Online Edition: Summer 2009

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 The Customer Is Always Wrong

 The Retail Chronicles

 edited by Jeff Martin

 Soft Skull Press ($12.95)

 by Sarah Salter

Ever wonder if the electronics geeks are laughing as you wander lost among the plasma TVs? They are. In The Customer Is Always Wrong, Jeff Martin collects twenty-one retail worker perspectives; those going door-to-door share space with veteran shop owners and teenage cashiers. Unfortunately, many of the essays, though amusing on the surface, come down unnecessarily hard on consumers strolling in to conduct capitalist business-as-usual.

The best offerings blend self-deprecation with nuanced observation, and rise above righteous indignation to supply the most successful entertainment. Colson Whitehead’s “I Scream” opens with mock Biblical gravity: “Mine is the story of a man who hates ice cream and of the world that made him.” Whitehead recognizes his own role in a crippling aversion to dessert, describing his ice cream struggles with humor instead of bitterness. Becky Poole’s retail ambition “to savor my neighborhood” delivers results: her essay pays loving tribute to a Brooklyn block’s characters. “In truth, the store feels more like a neighborhood social club,” Poole writes in a sweet, balanced account. Unlike many essayists, Poole displays a refreshing refusal to exploit the manufactured separation between customer and employee.

Martin includes several experimental selections, lending a welcome diversity to the collection. C.A. Conrad provides a stream-of-consciousness meditation, taking readers into a space far more disturbing than the break room—the mind of the angry clerk. “Some days I can’t believe my job is part of my life. It’s so painful, and I stand there ignoring everyone and pray for the Angel of Death.” In “Sixteen Retail Rules,” Catie Lazarus’s tongue-in-cheek advice effectively mixes contempt and hilarity. “When a sales clerk is helping someone else: a) Cut in, as you are in more of a hurry. Also, venting helps.” In her refusal to ridicule specific customers, Lazarus mitigates the cruelty of her pointed observations, ending the volume with a much-needed buoyancy.

Despite some standouts, much of the collection falls flat. Fatigue sets in as complaints appear and reappear. Customers demand attention; weeks merge together; hard work goes unappreciated. Eventually, even a sympathetic reader feels aggrieved by the self-indulgent slant of the least introspective pieces. While those on the employee side of the counter plead for kindness from the masses, they refuse to extend that same compassion to the buyer, miring the collection in self-absorption.

The problem is that many of the less subtle narrators, fueled by outrage instead of irony, cannot recognize the eccentricities of consumers as innocuous. Most people who have done time in the retail salt-mines know the real challenge: finding a balance between employee solidarity and tolerance for foolish, but harmless, purchaser behavior. A charitable outlook confers rich material on several essayists, while annoyance poisons the rest with excessive venom. Since, as Martin’s title indicates, the customer is always wrong, the employee must always be right. Ultimately, this distorted perspective taints the reader’s pleasure.


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