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  Ellen Davignon: Lives of Quiet Desperation

Return Clerks

October 15, 2001

Might as well get right to it.

The new façade.  A little wishy-washy you say, with the grayish-whitish primary colour?  I think it looks alright with the magenta and the purple, to say nothing of the gold accents, maybe just a tad plain but it grows on you. 

Can’t read it from the sidewalk? OK, you got that right but you can see it really well from across the street and when you’re driving by.   And besides, whose sign can you read when you’re walking by? No one’s, unless it’s a projecting one and not a lot of them are. People tend to find out where they are by looking at the window displays, and at Mac’s, by peering in our open door.  There’s been talk about a sandwich board but so far it’s still a rumour and we’re making do with the sign above the door and business seems to be trundling along.




And there it is, the real bone of contention: the period at the end of our new sign, right? Doesn’t belong? Bad English? Negates everything Mrs. Stenbraten taught you in school?  Sorry folks, the façade is intended to hearken back to the turn of the century.  

And guess what punctuated signs back then?

Deal with it.


Speaking of dealing with things, the other day Phil and I were having coffee in the living room, keeping a desultory eye and ear on Dan and Jeff and the rest of the CTV crew, always alert for something new upon which to grump and crank and disagree, as is our preferred early-morning custom.  It was a slow news morning, only two suicide bombings, one busload of tourists dropped into a canyon, and the Dow down another 40 points. 

“I thought you said it was up this morning,” I accused happily.

“I did not, I said it was down, you just never listen, I don’t know why I bother telling you anything,” Phil replied, in high good spirits.

“Huh, it was probably wishful thinking on your part… you know it’s gonna be down again, look at Nortel, practically off the market and oil down another buck a barrel…”

“Shhh… “ Phil broke in, “listen, Dan’s got someone on, complaining about..”

“...singles being oppressed… for pity gracious, whatever next?”  I asked in exasperation.

I focussed my attention on the screen and the gentleman being allowed his 3 minutes of CTV attention.  Dan was already surreptitiously checking with the producer for time so he’d better talk fast, I thought.

“…families being the backbone of the country… discounts for groups..based on double occupancy…” on and on he droned. But he’d already lost me.

Singles discrimination, I wondered?  And short people. And fatties, ethnic minorities, handicapped… the list was endless, everyone with an axe to grind.  Well friends, if it’s a new cause you’d care to consider, how about Returns Clerks?

Hah? Hah?

As a group, they are, and have been, down through the ages, the most despised, the most unfairly judged in all of the civilized world and maybe in some of the other as well, what do we know?

Before I plead their case, however, I should perhaps make clear to you just what it is that Returns Clerks do.

Returns Clerks, no matter their arena or field of employ, are responsible for collecting and collating merchandise and returning it to its original owner, for whatever reason.

It might have arrived damaged. It might not have met with its prospective buyer’s standards. It might have accrued so many additional duties and taxes, to say nothing of short discounts, along the way as to make it too exorbitantly priced for a sale, quick or otherwise.

It might have been that the Order Clerk had gone with his or her gut feeling only to find that that no one who walked into their place of business had the same appreciation for that peculiar shade of teal. Or, in the case of Mac’s Fireweed Books, that no one was in the mood for getting in touch with his inner child, at this particular time.

 You will appreciate that there are many reasons for returning merchandise and so, you can also recognize the need for people who will take responsibility for doing so. These doughty souls, as I mention earlier, are called, appropriately, Returns Clerks.  And I, if you have not already twigged to it, am one.


Oh, I wasn’t always a Returns Clerk. No indeed.

I was hired as a part-time Sales Clerk/PR Person.  I stood there at the counter with the best of them, bagging books, making change, explaining why we can’t sell our newspapers at the Suggested Retail Price for out-of-town sales. 

When customers came looking for “a red book, about a dog and the author was Petter or Thrasher or something..” I was your go-to gal, often picking it out of thin air, in a manner of speaking, with the barest of clues to go on. Sought you the definitive book on the Goldrush of ’98 or the best plan of attack for your kayak trip down the Tat?

Ask Ellen, the big broad with the glasses hanging off the end of her nose. She’d know.

My reputation grew and They, that mighty triumvirate of Owner, Manager, and Senior Sales Clerk, decided that in addition to my other responsibilities, I should man the Special Orders Desk one day a week and in my spare time, stamp the hand mail and keep the post records.  As my expertise in affixing the little bits of glued paper to envelopes became apparent, They decreed that I should try my hand at wrapping and mailing those special orders that had to be sent to all corners of the world.  And if I could tidy the kitchen area, clean the washrooms, and perhaps just clear out a bit of aging overstock from time to time, that would be much appreciated as well

Well, you can see how one thing led to another. 

One day I was a well-respected member of the organization: authoritative, competent, articulate; the next, I was fumbling around in the bowels of the building, shrilly justifying my decisions, defending my choices, arguing my predilection for pulling in straightforward, alphabetized History or Science sections as opposed to starting in the unwieldy and impossible Children and Youth area.

Book Orders hate me. They’ve spent hours seeking out the perfect books for their clientele and now I am indirectly questioning their judgement by returning their choices, never mind they’re going back because no one wanted them in the first place.

Receiving sneers at me, taunting me with heaps and piles of book both they and I know will be grist for my return mill in no less than 90 days but not over 12 months, and filling my Damage Returns shelf with book so minutely distressed that I feel embarrassed by the petty claims for which I must take responsibility.

The Publishers and Book Distributors regard me with loathing, making unkind references to my legitimacy - although I must admit that their references are probably of a more collective nature, the store taking as much heat as I as they cry out in real pain, “What are those #%&*$$!& doing up there, sending all these back??”

The Office Staff sigh and roll their eyes in true martyrdom as they pick up my claims’ paperwork and postal manifests, knowing that they will soon be fighting tooth and nail with the Publishers and Distributors to collect credits for books for which they have just finished paying, it’s just an endless round of notes and telephone calls and somehow, it is all my fault.

The Sales Staff complains that they can never find anything when I’m in the “pulling” mode because the very book they’ve been seeking is in a bin awaiting processing and the Shelvers insist I don’t pull often enough and the shelves are always too tight.

The Customer gets very annoyed with being goosed by my cart as I work my way down the aisles, head tilted to the side as I check lists and titles and perhaps not as aware as I might be of persons loitering in my lane. When I apologize and explain, they regard my bins suspiciously, resenting the idea that I may have taken away their favourite author when they weren’t looking, after all, next week they might feel a sudden urge to have another go at Rushdie or get around to trying out that Hobbs fellow and there they are:


Consider then, the lot of the Returns Clerk. Is it any wonder that we wear a look of perpetual pain and humiliation as we blunder through our days, sorting and recording and wrapping and weighing, always on the lookout against the slings and arrows of our outrageous fortunes?

For my own part, I attempt to put a good face on it, try to smile and present a happy countenance. At one point, I tried singing a cheerful little tune as I went about my day but wouldn’t you know, even that bit of solace was denied me when an addendum appeared in our store manual:

Believe it or not, some people feel the need to sing while they’re working in the store. All singing should be done downstairs and out of earshot of our customers. (!!)

In the face of all that pain, makes you feel kind of small, complaining about something as picayune as a dot on our sign, doesn’t it?

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