Type
Essay
Category
Labour
Publishing

Retail therapist

Sayaka Murata’s recently translated novel Convenience Store Woman opens with a soundscape. The protagonist, Keiko, is alert to the subtle sounds of the shop in which she works, recognising a fridge door opening and a cold drink being removed as indicators that the customer is about to make their purchase. Keiko’s whole body resonates with the sounds of the store. She modulates her behaviour, from her smile and cheery tone of her voice to the exact words she speaks, to align with the company manual. She is the perfect worker.

I recognise myself in this description, in the habits I have developed over nine years of working in bookshops. I, too, have perfected the choreography of customer service: the greeting of the customer, the song and dance of payment (‘Cash or card?’), the Pavlovian response to the metallic ping of the till drawer, the knack for pushing it closed with a hip while pulling a paper bag from under the counter, parting rustling paper and sliding in the neatly stacked books. I am good at this. Sometimes I am even great at this. But what does it mean to be good at what is seen and paid as unskilled work?

There is a satisfaction, a jolt of pleasure, that comes from doing something well, from disappearing into a role. A feeling of moving fluidly through a space, confident and uninterrupted, never being snagged or lost. But there is also an emotional toll that comes from playing this part. In the article ‘A Woman’s World: Department Stores and the Evolution of Women’s Employment, 1870–1920’, Theresa McBride writes: ‘But in part the shopgirl was the victim of the role she had to play – an attractive amiable “doll,” who was forced “to maintain an eternal smile.”’

A job like mine is never just about selling a product. After all, people can buy books online at their leisure. Customers who come into the bookshop are buying an experience. Part of the pleasure is the setting: the smell of paper and binding glue, the hopeful bursts of colour on the face-out covers of the new releases, the background rustle of customers flicking through a new discovery. Part of it is the perception of knowledge and personal service, the small talk and smiles.

This emotional labour is an often overlooked aspect of retail work. Each customer requires a subtly different approach. I find I am shifting my behaviour for each transaction. When a customer asks for advice, for example, I have to gauge whether they truly want my opinion, or simply want me to validate theirs. Am I being asked a genuine question, or is it a trap to reveal my imperfect knowledge? These rapid character assessments and personality shifts can be surprisingly taxing when carried out over the course of a shift, usually several days a week, often for multiple years.

*

On 1 July 2019, penalty rate cuts for the retail, hospitality, fast food and pharmacy sectors came into effect, allowing employers to reduce wages on Sundays and public holidays. With the retail industry alone employing approximately 10 per cent of Australia’s working population, the impacts of these cuts are far reaching. Furthermore, these changes disproportionately affect young people whose work involves high levels of emotional labour. These are the same jobs that are routinely dismissed for not being ‘real’ jobs.

The average annual salary for full-time booksellers was $49,433 in 2018, down 8 per cent from $53,865 in 2013, according to a 2018 survey conducted by Books+Publishing. Thus the recent penalty-rate cuts further undermine salaries already well below the national average full-time adult wage of $82,472 per year.

As a teenager, I imagined bookselling to be the ultimate part-time job. I never imagined I would be doing it in my late twenties, still unsure what I want from my working life. Being faced with this reality has provoked feelings of uncertainty and despair, emotions that have only intensified with the realisation that my situation is a symptom of a much bigger problem.

As a diligent bookseller facing an industrial crisis, I looked for answers – or perhaps more accurately solace – in literature. The more I read about retail, the more I realised I was reading about the experiences of women at work.

When department stores launched in Paris and London in the nineteenth century, they opened up the world of retail employment to women, with customer service offering a logical, consumerism-based extension of traditional gender roles. Yet this was a much more public space of work than family-run businesses or domestic service, inviting constant interactions with new people. As McBride writes, ‘[for] the women themselves, this kind of work was both an extension of their domestic role and an important experience in the world of business.’

This new space of female employment is documented in Émile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames (sometimes translated as The Ladies’ Paradise). Originally published in 1883, the novel is the eleventh instalment in Zola’s sweeping Rougon-Macquart series – a naturalistic account of life in France during the Second Empire. In his preparatory notes, Zola writes of his plan to tell the double stories of Denise Baudu, a shop assistant who rises through the ranks, and Octave Mouret, the shop’s owner, who ‘makes his fortune from women, exploits women, wagers on their vanity, and in the end, when he is triumphing, finds himself conquered by a woman [Denise], whose conquest of him was uncalculated, who conquered him by her womanly strength.’

For the ingénue protagonist, working in a grand department store offers opportunities for personal advancement beyond the constraints of her class or her past. Denise is a rarity among Zola’s characters, in that she succeeds in rising above her social rank. This success, Zola suggests, is the promise of modernity – the ‘poem of modern endeavours’ – as embodied in this new kind of shop: a machine for manufacturing desire, where each worker is a cog doing its part to move the consumerist beast along.

While employment cultures may have changed dramatically since Zola’s time, retail work remains firmly associated with women: a 2018 report from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency showed that 57.7 per cent of people employed in retail in Australia were women. The service origins of the sector, and possibly also the feminisation of its workforce, contribute to the notion that the ideal retail worker is mostly invisible yet always attentive and amicable – a demand that makes it easier to dehumanise, insult, disregard and underpay them.

*

‘Sometimes I pretend I am in a sitcom,’ a colleague tells me when I mention a frustrating encounter. ‘That way all the annoying people are just quirky characters keeping things interesting.’

Humans like to impose a narrative structure on everyday life, to give the petty and tedious moments a sense of purpose, and this is certainly the case for those in retail work.

Another colleague takes this a step further, treating her job as a theatrical exercise, the counter becoming a stage on which she acts out many parts – you never know which persona you will see next. She seems to derive a sly pleasure from the performance, from subverting the system that expects her to trade in genuine emotions. I think it is her way of keeping something of herself to herself. I’m impressed by this idea of performance as protection, but I struggle at times with the artifice.

On my very best days, I see the person standing across from me, beyond the generic role of customer, and we interact like normal people. On an okay day, I adopt Mr Bennet’s satirical perspective: ‘For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn.’ On the worst days, I am just a mask.

*

From the nineteenth century to the present day, certain aspects of retail work remain remarkably similar, while others have shifted in response to social changes. In Convenience Store Woman, Keiko, like Denise, has created a life for herself through retail work. What is less clear is whether this is a good life, or simply one of stagnation and isolation. Where once retail work gave women a rare chance to change their fortunes, now it can seem like a sign of failure, a purgatory from which one is meant to advance to something better. But how one is meant to advance remains unclear. Also unclear is whether this advancement is actually desirable.

It is significant that the title of Murata’s book refers to Keiko as a convenience store woman, not girl. Whereas the term ‘shopgirl’ carries a certain charm, implying even a hint of glamour, the term ‘store woman’ has entirely different connotations. Keiko’s continued presence in retail embodies her quiet resistance to societal expectations of what and how a woman should be, but for those around her she is simply an inconvenience.

A new colleague says most directly, with unmistakably misogynistic undertones, what other people in Keiko’s life have only been hinting:

You’re still in a dead-end job at your age, and nobody’s going to marry an old maid like you now. […] You’re like a Stone Age woman past childbearing age who can’t get married and is left to just hang around the village, of no use to anyone, just a burden.

While Zola’s shopgirls were expected to move quickly from work to marriage – a path that Denise does ultimately follow – Keiko resists similar social pressures and lingers in a role she loves, but which everyone else regards as transitory. For Keiko, thoughts of the shop soothe her to sleep and animate her dreams, then ‘when morning comes, once again I’m a convenience store worker, a cog in society. This is the only way I can be a normal person.’

*

I am vacuuming the front of the shop one evening. A man in his fifties approaches me with this compliment: ‘Great job with the vacuuming! You will make a great wife someday.’

Things I wish I had said: ‘I think you are confusing “wife” with “cleaner.”’

Or: ‘I think you are confusing the 2010s with the 1950s.’

Or: ‘Fuck off!’

*

I dread the time when my bookshop job will switch from being viewed as desirable, intellectual, even romantic, to being a sign that I am squandering my potential and failing to grow up. Maybe this is already happening. Sometimes I talk my job down before anyone else can.

In her social world, Keiko is an uncomfortable exception, but her experience captures the reality for many millennials. As psychology professor Jeffrey Jensen Arnett points out, millennials expect their jobs to be meaningful and fulfilling. This expectation, coupled with the practical realities of a crowded, competitive job market and an evolving world of work, means that millennials are staying in retail roles longer in order to work towards bigger career goals. The shift away from on-the-job training in many professions means that even entry-level jobs require tertiary qualifications and several years of experience. Thus the very same young people who crave meaningful work often have little choice but to linger in retail while they study, explore their interests, develop a creative practice, or pursue entrepreneurial inspiration – paradoxically finding themselves in the very predicament of unfulfilling work they had hoped to avoid.

In this context, changes to penalty rates take on a new meaning. They don’t just affect individual workers for a brief period spent in retail work. Instead, they have a long-term impact on the financial stability and independence of young people during a defining decade of exploration and personal development.

Across the country, from hairdressers to fast-food workers, there have been stirrings of union action in response to the penalty-rate cuts, which overwhelmingly affect those in low-paid industries – as Sydney Morning Herald journalist Caitlin Fitzsimmons observed, ‘It’s actually just a pay cut for young people and women.’

Workers in a number of sectors have also successfully negotiated enterprise bargaining agreements (EBAs) with companies. These agreements are negotiated between employees and employers, mediated by unions, and safeguard worker pay and conditions equal to, or above, the current award rates. Coles and Country Road are among those who have successfully negotiated agreements. Given that Coles is Australia’s second largest private employer (after Woolworths), this EBA is big news, benefiting over 100,000 employees. A number of small and medium businesses have also stood against the government’s decision, choosing to maintain penalty rates.

In the world of publishing, editors and publicists at Penguin Random House Australia (PRH) voted this September for an EBA, following seven months of bargaining conducted by the Media and Entertainment Arts Alliance (MEAA) on behalf of staff. It is the first union-negotiated EBA in the history of the Australian publishing industry.

Beyond low wages, the amount of unpaid overtime expected of publishing workers is a major area of concern. A lot of this overtime is dedicated to reading, a requirement that is at once a pleasure and a duty.

Bethany Patch, an editor at PRH and a MEAA delegate, reported on the issues of unpaid overtime and the low wages (in relation to skills and qualifications), in a March 2019 article for The Guardian. Many publishing workers have accepted, she argues, ‘that our jobs are highly sought after and competitive positions, with a yearly influx of new, willing publishing graduates ready to work harder for less.’ It is a narrative of scarcity, Patch says, that employers use to justify pay across the industry.

Yet as Samantha Forge notes, in her 2018 article for Kill Your Darlings, ‘the assumption that low wages are the only thing keeping the industry afloat is not supported by the numbers.’ In fact, the industry reported modest growth in 2018. By relying on a false perception of an imperilled industry, Forge argues, employers ensure that working in publishing remains ‘a luxury reserved for only those who can afford it, a self-selecting system that ensures that disadvantaged members of society never even make it into the interview rooms.’

Overtime is also an overlooked aspect of bookshop work: to be the expert bookseller that employers and customers expect takes a lot of private reading. Though there is no formal qualification for the job, many booksellers have studied English at university, or devote much of their free time to enriching their knowledge of literary culture. Yes, it is a pleasure and a privilege to read, but it is also a requirement for the job and a form of specialisation that current pay structures fail to recognise.

Even with low pay and overtime expectation, it is difficult to mobilise retail workers. Many are employed on a casual basis, and there is a tendency to see the work as transitory, fostering the attitude that exploitative labour conditions must be endured until one can escape.

This is exactly how I used to view the situation. What benefit, I wondered, is there in wasting precious time and energy standing up for my rights, let alone those of my colleagues? After all, my future will likely lie outside of retail. Over time, I have come to think differently. Even if I move out of the industry, there will always be others who depend upon this type of work. And so, at the age of twenty-six, I joined my first union.

In this regard, I am now participating in a long tradition. The department stores of the nineteenth century were important sites of union action, including campaigns for shorter working days/weeks, maternity leave, holiday leave and sick pay. For all the very real changes that have since improved life for workers – especially for women – it is noteworthy that many of the old problems are echoed in current workers’ demands.

*

It is the first warm Saturday of summer and the regular beach crowd is bolstered by eager holidaymakers, decked out in swimmers, smelling of sunscreen. Travellers wander into the shop in faded clothes and ask whether we have a book called The Alchemist. Later, I find a pile of sand in the children’s section. These seasonal trends have taken on the feeling of ritual, of the comfortingly inevitable, but they also remind me how long I have had the job.

A series of recent interviews for publishing roles has also made me think about what it would mean to no longer work here. I often feel a burning desire for ‘real life’ to begin, but lately have questioned whether this eagerness to move on is my own, or just internalised social and cultural pressures. Will I really be happier, more fulfilled, more stimulated, if I trade the shop counter for an office desk, casual pay for a salary, emotional labour for screen time? Will I truly be living up to my imagined potential? What will I gain and lose in the exchange?

The publishing world I am aspiring to enter is also low paid, has shrinking job opportunities, is constantly under threat from technological advancements and shifting business models, is frequently dismissed and undervalued, and is often the work of women. If I do secure a publishing role, I will be midwifing manuscripts from their raw state into the perfect-bound blocks of pages that I currently sell. I will be paid – though not very much – to exercise that part of my mind that loves to think about word choices and metaphors and layers of meaning, about how to construct a sentence and how to structure all those paragraphs into something meaningful.

I feel a premature nostalgia for this time in my life and for the version of myself I will leave behind the counter. For all the artifice and the emotional labour, I have come to define myself by my work as a bookseller. I am looking ahead and backwards at the same time, hopeful and anxious and sad and excited about the transition from ‘shopgirl’ to women’s work.

 

 

 

 

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Freya Howarth is a bookseller, editor and writer. She works at the digital magazine Aeon and her book reviews have been published by Kill Your Darlings. She studied philosophy and human ecology and is interested in literature and translation.

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