Mervyn’s Department Store closed all of its 150 remaining locations last month. Unable to compete with the likes of Target, Wal-Mart, Kohl’s and other deep discounters, Mervyn’s, founded by stock boy turned entrepreneur, Mervin Morris, advertised its final sale.
I worked as a sales clerk in the summer of 1966 in the second Mervyn’s store for $1.65 an hour.
Mr. Mervin Morris regularly visited our store. When he entered the doors, headed to the manager’s office, we in the Boys Department began to tidy those displays like wind-up toys. When Mrs. Morris entered the doors, we launched into overdrive.
Midge and Iva, the older ladies who owned the Boys Department, had been employees at Mervyn’s since its Grand Opening and would be there until its Grand Closing, if death didn’t take them first.
A luxury goods store, Mervyn’s was not.
Mr. Stewart, our smiling manager, with a visage similar to Bob Barker’s of The Price is Right show, moved around the store like the Master of Ceremonies in a Retail Circus. I admired Mr. Stewart.
He was nice. He was sincere. He was handsome.
One morning, I called for his assistance.
Will the manager come to the Boys Department for Customer Service? I pleaded with the Mervyn’s Operator.
Mr. Stewart glided like an undertaker from his office through Domestics and finally to the Boys Department.
He smiled warmly at the sleazy customer as he assured her (in front of me) that Of course we will return these USED cloth diapers with a full refund or an even exchange. After the satisfied customer left, he pulled me aside to remind me that the customer was always right. No arguing with the customer, Cheri.
My dad knew Mr. Stewart from Rotary Club; like two fathers arranging a marriage, they had conspired in my employment at Mervyn’s: Mr. Stewart would get a 16 year-old over achiever (who would fold those Creslon sweatshirts faster than a machine), and Dr. Block would not only have his annoying big-mouth out of the house for most of the summer, but she would “build character” at the same time.
At Mervyn’s I learned about unions. When we punched in at 7:00am and convened in a short official department meeting, breaks were the first item on the agenda. I also learned about the proverbial pecking order. In this barnyard, I was a powerless and abused chicken.
I still remember the Break Schedule:
The older ladies had first dibs.
Iva: 9:30 am
Midge: 9:45 am
Carol: 10:00 am
Marsha: 10:30 am
Cheri: (the teen peon) 11:00am
Never mind my lunch was at noon.
The older ladies went to Walgreen’s during their breaks to have coffee and toast. Since part of the character-building regimen was to open a savings account at Bank of America, I could not possibly go to Walgreen’s and spend 35 cents. I headed to the Break Room.
In the sterile break room, decorated with employee lockers, labor posters, and motivational phrases, I stared at huge Elgin clock with a second hand that ticked so loudly, I started drinking coffee to distract me from the din. But I did perfect a useful skill: making 15 minutes seem like 30 minutes.
My character continued to build.
My first lesson in capitalism happened at Mervyn’s. After I outfitted a young lad in the latest fashion, his granddad from Dallas, tried to tip me $50.00. Before I could outstretch my hand for the money, my manager leaped over two bins of 501 Levis to tell him, We cannot accept tips for service.
Says who? (Even in those days I knew the difference between who and whom.)
Says the Code of Conduct and the AFL-CIA, muttered Iva.
Hmmmm….As a quick-study, I kept my mouth shut.
When Mervin Morris sold Mervyn’s to Dayton Hudson, everything that made Mervyn’s successful—cheap sale prices, customer satisfaction, and the ability to return any purchase—changed.
I learned how to measure an inseam, count change, keep my mouth shut, and deal with real people trying to make a living wage.
Mervyn’s taught me about people and the public, about dress code and discipline, about work and the worker.
I must admit that when I took the photo above, I felt sad.
Photo by Cheri Block Sabraw 2008 Goodyear, Arizona “Mervyn’s Last Day”