There must be a retail work experience so horrifying that there's nothing funny about it. If so, editor Jeff Martin must have decided to excise it from The Customer Is Always Wrong: The Retail Chronicles, a collection of essays exploring the lighter side of that soul-sucking retail job that serves as a gateway to higher pursuits.
At less than 200 pages, Customer is sadly slight, but it encompasses a vast array of workplace woes. Some zero in on first jobs, like Jane Borden's stint at a cutesy children's clothing store in "The Popsicle Shop," or Richard Cox's much-desired scramble for commissions in an electronics department in "We Weren't Really Rock Stars." And no two annoying customers are alike: Some may just be introducing a little disorder into the situation, as in "Not Included With Display," in which Michael Beaumier comes to identify with the cleanliness and order of his department so much that he chases customers away from his tidy displays. For James Wagner, a customer with an impossible project is the bane of his existence at a home-improvement store. As in any retail environment, some days are marked by the absence of action: In "I Scream," the repetition of Colson Whitehead's scoop-shop job is the way to madness (and the swearing off of all desserts), while Kevin Smokler's "Another Day At The Video Store," which channels Clerks, is bookended by phone calls to his manager in which nothing is discussed.
Customer's best stories supersede its jokey title and become true slices of life: "Tulip Thief," Gary Mex Glazner's account of catching a shoplifter in the act, begins with the bracing line, "I worked as a florist for eighteen years, but always wanted to do something more masculine, so I became a poet." Like Glazner's contribution, Timothy Bracy's "Klaus" offers just a glimpse into a particular place, in this case a coffeeshop suffused in †particularly Flaubertian horror. While it's constructed with a creepy specificity, "Klaus" invokes the slow-building horror common to several contributions as Bracy realizes his wits have become so dulled to the changes around him, he might have continued to accept his shrinking paycheck for years. The Customer Is Always Wrong could be polished off on one of Wade Rouse's extra-long lunch breaks, but it never trivializes the value of suffering a little for a paycheck.