This is a Writers’ Other Jobs post from Chris Currie.
A fair portion of my working career outside of writing (i.e. that which actually earns me money) has been in bookshops, but everyone writes about bookshops. Instead I want to focus on the job I held just before entering the realm of bookselling. Freshly graduated from a Creative Writing Degree, any undergraduate confidence I had was swiftly vanishing and I found myself—as my university’s slogan had prophesied—in the Real World.
Writers, I had realised by then, were not really qualified for anything (other than maybe moving to Paris to die), so I entered the period of existential hot yoga everyone with creative inclinations goes through: should I start another career where I actually get paid, or should I continue to do what I love and struggle? After a few dead ends, I received a response from one of the many job ads I’d applied to. It was perhaps indicative of my state of mind that I was excited about it.
The ad had offered the slightly cryptic opportunity “to be a part of an exciting new retail experience”, but beyond this, it was a little unclear. Despite my reservations that I would end up dancing naked in a Saudi sex-den, I was excited that someone had showed an interest. The job, as it turned out, was for the now-defunct retail brand Colorado, who were keen to open a “factory outlet” store: that is to say, a place to sell all the items nobody wanted to pay full price for.
Despite having little relevant experience, my luck turned when the “interview” turned out to be a cross between an overbearing personality test and a competitive drama camp. In other words: right in my wheelhouse (theatrical improvisation and relentless personal introspection being two of my great loves). The interview was held in the conference room of a fancy hotel, groups of tables set out like an awards show, about 80 people in total. We were split into groups and underwent a fairly predictable series of questionnaires, trust exercises and drama games aimed—fairly obviously—at separating the extroverted, go-team! wheat from the normal, non-sociopathic chaff. Now, I was not—nor ever have been—an overly confident individual, but it was fairly obvious the type of personality they were looking for, and for the sake of the possibility of having a regular wage, I played the game. And got the job.
I started work soon after, and while it had its moments, I can’t say it was particularly fun. Colorado was a company whose successes seemed to rest on a training manual the size of a Dickens novel, which outlined “The Colorado Way”, a comprehensive manifesto outlining your expected behaviour (and limitations thereof) every instant of every day. Retail strategies, sales targets, how and when to upsell every customer a crappy watch or wallet: it was all there.
The shop sold, basically, the sizes and styles of shoes and clothing none of the other Colorado retail stores could sell. The stock would arrive, every day, in enormous boxes: XXXL patterned shirts that would make a rodeo clown blush; an endless variety of men’s slip-on sandals (this being the zenith of the now historically reviled mandal movement); and oh so many cargo pants. Imagine if you can The Island of Doctor Moreau, but with early 2000s fashion faux-pas.
The shop was in a Brisbane suburb called Stone’s Corner, then a haven of “outlet” shopping, and the site of often vicious bargain hunting. Inevitably, we would not have the sizes and styles that anyone wanted, but would always have to offer, for some reason, to source what the customer wanted from one of Colorado’s other, proper stores for later collection. Calling a “real” Colorado store from Stone’s Corner was always an exercise in class warfare, wherein Tarquyn or Karmodi from Carindale would pretend to search for a pair of tan mandals in an actual human size while you waited in front of a queue of increasingly irate customers.
My ongoing reluctance to deal with people’s staggeringly disgusting change room habits/feet coupled meant that I spent the remainder of my time at Colorado on Front Duty. This meant mandatorily greeting every single person who came through the front door, folding the clothes into neat piles that swarms of bargain-hunters would inevitably destroy in seconds, and dealing with the steady stream of shoplifters and drunks trying to exit and enter the store respectively. Where my talents really laid, as it turned out, was as store spruiker.
As all the stores along the strip were competing for the same customers, many had annoying dickheads set up outside their entrances with a microphone and a P.A. to theoretically lure in prospective shoppers with loud proclamations of the bargains contained therein. I became one of those dickheads. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of, but it was a means to an end: it got me out of the shop, and it allowed a gentle breeze to caress the bare shin skin below my three-quarter length khakis and through the straining stomach-gaps in my Alex Perry-tight shirt (alas, I was compelled to wear the clothes I was selling).
And thus, in this way, I spent many hazy retail days. Soon enough, luckily, I had secured the lowest rung on a bookshop ladder, and eventually got to leave Colorado behind. The retail clothing arm of the company itself imploded with its parent company about a year after I left, going into receivership. I’m not saying it all happened because I left, but I am saying no one could fold a pile of enormous poo-brown linen blouses quite as quickly as I could.
And what did this particular section of my working life teach me about writing? I suppose, that you can always fake it. I suppose, that better things more often than not come along. And I suppose, that if your financial success rests on sales of leather slides for men, then you get exactly what’s coming to you.
Christopher Currie is an Australian writer currently based in Germany. His first novel was The Ottoman Motel. He’s on Twitter at @furioushorses