Adventures in Retailing: A Trip Down Memory Lane

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Adventures in Retailing: A Trip Down Memory Lane

A Lunch Counter at a Woolworth's by Carol M Highsmith

In the Dark Ages, children, before the internet, university educations were cheaper. In order to get through a year at a major university full of Nobel laureates and other luminaries of instruction, all I needed was $2300. That included room and board, access to a great library, and other perquisites, such as the opportunity to loiter frequently in a large gothic monstrosity of a building and think deep thoughts. I know, hard to believe. What made it better was that half my $550-a-semester tuition was paid for by scholarship. Still, it was necessary to work in the summer.

Not being well-connected, I couldn't find the kind of job they call an 'internship' today. Not being built for strength (and being visually challenged), I couldn't find more lucrative employment in the steel mills. This left minimum-wage service jobs as the reasonable alternative. During this particular summer, the fortunate recipients of my highly-skilled assistance were the staff at the local Kresge's. Somehow, they survived.

I Was a Galley Slave Aboard the SS Kresge

That was what my mother suggested I title this memoir, which she presciently predicted I would write back in 1971. It is so subtitled in her memory. SS Kresge was the name of the variety store company (with appended lunch counter), founded in 1899 by a gentleman named….you guessed it. I filled out the job application in a knotty-pine-panelled back office, under a cheerful poster. The poster depicted the 'SS Kresge' as a gleaming ship on the ocean, its workers as happy sailors. I suspected that I had departed the Irony Zone when classes ended for the summer.

I filled out the form: name, address, age, education. So far, so good. Next: what languages do you speak? Panic set in, as I tried to figure out which languages I was sufficiently fluent in to lay claim to. German, certainly, but how good was my French, really? What about the others I knew how to read? What about…. Why do they want to know this, anyway? I looked at this form, which was yellow with age. The penny dropped. Back in 1899, multilingual variety-store employees were useful for selling sewing notions to monolingual grandmothers from the Old Country. I smiled, and put down 'German, Yiddish', even though this Kresge's, located in a strip mall on the Miracle Mile, wasn't exactly Hester Street. I filled out the rest of the application, which involved simple arithmetic and change-making. I suppressed a chuckle at the probable caustic remarks of my annoyed calculus professor.

As it turned out, the lunch counter manager spoke Polish. Her name was Audrey. She was utterly adorable: short, stout, kinetic: salty in her language and big of heart. We had a good time, and she was patient with me. She needed to be: I was preternaturally clumsy.

I spent the summer spilling coffee, entertaining the customers, and generally getting in the way. Once, while opening an enormous tin of lunch meat (almost a meter long, I point out in my defence) that came with an old-fashioned key, my hand slipped and I cut my thumb open on the metal strip. It bled like mad, of course, and a concerned Audrey ordered me to the office for First Aid. The secretary, a dour but good-hearted woman, cleaned the wound, bandaged it….and then fainted. We spent the next half-hour applying First Aid to the poor woman, who couldn't stand the sight of blood. Audrey's restraint through all of this was admirable.

I learned wonderful things: how to make a fried egg on a grill, how to produce perfect grilled cheese, how to make the magic 'secret price in a balloon' displays that brought in the banana split customers… worked like this. You put tiny slips of paper with prices from 1 cent to 69 cents inside a collection of balloons. Then you blew them up with a compressed-air device. Tied to the ends of booths, the balloons made the SS Kresge a decorative craft. Kids begged for banana splits during the hot weather: mothers were lured by the gambling aspect. Of course, the prices were so distributed as to balance cost-effectiveness in favour of the company. But a good time was had by all. The experience permanently changed my view of bananas: I always mentally slice them lengthwise; tricky, because they're curved.

Kresge's lunch-counter customers were a happy lot: our regulars were mostly elderly local people. One old gentleman turned out to be a neighbour of my piano teacher, Miss Lindquist. I was shocked when he said, 'Yeah, I know Gussie.' Referring to Miss Augusta Lindquist as 'Gussie' was a piece of effrontery of which I would never have dreamed. Mr Kaminski and Audrey flirted harmlessly but outrageously. Their innocent innuendos opened my eyes and ears to the experiences of a whole past generation of urban immigrants' children, a world I had never had a chance to know before. I listened eagerly to their banter as I mopped, wiped, and tried not to spill any more coffee.

We were having a good time that summer. We even made some money: Memorial Day sales were brisk. I was run off my feet, and earned the double-time I got for working the holiday. My mom was suitably impressed when I told her at the delayed family picnic that was her birthday party. I gave her a copy of Pilgrim's Progress that I bought in a shop on the strip mall. My dad bought her a garden hose.

'Well, you said you wanted a new one,' he protested when we all laughed. It was a family joke for years afterward, that garden hose. It went along with the cut-glass bowl he bought her for Christmas, which she couldn't find a use for and deprecated as simply a way to take up even more space in the buffet table….until my sister and I made a jocular suggestion. Great Northern beans in a cut-glass bowl make for elegant dining presentation. I can vouch for this.

Apart from tired feet at the end of the day, I was having fun that summer. Until the Mad Men of K-Mart showed up.

Towards the Diamond Ring

Early one morning, there was a Meeting. Meetings are always ominous, in my experiences. I attribute some of my worst changes in circumstances to Meetings. The organisers of this Meeting were Mr Carl Schmidt and his eager assistant, Ronnie Kohlhuber. They represented New Management.

The SS Kresge was sailing into new commercial waters, it seemed. It was soon to phase out its small-time variety stores in favour of the coming concept, which was the big-box store. Kresge was morphing into full-time K-Mart, which it also owned. Schmidt and Kohlhuber were fresh off a four-month training tour in a South African K-Mart, and were eager to strut their stuff. Both were about thirty, sporting ties and oozing self-importance. Being a Germanist, I recognised the type. This is what invaded Poland.

The Meeting was held before the store opened. We, the lunch counter staff, sat on the counter stools. Mr Schmidt set up his Visual Aid between the grill and the coffee machine. Yes, he had brought a Visual Aid: a pegboard to which were affixed all the evidence of our collective sins as inefficient employees. Evidence he had amassed from a survey of last night's rubbish. I was reminded of the Schnitzelbank chart, in a way I suspected Kafka would have approved of.

In a patronising manner, Schmidt harangued The Help:

  • 'Do you see these unopened sugar packets? That's waste! Yes, I know the customer spilled coffee on them. But they didn't use them. From now on, make the customer ask for sugar! Don't just give it to them.'
  • 'This perfectly good pie was in the trash!' Schmidt pointed to a slice of blueberry on a paper plate, stuck to the pegboard with a drawing pin. The blueberry pie was affixed to the plate with nothing but its own congealed filling, which gave the lie to Schmidt's characterisation of this object as 'perfectly good pie'. Nobody would order it. Nobody would eat it. I had refused to eat it, when offered it for free. 'PUSH THE PIE!' he ordered.
  • The next item impaled on the board was an empty coffee bag. 'We get 100 gross on a pot of coffee.' Schmidt imparted this trade secret with confidentiality and pride. 'So PUSH THE COFFEE!' I wasn't surprised. We had the only 10-cent cup of coffee in town, a genuine metziah1. However, we didn't give refills, a sly way to make sure that every cup of coffee yielded profit. So yes, push the coffee. Not necessary in Pittsburgh. Pittsburghers drank a lot of tea, but they seldom ordered it at Kresge's. They respected their tea more than that. Those teabags were just sad.

On and on Schmidt went, enumerating the wasteful crimes of the food staff. He instructed us to do better. Fortunately, I hadn't been on duty the day before, so I escaped being singled out for opprobrium. I could read the subtext here: Schmidt and Kohlhuber were bucking for promotion. Managing a Kresge's for the summer was the Front Office's idea of playing in a farm team. Schmidt and Kohlhuber had their sights set on the big-time of K-Mart management. To win big, they had to show a bigger profit for the months when they were in charge. Meeting over, we went to work. And I worried.

I wasn't worried about Schmidt and Kohlhuber, or my summer job. Come September, I'd be back at Pitt, parsing verbs and arguing about Sekundenstil. But Audrey and the others – earnest young Sondra, statuesque (about six foot) Frances, and wise-cracking Ida, who looked and sounded exactly like Flo on 'Alice' 2   –   needed their jobs. I could go find something else menial to do, but could they? I wasn't the only one who worried about the possible consequences of this silly careerism.

Audrey took me aside. Audrey was in her late fifties. She'd dropped out of school early and been working hard all her life. She had 24 years in aboard the SS Kresge, and she needed to make it to 25. Because after 25 years of service, the company would owe her a diamond ring. Audrey's late husband had never been able to afford a diamond ring for her. She wanted that diamond. I decided, right then and there, that no Schmidt and Kohlhuber were going to deprive Audrey of her diamond ring. So I secretly helped her with the books and order forms and reports, explaining what I read as I went. Soon, we had it all shipshape and Bristol fashion. This was absolutely the only decent thing to do for a woman so kind that, when I loaded all three milkshake mixers incorrectly (rookie mistake, they weren't hooked in properly), and they all three slung strawberry ice cream, milk, and syrup all the way to the pet-food aisle, patted me on the back, said, 'Go take a break now,' and grabbed a mop and bucket. Audrey was a hero, so I did my small best to support her.

Books aside, we all tried to play along with the efficiency experts, insofar as we could without alienating our loyal customers. Mr Kaminski, at first offended, soon got the scent and teased everyone shamelessly. Particularly when it came to the new slogan. We were supposed to say, 'Thank you for shopping at Kresge's' whenever a customer purchased anything.

This was fine for the shop people – although Arlene Eaglemeyer, a middleaged lady of dignity and some solidity, made my mother choke back laughter whenever she said it, because she said it as if she were auditioning for the part of Marvin the Paranoid Android. The problem was, we protested, that customers at the lunch counter weren't 'shopping'. They were dining. So it was agreed that we could say, 'Thank you for eating at Kresge's.'

Pittsburgh literalness reached its peak when Frances decorously placed before Mr Kaminski his 10-cent cup of coffee, which was all he ever ordered, and intoned solemnly, 'Thank you for drinking at Kresge's.'

Have you been to a K-Mart lately? I haven't. It's all Target and Walmart for me these days. But I remember 'blue-light specials'. Do they still have them, I wonder? They'd place a flashing blue light, like a police beacon, somewhere in the store. Then they'd announce over the loudspeaker, 'Attention, shoppers! For the next ten minutes only! Girls' sneakers3 only a dollar twenty-five!' Shoppers would rush around the store.

Whatever the big boys did, Schmidt and Kohlhuber had to do. It was as immutable a law as that of the Medes and the Persians. Of course, the practice lost a bit in the translation. Under their frenetic direction, our little Kresge's became a cargo-cult K-Mart. We didn't have a blue light. Never mind: we did have a public address system. And, just like K-Mart, we had employees who could be ordered to take turns announcing blue-light specials. The fact that a K-Mart covers acres of ground, while our variety store was 'as big as a sneeze', as they say in Yiddish, made no never-mind to the two commercial geniuses.

My mother was enamoured of this new practice. She'd show up around lunchtime and linger, just to get 3-for-a-dollar hoagies. What's a hoagie, you ask? Oh, lord: a hoagie is heaven in the form of a sandwich. Every kind of cold cut you've got, plus cheese, salad fixings, and Italian dressing. Hoagies at 3-for-a-dollar are a delicious bargain. Hoagies at 3-for-a-dollar is why I was bleeding and Mrs Armantrout fainted. I didn't blame my mom for enjoying the bargains, but the announcing was driving the workers nuts.

None of them liked it. They grew up in Pittsburgh. They were laconic, shy, and reticent. They were not cut out for careers in broadcasting. Fortunately, I was.

I was also a Poet. I spent my lunch hours reading Poe. Now, I spent a lunch hour writing, with a grease pencil, on butcher paper. When it was the lunch counter's turn to have a bargain again, this is what I read over the loudspeaker:

Kresge shoppers, lend an ear!

We've got bargains, have no fear!

For the next ten minutes, run

To the deli. In a bun

Salami, ham, and good baloney,

Fresh tomatoes, provolone,

You'll agree this sub's no phony!

Three for a buck, such a deal!

Every Kresge bargain is a steal.

The lunch counter staff loved it. The customers were very appreciative, and wanted more. They even bought hoagies.

Schmidt and Kohlhuber weren't happy.

'Was it the enjambement?' I inquired. 'I tried my best to make it scan. What's wrong with a bit of levity?' Alas, my foray into advertising fared somewhat like those of German playwright Frank Wedekind, who used to compose Goethe parodies to sell Maggi soup. Margaritas ante porcos. No more poetry over the loudspeaker, was the decree.

Fortunately, this ended the dynamic duo's foray into K-Mart-style announcements. Bargains went back to the sort that went on all day and were proclaimed by handwritten sign. Customers readapted, and the staff sighed with relief. July 4th was the slowest work day I've ever experienced, but I did get paid double-time for it. The summer ended, and I went back to university, where I could actually use my Yiddish and other languages.

The next year, my parents moved out of state. I had to seek work elsewhere. Lacking transport, I never had the opportunity to go back to Kresge's. By the time I saw the strip mall again, the store had closed. I always wondered what happened to them all, and sent thoughts and prayers their way. Especially Audrey. It is my sincere hope and secret belief that she got her diamond ring, and a well-earned and happy retirement. There has to be that much justice in the universe.

For Schmidt and Kohlhuber, I have always envisioned a different fate.

Dmitri Gheorgheni Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

01.10.18 Front Page

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1Yiddish for 'bargain'.2'Alice' hadn't happened yet. But when that television comedy about a diner came along, I was immediately struck by how much Ida resembled Flo, the unflappable diner waitress played by Polly Holliday, down to the beautifully coiffed hair. It is said that Dustin Hoffman modelled his 'Tootsie' after Polly Holliday. He could have done much worse.3=Trainers. In Pittsburgh, they're called 'sneakers'. Or 'sneaks'.

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