Big Dummy

Thanks for all the comments, e-mails and kind words from everyone. I really do plan to get back on track, visiting around everyone’s blogs and updating mine. I don’t know how many “back-issues” I will get to, but probably not many, since there are so many of you I visit. I found an entry I had been working on before the laptop went belly-up. I just came back from driving down Main Street in Shawano when I was “home” this last time and saw where one of the places I worked is now an auto parts store. So much has changed and so much changes every time I go there.
My second job was as a retail clerk in a department store called Lauerman’s. In the early 1900’s it was a chain of mercantile stores that were all over Central and Northeastern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I thought they might have one or two stores left in the U.P. but I don’t think so. When I worked for them they had, I think, 6 stores yet. Mercantiles were like the original superstore in their day. They had clothing and yard goods and appliances and groceries. I used to love to listen to the old-timers come in and talk about how, when the store was still in the building across the street, they would fill their Model A Fords with chickens and sell them to the store. Those old farmers built that store and the one I worked for later on. The stores would normally close at 5 O’clock Monday thru Thursday and Saturday, but would stay open on Friday nights until 9. This was the time when chores would be completed and they could go to town. The home of the founder is now a bed and breakfast in Marinette, WI, on the National Historic Register along with the former main store.
We sold plain blue bibbed overalls pronounced by the customers, “overhauls” up to size 60 x 30, including striped ones, pronounced, “stri-ped” and overalls without the bib up to a 56. Union suits (yes they really do have “that flap” in the back) in all sizes made of cotton, wool and thermal, pronounced, “terminal.” We didn’t sell groceries anymore, or appliances, when I worked there, but my parents had bought a refrigerator from them when they did in the old store across the street. We sold men’s, women’s and children’s clothing, yard goods and footwear. “Do youse guys got any bibbed overhauls in a size of 52 x 28? Are dem stri-ped or plain? You got any terminal underwear, too, hey? Da one-piece now once.” I liked my customers and I think most of them liked me and our store. One of the key differences between the old-fashioned department stores and mercantiles and today’s super-mega-ultra-big-box stores was service. We would bend over backward to make even the smallest sale of a pair of socks, whereas nowadays you go try to find a clerk to help you. All of the big box stores fall short when it comes to that feeling you get when you walk in the door and the conversation goes:
“Hello, Mr. Schmidtke. How’s Bessie’s mastitis coming along?” (Bessie is a cow, by the way, not Mrs. Schmidtke.)
“Oh, pretty good. I told you to call me Willy.”
“Well, I have to show respect for my customers.”
“Okay den. Say, you got any of dem work shirts yet, hey? Dem good woven flannel ones like what I got last year.”
The personal touch. That’s the way it was. It was 1976 and I had just started working there during the school year, stocking shelves and washing windows. As I got more and more used to the stock we carried, I started waiting on customers. I learned a lot working retail and I was lucky to work for Ray, who was, thinking back on it now, the most patient man in the world, possibly ever. Even now I think he was the best boss I ever had. I always liked him and tried my best to be a good salesman for his store.
I wasn’t always successful.
Wisconsin winters are bitterly cold, sometimes going for weeks in the sub-zero range and the snow doesn’t melt, it just gets piled higher and higher. The ice on the area lakes is measured in feet and is usually speckled with pickup trucks and snowmobiles and ice shacks. Snowmobile X-ing signs abound, even in town. Some of those ice shacks were pretty elaborate, too.
So, obviously, below zero temps with the wind blowing at 10 – 15 MPH would mean that only a fool would venture outdoors for even a couple of minutes without a coat on, let alone in a short sleeve shirt and there I stood, safe and warm inside the store in my short-sleeved shirt, unpacking a box, hanging up shirts, in the middle of January. It seemed fairly obvious to me that I was not a customer off the street. This wasn’t obvious to everyone.
“Excuse me, young man, but do you work here?”
“No, lady, I’m a mannequin.”
I laughed.
She didn’t.
She turned around and walked right out the door with me at her heels trying to explain it was just a joke because it was the middle of winter and…
Later that day I saw Ray up in the office talking on the phone. By his actions it seemed to me that he was talking to an unhappy customer, which he was, and I had a good idea which customer he was talking to. He walked down to the floor.
“Herb, I need to talk to you for just a minute.”
“Yes sir.” My heart was in my throat. I was busted and I was gonna get fired.
“Mrs. So-and-so just called me.” He relayed the story back to me, but he couldn’t help himself chuckling when he got to the mannequin part. “You can’t do that, you know.”
“I’m sorry, Ray,” I really was. I felt bad that he had to get chewed out because of me and maybe lost a customer. Plus, I didn’t want to get fired. “I just…well…I was just kind of joking because I thought her question was too stupid to be real, so I figured she could take a joke back.”
“Well, she wasn’t joking. No matter how stupid a customer’s question sounds, you have to think that they are serious. She says she’s not going to come back to this store ever again. She told me she’s going to the other store where she will get good service.”
My heart sank even further. I felt awful.
“Of course she says that every few weeks or so about something. She’ll get mad at the other store and come back here. She would’ve come back today if I would have offered her a discount.” He chuckled. “That was a pretty good one,” but he looked me in the eye and he was suddenly very serious and stern, “but don’t ever do anything like that to a customer again.”
“Yes sir.” I felt like a real dummy.
And then it was over. Ray was right, Mrs. So-and-so came back a couple weeks later and didn’t even seem to know that I was the one that offended her. I worked at that store for 5 more years until I joined the Army the first time and whenever I’m in town I try to stop at Ray’s house and visit for a little while.
Remember the Good Book says, “The buyer haggles over the price, saying, ‘It’s worthless,’ then brags about getting a bargain!”

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