Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Numbers and Nostalgia

Social Security sent me my statement this week. It's pretty sobering to see all those numbers lined up neatly. Have I really been working for that many years?

It's also a nice dose of nostalgia.

In 1978, I made $714. That was my summer job at Walgreen's drugstore. I wasn't a very good cashier. This was when prices were marked on stickers and you had to know what was on sale, before bar codes helped the computer do everything for you. I think I was probably the Queen of the Overrings, because customers were constantly pointing out which items were on sale AFTER I'd already punched in the prices. But I loved stocking the shelves. Every day at my break, I would go into the lunch counter section of the store, have a seat in a back booth, and devour a York Peppermint Pattie with a glass of ice water with crushed ice. I knew all about the feeling of "cool and refreshing" way before that ad campaign.

In 1982, I made $11,428. I remember at my job interview asking to make $12,000. I thought $1,000 a month was a ton of money. I didn't get it. Instead I got $150 a week, which meant that a few months later, when I bought my first car, I had to make sure I had a little left over from the previous week's paycheck in order to cover the payment. The car payment was $169 a month.

In 1983, I made $12,305. I worked two jobs to do it, too: full-time at a law office and part-time at a chain bookstore. I think I spent all my bookstore earnings on books--there was always a stack of Save for Payday books under the front counter--but I managed to support myself. It was a great job.

The bookstore staff kept track of two specific types of customers and we would report to each other when we'd added another one to the running tally. One was the customer who came in to say "I'm looking for a book. I don't know the title or the author's name, and I'm not sure what it's about. But the author is a man, and he was on Merv Griffin today, and it has a blue cover." Talk about the power of marketing! Might as well say, "It was on t.v., so I want it." We always enjoyed that one.

The other customer type was the person who bought The Joy of Sex. As an aside, we were always finding that book in other sections of the store, no doubt due to the large numbers of teens hanging out at the mall. In general, we considered it a public service to make such information fairly readily available, but we used to break up any groups that laughed or talked too loudly in the Sports section. That was often a sign that they weren't reading the sports books. All it took was a little shelf-straightening nearby for them to disperse with their new knowledge.

Anyway, adults who bought The Joy of Sex were usually female and consistently felt the need to explain conspiratorially: "It's for a bridal shower." Trust me, bookstore clerks don't care what you buy. (When you've sold "Hustler" to someone who looks like your grandfather, you're not easily shocked.) But we noticed that people were a little embarrassed to be buying that book. One night when I was feeling particularly bold, and the lady delivered her explanation, I whispered back, "Yeah, that's what everyone says." Fortunately, she thought my comment was very funny.

Life sure was different way back when.


  1. I really enjoyed your trip down memory lane. I suppose that working at a bookstore in many ways like working at a drugstore or grocery store! You sure learn lots about people!

  2. I love this post :) Looking at my SS Report is just too depressing. Not from the number of years I've been working, but instead, how many years I've got to go to retirement and how little money I'll end up with.

    Of course that is assuming there will be any by the time I retire. I'm in the generation that just might get shorted. Oh sure, we pay into it our entire lives, but unless we are disabled now, we probably won't see a dime.

  3. Saucy, thank you, and you are so right! Much as clerks don't want to judge, sometimes you can't help but make the connection.

    Red, me, too! The other half of this post would be "And what do I have to show for it?" But we won't go there. Right now I figure I can't retire until I'm 120.

  4. Working in a bookstore was some of the best years of my life. Now I've been out of paid employment for the last three years and can't consider going back for another two at least and all those numbers and figures seem like such a distant memory...

  5. Michelle, glad to hear you've had the happy experience of bookstore work,too. Meanwhile, I say enjoy the time you have at home; the gritty details of work will return soon enough!


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