On Working Retail: The Gymboree Option

7716873332_275c9fd1a8_zI could have sold baby clothes at Gymboree in any mall in the country forever and been perfectly happy. Not that selling baby clothes is a bad job. This was before the recession, before any job was a good job. I started in 1995 and I was 17. I had just gotten a car and a license and I needed a job. When I thought about my job job, when I was a real adult, I knew I just wanted to write, but I also knew I was not the starving artist type. Even then, I knew.

I went to the mall and made one of the best financial decisions I’d ever make. I didn’t apply to The Gap or the record store (remember it was 1995); I applied to Gymboree, a high end kid’s clothing store that shares a brand with franchised mommy-and-me type play classes. I am quick to clear up that I worked for the clothing store, not the play classes, like anyone cared.

I had no reason to spend my paycheck at Gymboree. My older siblings had not started procreating yet. (And still I managed to buy hair bows meant for six-year-olds that I swore I could pull off at 17 and 20 and 22 and for a brief time the largest size white T-shirts that were actually quite nice and almost fit). Still, I rarely used my employee discount.

I was writing, too, like you do in high school. Papers and stuff. And in my journals. But capital ‘W’ Writing still felt a long way off—something I would do when I wasn’t busy with school. Once I was married and settled into life. This is what I thought in high school.

When it came time to go to college, I transferred to the store in my new city, my new mall. I was promoted to assistant manager and got a raise. Over the next four years, I watched my co-workers, some mothers, some not, work at Gymboree like it was their real, grown-up job. Because it was.

How I loved Gymboree. It was bright and colorful. I loved the mall, any mall. I took great satisfaction in folding and refolding neat rows of tiny, crisp T-shirts. Everyone who shopped there was happy because dressing up babies is fun. Even when kids were screaming, you could always get a mom or dad to say “Awwww” about tiny overalls or beanies or overly fancy and moreover useless Holiday dresses. I was a top seller at every store I worked.

It hadn’t occurred to me that I could work retail forever, even though my mother worked in the Bridal department at Belk’s department store when I was young. She only worked there, I thought, because she never pursued her “real” career, art or at least teaching art. She could have been a “real” artist if she tried, I thought. I was a jerky, sheltered, privileged kid, so I didn’t see how jerky this opinion was, at the time. My “real” career would involve writing and paychecks somehow. Professional writer, novelist, teacher, editor? I figured I had plenty of time to figure it out.

But, sometime in my senior year of college, when shit was getting real, I thought it could really be baby clothes and writing. My then-boyfriend of three years was applying to med schools and didn’t seem too concerned about us ending up in the same place. He was of the “if it worked out that’s great” school of post-college relationship management. I was bending over backwards to make it work, considering grad schools near wherever he might get into med school, considering the Gymboree Option.

The Gymboree Option was the best of all possible worlds: There were hundreds of stores all over the country and my regional manager loved me—I could get a job anywhere. I was paid well, and could get health insurance even part-time, a new thing then and for me as I was getting closer and closer to aging out of my parents’ plan. The hours were reasonably flexible and if I got into a good store, I could even have a semi-regular schedule. Yes, there were nights, weekends, and holidays to work, but, that was the biz. It was an easy job and I was good at it. I could save my brain power for writing stories and novels. Faulkner worked at the post office. Carver worked in a sawmill. I could sell sets of novelty socks in boy, girl, and gender-neutral varieties.

If I had this absolute flexibility, then surely the then-boyfriend would be able to squeeze me into his hectic med school life and we could get married and have kids, even if he was working insane hours for little pay. We could make it work. We’d save hundreds of dollars on high quality baby clothes. I could buy a whole wardrobes on clearance. I would be settled and then I could write.

I cried when he left and we tried to make it work. A few months in, 1,000 miles apart, I broke up with him. I hear he met his wife in the airport on his way home from this break-up-trip.

I never took The Gymboree Option. I knew deep down it was settling out of fear. It would have been a fine career and I probably would have gotten some good writing done, after a decade or two. But then, at 23, when that guy didn’t even get into medical school and went to some kind of consolation medical-ish grad school, I was glad I’d sent in those grad school applications to MFA programs far from him, “just in case.” I knew then it was an act of independence, maybe my first, even if I was terrified of taking it.

I was terrified in grad school, too. I was living alone for the first time and confronted with my fears and anxieties about being honest about writing. It was hard and I wanted to be good at it, quickly and fluidly, like I was at upselling grandmothers on buying the matching toy and blanket at Gymboree. Writing is not easy, and won’t ever be for me, not even now, 11 years post-grad, and that’s okay. But I am proud I made the hard, scary choice to leave behind Gymboree. If I’d started in 2005 instead of 1995, I might not have had such a choice.


Kate McKean is a writer and a literary agent at the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency in Brooklyn.

Photo via verzo



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