Downtown Stockton CA was a little slice of foreign wonder for me as a fifteen-year-old. Skid Row life was seedy and edgy and made me think of places out on the East Coast, where I had yet to go. I had been intrigued ever since my father took me as a child for ten-cent haircuts at Nick’s Filipino Barbershop, but really so he could speak Spanish and a bit of Tagalog just for fun. I remember watching my little round head engulfed in a great blue cloth as it shrank, reflection by reflection, into the infinity created by mirrors front and back.
So when my older brother Mike, who managed a cut-rate shoe store in town, suggested I was a “shoe-in” for an after-school job at the other outlet, situated on Main Street a block or so off Skid Row, I was anxious to apply.
Now try to imagine the downtown Stockton of my youth. The big debate of the time was whether to demolish the Skid Row buildings or rehab an area of sleazy hotels renting by the day or week (and often by the hour, I was told), shady bars, hole-in-the-wall cafés, and down-at-the-heels retail outlets. Here were all the hobos, bums and drunks (politically-incorrect designations of the time), street walkers and card sharks, shady characters of every type and disposition.
Mike had put in the good word for me with Maxie and Sadie, the managing team at the Main Street store. So when I came in to apply for the job Maxie removed the cigarette butt from his mouth, where it typically maintained permanent residency, and inquired just how old I might be.
“Fifteen, sir.” I replied. I immediately remembered Mike’s telling me to lie about my age, but too late. The truth was out.
“No way, kid. I don’t employ 15-year-olds. Gotta be sixteen to work here.”
“Oh. Sorry.” And I turned to leave.
“You give up too easy, kid. The way I see it, you just had a birthday. So what jobs you done?”
“Well, mostly lawn-mowing and feeding neighbor’s cats and dogs.”
“Naw,” his wife Sadie interrupted in her gravely voice, “Marty means real jobs, you know, retail and the like.”
I could tell she had taken a liking to me.
“None, I’m afraid.”
“Okay, what do you know about retail?”
I thought fast and came up with what I was sure would be the perfect response: “The customer is king, right?”
“King, schming,” Sadie said, “My name means princess, but we sure as hell got no royalty around here.” Maxie was the only one to laugh.
“Yeah, kid,” Ed the Veteran Shoe Salesman chimed in, sucking deeply on his mentholated Kool, “what the f*** you think we fought the American Revolution for?” Now Ed was the only one laughing, at least until he broke down in a coughing fit and went outside for air.
And that’s how my education in shoe sales officially began. Maxie made some pretense of filling out a form with a pack of lies and I was officially on the books, minimum wage of $1.15 an hour, after school 3:30 to 5:30 and all day Saturdays. Come summer vacation in a month or so I’d be a full-time employee.
Now here’s how to picture my new bosses in your mind: Maxie perpetually hunched over and weasel-faced, with slicked-back, thinning hair, well-greased, a cigarette dangling from his mouth and a constant nervous habit of checking behind him. New York origins, I guessed, but it was never clear, since his origins changed from time to time. Maxie disappeared each day to drink a two-hour lunch at the Shamrock Tavern down the street into Skid Row, where Sadie told me he shot a mean game of pool, and, oh yes, according to Ed, he made book, primarily the horses and football games.
Which meant that some of his occasional drop-in guests in the shoe store were unhappy types. Maxie would step outside to discuss things at length, I’d watch a lot of gesticulation and cursing muffled by the glass display windows, and then he’d come back in and let loose with a splendid string of expletives so that Sadie would say: “Knock it off, Maxie, no f****** cursing in front of the kid.
Sadie’s name may have meant “princess,” but “she wasn’t your typical fairy tale type: short of stature, loud of mouth, husky voice, her hair a permed and stiffened confection and her perfume all-pervasive. Sadie kept watch over the cash register with the dutiful attention of a mother hen. And in her mind I think she adopted me. I liked her.
And then there was Ed, old already at forty or so: long and lanky, sunken asthmatic chest, Adam’s apple bobbing along his scrawny neck in a shirt collar two sizes too big, and always the Kools one after the other, puffing and hacking, puffing and hacking. Ed had seen it all—one end of the country to the other—all from the inside of cut-rate shoe stores in Duluth, Decatur, Atlanta, Reno and more. Yes, Ed was a man of the world and proud of it.
A lady’s man, too. Why, the minute a mini-skirted young women came through that front door Ed was all over it, pushing me aside, assuring me that he alone deserved the views from the footstools we would straddle to measure the offered foot.
And then there was the stage set itself: this was (name-withheld to protect all concerned) Shoes, the snazziest collection of bargain-basement footwear on the West Coast, a panoply of cheap leather, rubber and shiny black plastic to fit every foot and taste, and a lot of shoes which did neither. Imagine going behind the curtain à la Wizard of Oz and seeing row after row of ceiling-high cases stacked with shoe boxes, the smell of cheap glue and malnourished cowhide radiating from their interiors. There were men’s loafers and wingtips, women’s heels and open-toed strapped shoes, pumps and sandals galore. And over there in the corner: torture tools of the trade, where any shoe could be twisted and warped and expanded to meet the demands of a corn or bunion, or simply to force-fit the footwear to make the sale, and polishes and dyes to cover any blemish or birthmark missed by the manufacturer.
Now if you looked closely you’d see a whole rank of shoe boxes where each exposed box end looked like this: $5.99, $4.99, $3.99, $2.99, $1.99, and finally $.99. Each strike-out and price change appeared in a different pen and hand. Many began the descent into oblivion at $3.99, which was pretty much the mid-line for our stock of footwear. But all these beauties had one thing in common. They were pretty much all mighty ugly, and had been marked down over the many months and sometimes years, trying desperately to attract a buyer, and now they were fair game for “O.C.”
As Maxie and Sadie taught me, “Sure the pay here stinks, but you can always O.C. your way to a bigger paycheck.”
And here’s how it worked. You listen to your customer’s wants, dutifully go to the table display or outside to peer into the window at the particular shoe being requested, then excuse yourself to go in back and rifle through the discounted stock to find the closest match. Best case, you find something quasi-similar and sell, sell, sell like crazy. Worst case, you bring out the shoe the customer really wants.
“Just look at the sheen on these toes, note the quality (a word which took on a new meaning for me) of the finish, sure they’ll break in nicely and fit like a glove with just a little wearing, let me loosen up that toe for you…be right back. “And the price?” A quick glance at the box end, a mental calculation based on what you think the commerce will bear, and then: “Special today only, just $4.99.”
Then it’s up to the counter and a cheerful “O.C. $4.99”to Sadie, who does a quick presto-chango of the shoes into an unmarked box from beneath the counter, and the pleased buyer exits with his formerly $.99 wingtips under his arm, none the wiser for the “O.C.,” the over-charge. And I pocket the four buck difference at the end of the day with a wink from Sadie.
Of course, I also learned the up-sell and other tricks of the shoe trade.
My budding career selling the store’s best bargain shoes lasted about six months. And then one day I arrived to find Maxie gone. And Sadie. And Ed. Seems my bosses had been terminated under duress amid accusations of skimming from the company. And the new manager looked a bit askance at my job application form. I don’t think he believed I was sixteen.
So I got a job helping a Florsheim dealer go out of business (not my fault, he was sick of the trade and retiring). Nice shoes, those Florsheims. And I bought out the last of his inventory of après-ski boots at two bucks a pop. Unloaded them from the trunk of my buddy’s car in the high school parking lot for five bucks each. Cha-ching. Budding capitalist, budding entrepreneur.
End of my retail career. Never really felt comfortable with that O.C. business. The next summer I drove a Cushman scooter around the docks at the Port of Stockton, delivering mail and bills of lading to the ships—now that rang of distant travel and adventure. And I never looked back at retail. But that’s a story for another time.