A few weeks ago I worked my last shift at the bookstore.
It was a job that began as a filler, an I’ve-just-graduated-and-have-no-idea-what-to-do-next job. Nineteen months I worked there, in various positions ranging from banker to night supervisor.
And I learnt things I didn’t know I didn’t know and I didn’t know I needed to know. I learnt by necessity, I learnt by just doing it.
Which is, funnily enough, not an opportunity many of us are awarded at a young age. Working in retail was never my career plan but I truly feel I have learned invaluable lessons, gained skills that others my age and with my qualifications lack. Without knowing it, those nineteen months of working a till has given me the best education in life and in human nature.
Here are the things I learnt:
I learnt to start at the bottom. I walked into that store, a clueless 22 year old with a degree in politics and psychology. A degree which, in retail, helped me not at all. I had to start at the bottom, guided by people who didn’t necessarily have a tertiary education but who knew how to work the computer system and how to speak to customers and how to do a million other things that left me, for the first few weeks, in a state of flat panic.
I also learnt that I’m a fast learner.
I learnt to speak to people. I grew up in an upper middle class home, going to private schools and whatnot. My colleagues, many of them, came from areas like Athlone and Retreat and Gugulethu. Which is where I have now spent many long, hilarious evenings. Culture shock.
I learnt to speak to customers. To be nice to strangers, no matter how many sandwiches short of a picnic basket they may be. I learnt to translate strange requests, track down books based on next to no detail. “It’s blue.” Um, and?
And I learnt to not be shy. I learnt to make conversation with just about anyone. I gained masses of self confidence and self assurance. It was a job I knew I was good at and I knew I could do and this self confidence has carried through to my social life, to the way I am now able to interact easily in just about any situation.
I learnt to stand up for myself. I learnt not to take abuse from customers and not to let them abuse my staff. I learnt that there is an acceptable limit to politeness when someone is being a complete jackass and I learnt that the customer is not always right. I learnt to say no.
I learnt that people take their frustrations out on shop assistants.
I learnt how to work under a manager and I learnt how to stand up to management when they weren’t allowing me to do my job.
Working in retail, working in any kind of customer service, is something that I will recommend over and over again. These are the spaces where life happens. Many of my classmates are walking straight out of university, having been treated as golden their whole lives, into their chosen career path with no understanding of how the professional world works. With no respect for the people below them and no idea how to handle not being the star of the show.
It is a humbling experience, one which I appreciate and one which I will always carry with me.
And guys, be nice to the service industry. Sometimes we fuck up. We’re only human. And the guy in the queue before you was probably an arsehole.
When major book chain Borders closed the doors of it’s last in the USA, the employees left this outside the building. A final comment to their customers. None of it is wrong.