Jeff Martin (Editor) – The Customer Is Always Wrong: The Retail Chronicles (2008, Soft Skull)
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I’ve been lucky enough not to have had to wear any paper hats, but like most citizens of the industrialized world, I have stepped behind a couple of retail counters in my day — and although I had those jobs a long time ago, the memories are still fresh, and I read the Jeff Martin-edited anthology The Customer Is Always Wrong: The Retail Chronicles with great interest, looking for hints of my past in other writers’ experiences. I never really found any, but it’s an enjoyable read nonetheless.

Martin’s compilation is slim (under 200 pages) and lacks the involvement of any “name” writers (slight exceptions: Neal Pollack, who wrote the foreword, and Jim DeRogatis, who is a legendary music critic and therefore probably doesn’t count), both of which are unfortunate, because retail life is one of the few remaining common threads that bind us all together, and I think this could have been a slam dunk of nonfiction humor if it had been put together a little differently. As it is, The Customer Is Always Wrong is a solidly unassuming read, good for a few chuckles here and there, but far from a definitive statement on the wild, wonderful world of ritual pain and humiliation that is waiting on the consumptive masses.

The book consists of 22 brief essays from writers such as Richard Cox, Hollis Gillespie, and Elaine Viets, all of whom tell their stories with the sort of bemused detachment that comes with the relative certainty that you will never again need to experience the things you’re talking about — and also, it bears mentioning that most of the stories included in this volume treat retail work as a positive experience, more or less, which is an opinion clearly not shared by a sizeable percentage of the people working retail at this very moment, and may, in fact, not jibe with your own memories of being a “sales associate.”

Still, even if The Retail Chronicles fails to really stab at the ink-black heart of the retail experience — in fact, some of the writers Martin chose are a little obnoxious — that doesn’t mean it isn’t frequently a lot of fun, or worth following up with a second volume. And at under $10.50 new, it’ll make a pleasant addition to the bathroom book basket, or a nice holiday gift for a friend who doesn’t rate a major purchase. Damning with faint praise? Perhaps, but I’m still looking forward to The Customer Is Still Wrong: The Retail Chronicles II.