My New Respect for Retail Employees and a Serendipitous Message from an Artist

On Aging
On Aging
Jan 13, 2019 · 6 min read

I’ve always enjoyed strolling around office supply and electronic product stores. So, when I was suddenly forced to figure out how to quickly supplement my social security income after my self-employment anchor-client relationship unexpectedly ended due to economic reasons, I was both surprised and grateful to be hired as a part-time printing/marketing customer-service associate for a well-known national office supply store located a short 5 minutes from where I live.

I figured I could handle about 15 to 20 hours per week servicing customers with their copy and printing needs, especially since I have a strong background in publication design and production, even though the job paid only $10.30 per hour. I also felt in the back of my mind that this could possibly not work out, primarily because it would take me away from the work I really enjoy doing, which is freelance non-fiction writing, building out my new website, “Old Anima: Unique Resources for Older Adults” (, and working on a variety of creative/artistic fiction that I also enjoy writing.

New Experience, New Realization
I went in on my first day feeling optimistic with a tinge of apprehension. It was all very new to me. I’ve never worked in a retail environment. The first day went fine because it was easy. All I had to do was go online and start taking their extensive web-based employee training program from a computer workstation in the store’s back room.

My new boss was very nice. She instructed me to do the online training for about two hours and return the following day for a six-hour shift, beginning with two more hours on the training (it looked like an 8-hour or so comprehensive program all together) and then four hours of shadowing a knowledgeable employee in the printing/marketing department.

The online training was a great example of information overload. It covered everything from credit and debit card payment systems to harassment, safety issues, diversity, various report filings, cashiering, how to deal with irate customers, theft incidents, and much more. I was a bit taken aback at the number of things one needs to understand to be a retail office supply clerk. It gave me a whole new respect for the people who work in such jobs. It’s amazing what one needs to know to earn a measly $10 per hour. For example, “ringing,” (cashiering) as they say, is a much more difficult job than non-ringers can imagine.

Additionally, all the employees I met there turned out to be extremely nice, friendly, intelligent people. They all demonstrated a pleasant camaraderie, like everyone there had your back. Is that great camaraderie generated, in part, by the fact they are all dealing with the same, unfairly low-wage, hard-working struggles that many Americans must deal with on a daily basis?

When Things Became Harried
Unfortunately, once I got to the shadowing experience, all hell broke loose. This is where my respect for retail employees grew even larger. In about 50 minutes I witnessed the woman I was shadowing multi-task at an unbelievable rate. She essentially helped several customers with self-copying services; printed out and trimmed a set of business cards; showed a woman how to upload an image to a Google Drive account on her smartphone and then use a self-copy machine to print it; packed a large order of 800 double-sided flyers; laminated and trimmed a poster; cashed several people out; and moved over to the store’s main cashier station to briefly help out with an overload of customers waiting to be cashed out. Between all this, as I was following her around, she showed me all the machines in the printing department, which included one full-color and one black-and-white laser printer; a large format printer that also printed blueprints; a stamp-making machine; a laminate machine; a paper and card trimmer; shelves stocked with reams of various paper stocks; a main, complex-looking workstation for printing out and managing orders; a cashier’s station with a cash box; and several other things I don’t remember. All this stuff was packed into a relatively small space.

I saw one potential customer who was patiently waiting for service walk out of the store. Another customer was obviously irritated as she waited for her order to be packaged and cashed out. There were a few more customers who came in and out and lingered around, waiting to be served. All this happened in under 50 minutes that felt like under 5 minutes.

When one of the waiting customers started to stare at me with an obvious desire to be served, I decided then and there that this job was not for me — that I could not deal with this kind of stress. So, I apologetically informed my boss that I simply was not able to perform such high-demand job duties and left. I did this regardless of the fact that I could certainly use any of the money earned from doing this job. Overall, I felt like an idiot.

Saved by a Fellow Artist
When I got home, feeling frazzled by the entire experience, I did what I frequently do to calm down and get my mind off troubled thoughts — read something enlightening. In this case, I picked up my Kindle to the next chapter I was on in Kent Nerburn’s new book “Dancing with the Gods: Reflections on Life and Art,” titled “The Dark Companion: The toll of money on the creative spirit.” It’s uncanny how appropriate and serendipitous this turned out.

“Money is an especially onerous burden for the artist, because what is at the centre of our life [earning a living] controls our consciousness, and, for an artist, our consciousness and our ability to direct it is the source of our creative power,” Nerburn writes. “We don’t go into the arts because we want to make money. We go into the arts because we want to create.”

Nerburn adds that very few artists make enough money to support themselves. Consequently, artists typically are forced into taking on jobs indirectly related to their art- such as a creative fiction writer taking on a corporate press-release writing gig, or a painter or sculptor making repetitive, easy-to-create consumer-oriented images and statues (or a freelance writer and publication production person taking an office supply store job). In doing so, however, “they risk dissipating their creative energy in creating works of inconsequence.” Other artists may find a job at something completely unrelated to their art, similar to when Nerburn became a cab driver, “but risk losing connection with the art in their heart,” he explains.

Finally, Nerburn concludes his Dark Companion chapter with this: “What you must keep uppermost in mind is that money can’t make you happy but poverty can make you miserable . . . You must find a way to ward off poverty without giving money too much importance. Your wealth is in your talent, your vision, and your dream of artistic creation . . . Find a way to keep poverty and her dark companions from sapping your spirit, and you will find that the gift you have been given — the gift of the creative imagination — gives your life a wealth and meaning that no amount of money can buy.”

Perhaps needless to say, after reading that, I went about my creative work with more vigor. Now, as always but perhaps with more consternation, it’s a matter of maintaining that vigor more consistently for longer periods of time so that I can avoid the possibility of having to take on a job that I’m really not in the least bit qualified for or capable of doing.

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On Aging

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