Like most people who majored in Medieval Studies, I’ve spent a lot of time working in retail. I’ve sold books, sporting goods, hardware, ice cream, coffee, and clothing, but my longest stretch was two years working at a Crate and Barrel outlet, the place where the housewares giant unloads its mildly discolored linens and slightly fractured furniture.
What Medieval Studies and retail have in common is that both endeavors require the apprehension and application of powerful governing mythologies. I spent my undergraduate years reading and translating Beowulf, Sir Gawain, and other medieval epics (my email address can be found below, if you’d like to hire me for something). What these sagas have in common—besides iron breastplates—is the heroic quest, what mythologist, philosopher, and sometimes-crackpot Joseph Campbell dubbed the monomyth. This quest can be broken into a series of archetypal episodes, each of which is familiar to anyone who has ever slain a dragon or tried to find six matching reindeer mugs from last year’s discontinued Christmas stock.
1. The Call to Adventure
Our hero, the customer, is called to quest – now is the time to register for flatware! This otherworldly summons can appear at any time: early Sunday morning, Tuesday during lunch hour, or five minutes before the store is closing and once the cash registers are all already turned off and the doors are locked. One may hear the Call at the most inopportune moment, like the woman who decided to buy an entire suite of dining room furniture on her way to the airport to catch a plane. Or the Call may come in the form of a gift certificate to the Pottery Barn, a store that does not, in fact, have any sort of reciprocal arrangement with Crate and Barrel. The Call is also regularly heard around the times of Thanksgiving and Christmas, which is all the more curious since both holidays occur every year at the same time and neither is a surprise, yet every December 24 we welcome again the hostess who has suddenly realized that her life’s happiness depends on having a gravy boat on Christmas Day.
2. Supernatural Aid
Here is where the salesperson comes in. In the retail quest, the salesperson plays a central and contradictory role, a combination god and slave. As your salesperson I am inferior, because I am the one making minimum wage to double-wrap your stemware. And yet I am superior, too, because I am the one standing between you and the last case of slightly irregular margarita glasses. Like Athena, I inspire you; like Obi-Wan, I guide you; like Morpheus, I wear a stupid uniform.
Some shoppers come to browse, to stroll trippingly through the aisles of cherry pitters and fish forks, and happen upon the perfect cheese dome like Aladdin upon last year’s lamp. But others embark on their quest with a plan. They seek their El Dorado, their Fountain of Youth, their Shangri-la. They seek the discontinued dining chair that matches the partial set they found at a flea market three years ago. It is often my sad duty to inform them that the item they seek is no longer in stock, is discontinued, is only sold by Restoration Hardware.
But the questing shopper is not one to be so easily dissuaded. Now enters The Myth of the Magical Back. No matter how impossible the odds, the daring customer is always ready to ask, “Do you have one in the back?”
For the Back is the repository of a customer’s fondest wishes and his wildest dreams.
“Do you have it in red?”
“Do you have it in large?”
“Do you have one like this, only not this?”
“Are you sure? Can you look in the back?”
Now I work here. I know what’s back there. But I also know that nothing will pacify the customer except walking back there to take a look. I am the gatekeeper of the Back, and so I occupy a powerful, liminal role not unlike that of a priest or sage. So I stride resolutely into the Back, spend four to six minutes making fun of the customer’s haircut with the stock guys, and then return to deliver my report like the Pythia from Delphi.
3. The Road of Trials
But fear not! The dining room chairs may be long gone, but our transaction is not at an end. The customer is there to buy, and buy he will! During a rainy winter, more than one customer attempted to buy the filthy plastic bucket we used to catch the leak in our ceiling. The customer will have his boon.
On his way, he will doubtless encounter an escalating series of obstacles. Sometimes these are trials of raw strength, like the customer who snapped a silver picture frame in half in his trembling hands while shouting, “I want a horizontal one, not vertical! Hor-i-zon-tal!” then fled before we could explain that all rectangular picture frames can be hung either horizontally or vertically.
Sometimes they are trials of patience and courage, like the woman I told to wait one moment while I helped the customer ahead of her, at which point she threw her armload of potholders to the floor in disgust and shouted, “Fine! I’m leaving! And you can pick this up!”
And sometimes they are riddles, trials of the intellect. One such customer became very upset because a certain two foot by three foot rug was priced at $15.95 while another rug of the same pattern, this one four feet by six, was $52.95. He demanded that a salesperson explain the apparent price discrepancy.
“So, why exactly is this rug $52.95 when this other one is only $15.95? It’s twice as big! It should be twice the price!”
I explained, “A four by six rug is not twice as big as a two by three rug. It’s four times as big.”
The customer persisted in his ignorance.
“A four by six rug is 24 square feet. A two by three rug is only six square feet.”
“It takes four two by three rugs to make a four by six rug.”
“This rug is half the size of this one!” he insisted. But somewhere, there was a crack in his breastplate.
“I can show you if you like.”
I set two 2’x3′ rugs on the floor. “You can see they aren’t as big as a four by six, only half as big. It would take four of these rugs to make a four by six. And since each two by three rug is $16, and four would be $64, you can see that you actually save money by buying a four by six.”
Slowly he set the smaller rug back on the shelf and left to quest another day.
4. The Winning of the Boon
And what does our hero do when he has found his light of lights, his one true and perfect prize, his horizontal picture frame?
You can always tell these people because they march in, feeling all inspired and indignant, because some financial advisor on “Good Morning America” told them to never settle for retail price. What they don’t seem to understand is that a major national corporation is not a Ukrainian fruit stall. I am a lowly employee, one of thousands, and I have no more authority to change prices than I do to turn off this looping “Jazzy Christmas” CD. I don’t own this store, and if I did, would I make myself wear this apron?
5. The Return to the Ordinary World and the Application of the Boon
The hero has won his goods! And perhaps also paid for them. Now this prize must be transported back to the workaday world whence our hero came. But first we’re going to have to have a talk about shipping and delivery.