Retail Therapy: Handle with Care

What I thought would be a summer job in a small, college town in Indiana, became a time of unexpected and sometimes tragic encounters with other women’s lives. In my early twenties, I just finished my first year of teaching and needed work for the summer.

Though I knew nothing about retail, I accepted a position to run a women’s boutique in Valparaiso where my husband attended law school. The owner was ill and needed someone to manage her dress shop.

For generations, the boutique’s proprietor provided personal attention and service to the women of the community. Families of women grew up with her dressing them and depended on her to find just the right dress for the special occasions in their lives.

She carefully selected and ordered dresses for the women as if she were their personal dresser. They were accustomed to her attentive service and the care she took in selecting their garments for weddings, graduations, confirmations, proms as well as the latest fashions to make the women feel special. Her service and taste were impeccable, and her clients were fiercely loyal. She made them look and feel fabulous.

As her substitute, I quickly learned that women do not tell their true dress sizes, similar to not revealing their real ages. When they would ask for a size ten and were obviously a fourteen, I simply brought them the larger dress and fitted them without mentioning the actual size, because size did matter. They were delighted at how they looked and left satisfied customers.

I also learned that women needed dresses for extraordinary occasions. This was the mid-sixties and social mores were not flexible.

A teenager with a baby bump came in with her disapproving mother to find a dress for a quick marriage. Nothing could disguise that the girl was pregnant, and the tension between mother and daughter was palpable. Hurriedly, I found a garment that they could agree on which helped alleviate the uncomfortable situation.

Another customer, a middle-aged woman, was recovering from a double mastectomy and did not have the special post-surgery bra that hid that fact. In the mid-sixties, breast cancer was not as understood or openly discussed. Most women were terrified to even consider the possibility.

I watched her as she pulled out the tops of the dresses and stared at herself to see what she would like as if she had the bra to fill out her bosom. She wanted to be normal, so I behaved as if she were “whole,” just a woman buying a new dress. I stood by, as she pinched the fabric forward, and told her how lovely she looked. I didn’t know what else to say.

I was taken aback at her acceptance and adaptability after such a traumatic life event. I wanted to console her, to give her a hug; but I didn’t, though my heart ached for her.

The most startling shopper, a woman with swollen eyelids and unstoppable tears, staggered into the shop. Her voice broke when she spoke in a dazed state. She needed a dress for two funerals. Her brother and cousin were murdered in a bank robbery two days earlier, and she was in shock.

She lost two family members in a senseless crime. She didn’t want to wear black almost as if the color of death was too much to bear. I found a dark brown, tailored dress that gave her what she needed. She couldn’t stop crying as I fitted her. I dressed her quietly and gently. There were no words to help.

My summer of being a personal dresser in a small town boutique gave me a new understanding of “retail therapy” and an appreciation for the owner’s devotion to the women of her community. She dressed them for life.

Erana Leiken’s career spans Web marketing, consulting, blogging and teaching writing, marketing, and humanities courses at the University of Phoenix, Art Institute, UCLA Business Extension, George Washington University, and UVA. Formerly a Web travel writer, NBC reporter, magazine editor, and freelancer, she also published business articles in The Washington Post as well as personal stories for The Daily Breeze among others. Enjoying semi-retirement in Santa Monica, there is more time now, happily, for creative nonfiction.