Ode to Working in Retail

My mother used to always tell me that she would not allow me to work until after I had graduated from university, so, for a while, I always thought that my first job would involve working as a journalist, or perhaps for the government, or as something else that Bengali society would deem commendable. Throughout my teenage years, I have managed to acquire and maintain the odd part-time tutoring job, however my first official, long-term and lengthy-hour job was – is – the one I have now: I am a sales assistant at an Islamic bookstore. And what an experience this has been thus far, and what an experience it continues to be. 

Unlike my (well-meaning) mother and many of her fellow South Asian first-generation-immigrant mothers, I will not encourage my future children to look forward to having presumedly ‘higher-tier’ occupations as their first jobs – although, admittedly, I would tell them, as a concerned mother and for the sake of their own sanity, that working at certain popular high street shops over the holiday period is out of the question for them.

I have realised that it is certainly true what they say about working in retail: it builds character. It allows one to hone one’s people skills; organisation skills; the ability to work under high amounts of (‘real-world’) pressure; conflict resolution; problem-solving; creativity skills (for example, when given the chance to influence the shop’s window displays and interior décor). But my favourite part about it all – the thing that makes working eight-hour shifts bearable – rather enjoyable, in actual fact – is not the humour that I often indulge in as a result of having a hyperactive and melodramatic manager, nor is it found, for me, in the biscuits that enticingly await my scoffing them each workday. Nay: undoubtedly, the most enjoyable and educational part of working at this job lies in the people that walk through the shop’s door each day:

The little girl who enthusiastically perused the scarf racks, looking to acquire her very first Hijab. The little boy who shyly approached me only to hand me a chocolate from the box he was carrying. The woman with a glowing face, browsing the bookshelves for baby books, accompanied by her husband and her mother-in-law. I congratulated the couple; she quietly said “thank you” and proceeded to tell me not to mention anything in front of her mother-in-law, whom she intends to surprise with the news very soon.

And I will never forget about the woman who strolled in and started talking to me about Tahajjud (the night prayer) and the miracles that unfolded in her life as a result of it. She proceeded to tell me all about her home in Scotland, and about how she met her husband, and about how much travel her current job entails; about how, even though they are both approaching old age, her husband still gets protectively jealous whenever she gets ready to leave for another country – another adventure. “I told him, come with me one day. If you see a single guy who talks to me, I’ll pay him £10!”

And what about the girls who walked in and started talking to me as if we were life-long friends? We spoke about Harry Potter, and philosophy, and literary classics, and…

The twins. One who studied philosophy at university; who spoke with me about Islamic philosophy and our favourite philosophers and the origins of the strong assumptions that much of western philosophical discourse is dominated by. And, of course, her sister, who walked in two days later, and who studied psychology – the other subject that I am eager to study soon. We spoke about Islam and mental health, and about the two-way relationship between the human psyche and the modern world as we know it. These conversations – rich, meaningful – are usually borne from a single question: “are you looking for anything in particular?” or “so, where are you from?”

Questions are seeds. They are watered through a genuine sense of interest that one invests in a fellow conversational participant. And they often bloom, where I work, into wonderful flowers. It is true what they say about how each person knows at least something that you do not. And, therefore, each person has at least something that they can teach you.

Occasionally, the shop floor looks especially dreary. Sometimes, while it rains heavily outside, things are quite quiet. I start to steam some clothes, or sweep the floor, or run my hand along the cool book spines. But then, the silence is broken: a child runs inside, making a beeline for the sweets section, usually followed closely behind by a weary-looking parent or two. You can see the unaffected wonder in these children’s eyes: how the shop’s shelves create before them a maze for them to explore. The clothing racks are, for them, a game of hide-and-seek just waiting to happen. And you should see the way their faces light up when they are handed a balloon on a stick – a pointless object in the eyes of we boring adults, but a whole plethora of playful possibilities for the unaffected child.

Sometimes, lonely people walk through the shop’s door. Older men and women who talk about their sons and daughters who live so far away from them; older men and women who never married; teenage girls who find solace away from difficult households within the pages – the unmatchable joys – of a good [and spiritually enriching, as it is indeed an Islamic bookstore] book.

The little shop welcomes non-Muslim, new Muslim, semi-Muslim, and practising Muslim customers alike. Sometimes a nervous-looking woman with brightly coloured hair might walk in, perhaps expecting to be shunned as a result of her lack of Hijab. But she is met with a “Salam” and a smile, and then feels comfortable enough to tell the tale of how she got here – to Islam. We, my colleagues and I, have come to know Muslim paramedics; students of ‘Ilm (beneficial knowledge); authors (including one who recently travelled to South Africa so as to write and publish a book for mothers who have lost children); teachers; artists, as a result of working at this job. And the list goes on.

There is a certain kind of …poetry… that can be found in working at a place like this. The lighting is warm; the interior design fairly rustic. The hundreds of books atop the shelves each encapsulate stories or pearls of wisdom, as do the people who walk into the shop so as to browse through them: wise and interesting people seeking to become more wise and more interesting. Walking stories meeting written ones.

Serendipity. That is what this is. This whole experience – this one that I am certainly romanticising, albeit justifiably – feels like one that I have yearned for, for a long time, without really knowing it. I noticed the vacancy sign in the shop window while en route to one of my side tutoring jobs; I walked in, and was met with two beaming smiles – the smiles of my to-be manager and of my favourite colleague – who is now a close friend of mine.

“Have you got any retail experience?”

“Not much – ” I go on to tell them about how I used to ‘assist’ my dad at his shop back when I was eleven years old. [In actual fact, this meant playing with the till and printing out useless things to my heart’s content].

They proceed to ask me a few questions, both still smiling. A woman walks in behind me, also with the intent to apply for the position. She seems more qualified for it than I am, for they did request an experienced, fluently-Bengali-speaking woman. I tell them that my Bengali skills have truly deteriorated in recent years. My near-future manager laughs and tries to test how well I speak the language.

Later on, I discover that quite a few women applied for the role before me. My colleague tells me that she did not like “the vibe” of the others, and that my now-manager was starting to lose hope in finding a suitable worker for his shop. He started praying intensely (and sent much Durood) and, apparently, I walked in moments later. After a few minutes in conversation with one another, my colleague and I discover just how similar she and I are – in very strange and specific ways. I get the job.

Two months later, I look back on that day and I think about just how much I have gained from this role. People undoubtedly ‘make’ places: colleagues and customers, each with a story to tell, or with some advice to impart, or, indeed, with some grumpiness to release. Sometimes, when all is still, I find myself gazing at the bookshelves and fantasising about seeing some of my future works displayed on them [Insha-Allah]. And then, my trance is disrupted by some footsteps: a new customer, a new pair of eyes, a new set of answers awaiting some well-chosen questions, walks through the door. And, where ever-changing perusing fingertips meet those myriad book covers, dynamism meets stillness. Something wonderful is about to be set in motion here: a to-be father is about to read about how to be a good one. A boy is about to read about his family’s history. A girl is about to buy her Madrasah teacher a gift. Humans, in this place and on these wooden floors, are learning about how to be more human. How could one possibly ever find themselves feeling bored here

Sadia Ahmed, 2019


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