When the kids were all in elementary school I got a job at Chico's doing stock work. Another friend had done it before me and called to let me know she was leaving and that I should think about taking it. It worked out perfectly with having kids in school since you could set your own hours.
Every day UPS would drop off their deliveries and the store manager would call to tell me when it had arrived. At some point during the day or night, I had to go in for a few hours to unpack everything and get it ready to sell on the floor.
Since I worked in the basement and never waited on customers I could wear whatever I wanted. No Chico's styling - just me, dozens of boxes, hangers and the steamer.
When I had been there nearly a year, a help wanted sign went up on the door of my favorite store - Natural Wear. It was a funky, independently owned boutique that charmed me every time I walked in. I was often intimidated by the place and its over-the-top styling, but I was ready to get out of that basement across the street.
That August I had a new job.
From the very beginning it was a welcoming environment and I felt like I had found my work home. A few weeks into my employment, the manager said, "Redo that wall. It's looking tired."
You mean the display? I've never done display work before.
"Honey, here everybody does display."
I dove in and in time it became my favorite thing to do. Tearing outfits apart and putting them back together again, for mixing things up meant changing the karma and changing the karma meant getting it sold.
The owner had great taste and there was a massive quantity of funky antiques to use for display. The sky was the limit and creativity was highly encouraged. Looking back, it seems that they threw you in the deep end right from the start so they could see what your talents were and how they could use them in their Anthro-like environment.
At the end of October, I was sent to the back room with a vendor to buy scarves for the store.
Me? By myself? I've never bought before.
"We all have a say in what gets sold here so go pick out two dozen scarfs that you like, that you would wear, that you think your friends would wear. That's all there is to it."
When you had proven yourself and they liked you, you were named a Nattie. Many Natties had come and gone over the thirty years the store had been around, and when one of them came in that's how they were introduced to me. "This is so-and-so, she was a Nattie for a few years then she got her teaching degree."
In December we had our open house and for one lovely, twinkling night
everything was discounted. For a few hours before the party started,
we would close the store to get ready. Just before it was time to
reopen, Ray, the owner, would pour a glass of champagne for each of us
and we would toast the Natties and to a successful holiday season.
The manager that had hired me left and the other full-timer got bumped up to run the store. Her and I worked really well together and we often sat together with vendors, bouncing opinions back and forth in the buying process.
One day I came in on my day off to help her buy from a vendor that was repping about a dozen different lines. Lest you think this is some glamorous job, we were in a hot cargo van with built in racks looking at hundreds of items and trying to determine what our customers would wear. It took forever. As soon as we were done, I clocked out and scooted out the door as we were leaving town the next day.
That morning the phone rang just as we were about to walk out the door. It was Ray. "You left so fast yesterday that I didn't get a chance to tell you to have a great time. We'll see you next week and there's one more thing. I couldn't be happier that you decided to cross the street and come to work for me. We're very lucky to have you."
Who does that? Who comes in the door of their store first thing in the morning and grabs the phone to call their employee before she leaves town to say that?
At the very beginning of the financial crisis of a few years ago, and after a warm fall season with a store full of wool, and a cold spring with a store full of linen, sales had been mediocre. One day I came in to open and Ray sat down next to me. "I'm springing for coffee. Let me buy you a cup." While he went to do that I finished the bank deposit.
When he came back he sat down with tears in his eyes and said, "We have to talk. I'm closing the store."
Oh Ray. No.
"I have to and I know you count on this job for extra money so I want you to know so you can start thinking about something else."
There's no other way?
Are you at peace with this decision?
"I am. I really am."
Okay, then I won't try to talk you out of it. I want to but I won't.
"I have a lot to figure out that's going to keep us all busy, but we're all going to get through it and be okay," he said. And there we both sat......too emotional to even take a swallow of the coffee he had just bought.
A few weeks after that the store closed. Our customers couldn't believe we were closing our doors and when the word got out they all showed up for one last shopping spree. When that sale was over, an estate company came in and sold the rest of the clothes and jewelry and all those incredible antiques and display pieces.
If you have ever worked at a retail store that is closing you know that it is wild and vulture-like. The only time I wanted to cry was when I was working the register and one of our frequent customers leaned over and whispered in my ear, "I am so, so sorry about all of this. You know I love you all."
It had been a hard couple of weeks, and in the buying craziness this woman hadn't forgotten that The Natties were coming to an end. The life force of that store was the creative, funky, arty women who worked and shopped there, and the realization that they weren't going to be a part of my life any more was too much at that moment.
Every time I think about that phone call it does me in.
***I still see some of the Natties now and then. Often when I'm out someone will say, "You look familiar" and I
tell them that I worked at Natural Wear. "That's it," they say. "Oh
how I miss that store."
I know exactly what they mean.