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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.”

Silence.

“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?

He bargains.

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.

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Summer Block SUMMER BLOCK has published essays, short fiction, and poetry in McSweeneys Internet Tendency, The Rumpus, Wheelhouse, Identity Theory, DIAGRAM, Monkeybicycle, PANK, and many other publications. Her story "Hospitality" won the 2010 MWA award for short fiction. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, two dogs, three chickens, and two-and-a-half children. You can find more of her work at www.summerblock.com. Some people follow her on Twitter.

10 Responses to “The Questing Consumer and the Myth of the Magical Back”

  1. dwoz says:

    like Morpheus, I wear a stupid uniform.

    What a line.

    With that gas in the tank, I felt confident to cross the desert with you. The kind of trip that isn’t about getting to the destination.

  2. Zara Potts says:

    You opened this with the perfect line – and everything that followed was just as perfect.
    Great piece, I really liked it!
    The Morpheus line was great.
    More please!

  3. Nathan Pensky says:

    This is great. I only wish that simple math appeared more often as trials in Questing Tales.

  4. Marni Grossman says:

    Whilst working at a calendar kiosk- a Borders subsidiary- I was frequently forced to inform customers that though the kiosk was technically owned by Borders, we did not, in fact, accept Borders gift certificates or coupons. Hell. Pure hell.

    This was such a funny read!

  5. Steenie says:

    You got to slay dragons, you’ve been on the quest, you spent time in another world. And I envy you. I would love to have done Anglo-Saxon studies and translated Beowulf.

  6. melbage says:

    Great read! So funny!

    I, too, have spent many years informing people that a certain Christmas card design from seven years ago has really, truly been discontinued, or insisting that I am not personally responsible for the outrageous price of a movie ticket.

  7. Joanne says:

    Hilarious!

  8. Temptesta says:

    BRILLIANT! After proudly earning my BA in Art History, I went off into the world prepared for a stimulating career in retail. I have gone on the magical quest to The Back, when the back was nothing more than a closet with a time sheet tacked to the wall. I have looked int he computer for the book, “The Red Bag of Courage” for a customer who was adamant that the copy of “The Red Badge of Courage” I put in her hand was not the one on her child’s summer reading list. Thank you for being the voice for all of us who have worn The Apron of Shame.

  9. I am off and on developing an essay using the categories/benchmarks of the epic hero for application to analyze Pinocchio. He really does fit the model.(arrogance, the journey, the pitfalls, the self destruction, the enlightenment, the challenges, and overcoming dragons and ego. an apotheosis that give us a noble but humble end product) Good Italian Kid too. Actually from Staten Island as my recent research confirms.

  10. […] piece first appeared in The Nervous Breakdown. Tags: at the office, epic, hero, Joseph Campbell, myth, quest, retail, shopping, summer block […]

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