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Cheeky memoir knows retail is hell

By Staff | Aug 25, 2009

Whether it’s in a mall, department store, fast food or a convenience store, anyone who works or has worked in retail has a story to tell. 

Whether it’s bad managers, backstabbing coworkers, crazy customers, or cleaning up messes from said customers, everyone has their own crazy story. Freeman Hall has written a cheeky memoir about his time in the retail trenches in “Retail Hell.”

Freeman is the only man in the handbag department of a high-end store, here called “The Big Fancy.” Originally wanting and having experience working in the menswear department, the only job available when he makes the move to California is with handbags (never call them purses!) and Freeman isn’t one to pass up the employee discount. Thus begins his decent into the murky world of high-end retail. Or maybe that should be ascent? Because Big Fancy has an employee entrance that all employees must use to go from the mall parking lot to their store — an entrance with eight flights of stairs he calls Mount Fancy. 

Apparently the owners of the store thought the employees needed a bit more exercise, so they built the staircase monstrosity for their employees, despite the possibilities of injuries of men and women in dress shoes and heels climbing and descending a steep staircase.

But that’s only the tip of the Big Fancy iceberg. First there’s the other employees — the HR manager he calls Two-Tone Tammy, who bounces from saccrine-sweet to fire-breathing dragon in a millisecond; the store manager Suzy Davis-Johnson or Suzy Satan, who wants all of the employees to be a happy family but will fire you if you miss your sales; and Stephanie, the store secretary, also called the Stephanator, who holds the morning rallies to get the store pepped up. 

Then there are the employees in the handbag department, which he categorizes into the Handbag Angels — his friends Cammie, Jules and Marsha — and the Demon Squad, manager Judy also known as the General, a woman with an unusual first name that he changes to Douche in the book, who steals everyone’s sales, Tiffany, who considers herself the General’s assistant and the ultra-talkative Marci.

With the help of the Angels, Freeman keeps the Demons at bay and learns the ins and outs of handbags.

Though Freeman’s dealings with his co-workers are funny, the most outrageous encounters he has are with the customers. There’s Polly, the woman whose voice sounds like a ghost and she might as well be — she only calls in to have him hold bags she never picks up. There’s two ladies by the name of Virginia who are completely different, but time-consuming in their own way. There’s his good customer (and possibly the only one he likes) Lorraine Goldberg, a woman with a very colorful vocabulary but drops a lot of money at the Big Fancy, earning her the nickname, Shoposaurus Carnotaurus.

Freeman also talks about troublesome customers — the ones that outright steal or bring in bad returns that Freeman is forced to do in the name of customer service. There’s also Discount Rats, people who want a discount on items that aren’t on sale and are downright persistent about it.

From picky customers and messy customers to sick customers spreading germs everywhere, to customers who have desecrated fitting rooms (I, like Freeman, am never going to be able to look at dressing rooms without worrying about possible contamination again) to fights during the once a year sale and uncontrollable children running wild, Freeman faces it all with a sense of humor and charm and a bit of sarcasm when the situation calls for it, making him the perfect protagonist.

He knows he’s stuck in retail hell and is gamely trying to make his way through it, to make his escape via his dreams of becoming a screenwriter, even as the Big Fancy sucks his energy every day. His commentary on the bad customers will make you laugh out loud at their behavior and his dry wit in response to them.

For anyone who has ever slaved away in the retail pits, this book is highly funny and highly relatable and a must-read. For anyone who shops in stores, it’s a must-read to know just how your shopping habits affect the people that have to put up with it.

Contact Amy at amendenhall@graffitiwv.com