The Retail Life: Remembering the Customers of an Outdoor Store
Before I came to work at Patagonia, I was employed for many years with an outdoor retailer in Evanston, Illinois. It’s the customers I remember best.
There were Gary and Sally, who would drop by to talk about their yearly rafting trip to Montana. Alan liked to hand me pictures of his beloved red ’72 Corvette to look over while he tried on clothes; I remember a red Guide Parka in particular that his girlfriend said looked good on him. The McMahon family always stopped by to shop; Michael and Patrick were two years apart in age, and I’d ask them how school was going and what colleges they planned to attend. Another customer, James, grew up on Chicago’s South Side and was a foreman for a large printing press company in the city. We’d chat about the recent vacation he took with his family to New Mexico, and his desire to return there.
[Craig Holloway checks the day’s sales, while the great Gina Shelton takes a customer’s call. All photos: Craig Holloway Collection]
There were also customers who possessed demanding or unusual personalities, who required extra attention. Mrs. Glick was exceptionally tall and intimidated most of us with her German accent. She seemed to approve of me though. I was always the unwaveringly polite, no-nonsense salesman with her. There was the older, impeccably dressed woman from Milan who visited the store twice a year. She’d sit in a chair and direct me around the store while I retrieved Capilene baselayers or fleece pullovers for her nephews and nieces back home. I was unfazed by her behavior and thought her sweet – until she lit up a cigarette in the store. The other customers and employees stood horrified. I did not want to ruin the sale, which I estimated from the large mountain of clothing situated behind the counter to be at least worth one thousand dollars. One of the store owners walked in and almost fainted at the sight, but I calmly whispered into his ear, “a thousand dollar sale.” He approached the woman, introduced himself, and asked if she’d enjoy a coffee with her cigarette. “Oh yes, dear, black please.” Within five minutes the store owner returned with a cup of black coffee from the corner café.
A young woman who wanted to try on a few outfits was concerned about the store’s changing room floor, which had a built-in trap door. She nervously joked that the floor might collapse beneath her and she’d go crashing down the staircase. I assured her that this would not be the case by jumping up and down on the closed trap door. I’m thankful that the trap door’s stout, sturdy flooring supported my body weight. Still, I didn’t convince her and she used the store’s bathroom instead.
I savored the quiet time after the store closed or before it opened. It was nice to fold clothing with no distractions and look out the store windows to watch a winter snowstorm or notice the maples’ bright green springtime buds. Sometimes, James, my favorite customer, would stop by in the summer evenings to say hello. While I finished closing out the register, he would grab two Cokes from the Laundromat across the street. I would unfold two lawn chairs taken from the store’s back room and place them on the sidewalk. There we sat in front of the store, watching traffic go by, sipping our Cokes. He talked about his love for New Mexico’s endless desert, and I shared my love for running endless miles. Once dusk turned to dark we said our goodbyes as I locked the store’s front door. I walked toward the El stop, a warm breeze coming off the lake as I headed toward home.
The Active gang before the start of the Windy City Classic 10K Run at Garfield Park on Chicago’s West Side.
Summertime truckin’ in short shorts . . .