Thank you Mr. Morris

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”

About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
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21 Responses to Thank you Mr. Morris

  1. Kathy says:

    What a nice story. I really enjoyed it.

  2. Ash says:

    I really loved reading your story. I can imagine how you would’ve felt seeing the Going Out of Business sign.

  3. lakeviewer says:

    Cheri, your nostalgic vignette pulled a few chords for most of us over a certain age. This is a Norman Rockwell moment. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  4. Sailing Past Maturity Straight into Senility says:

    You may have inspired a blog from me about work. Love your stories.

  5. Christopher says:

    It’s always sad to see a business close, for it’s a death. The result of all the dreams, ingenuity, and hard work of the founder and his loyal employees is now as nothing, as irrelevent as decaying bones in a desert. The demise of Mervyn’s because of Walmart and the other leviathanic deep discounters is what is happening today all over, writ small.

    Mervyn Morris, a paternal figure of authority who you may have looked upon as upon God, and the older ladies you mentioned, may, in 1966, have been younger than you are now. Were you unexpectedly to encounter them today, would you still look upon them with the same awe, and call them sir or ma’am, as you may have as a 16 year-old?

  6. Brenda says:

    Beautifully written.

  7. Cheri Block Sabraw says:

    Thanks Ash, Kathy, Lakeviewer, and Sailing. Glad to be of any inspiration at this point in my life.

    Christopher, welcome to the conversation. You are right about the old ladies.From my vantage point, they were relics; in reality, they were in their 40’s and 50″s (although my memory of Iva still registers OLD).

    And what a wonderful question at the end of your comment. I will think about it.

    I suppose that the idea for this post came to the surface because my own small business is facing competition from Big Box Educational Franchises. We are a little boutique.

    I am sure I am an older lady to some of my young teachers, but certainly NOT to my students. 😀

  8. Douglas says:

    It is a fact of capitalism, not a fault of Walmart. Mervyn’s began as a discount department store, aiming (and succeeding) in taking away business from other department stores in its area.

    The economy evolves, just as we do, and some entities survive while others do not.

    I, too, worked in retail (as a stock boy for a Kresge in Merritt Island, FL, in 1965). I also worked as a bellboy, a handyman, a busboy and a few other jobs in the early 60s. What I learned was that there is always someone higher than you in the pecking order and to be my own most demanding boss. That education served me well over the years. One other thing I learned was that, just as my job was retained at the whim of my boss, so was any business’ survival dictated by the whim of the consumers.

  9. Cheri Block Sabraw says:

    True enough. Plus, when we are our own bosses, and thus at the top of our own pecking order, we can peck ourselves to death while the lesser-ranked chickens, chicken out.

  10. Moonfairy says:

    It’s so funny to read this, I’m 24 and I actually worked at Mervyn’s when I was sixteen after my first job at Arby’s I decided fast food was horrible and wanted something more “professional”. Well, I worked in the lingerie department and only lasted for about 3 months before I was back in fast food simply because I couldn’t freakin’ stand it! I liked helping people, food I can understand, you ordered the food, the food was made (or not made) to your order and then if it’s bad, you get new food.

    What I couldn’t handle about working in the lingerie department were two very important facts. 1)I didn’t know much about lingerie at the time and recieved no training and 2)I really, really hate whoever invented lingerie hangers!

    At 17, my knowledge of bras and their purpose was limited to what my mom told me, which back then, any time the word bra came out of her mouth in relation to my boobs I turned horribly red and stopped listening! Yes I have to wear one now, I’m a woman, I get it….but women would come in with their teenage fledgling and ask, “what would you suggest?” SPUTTERING, uh….(I don’t even like talking about things like this with my own mother, now strangers are asking me what they need?!?!? OMG!!!) You have to keep in mind that they train people at victoria’s secret how to fit bras and people at victoria’s secret make more money for that knowledge, or at least they should because to me, making $0.65 more an hour than I was when I was working at arby’s was not worth trying to help strangers figure out what bra would be a good fit for them.

    Then the hangers…oh the hangers…oh, you’re in the lingerie department and want to make sure that it looks nice right? That’s what my manager wanted me to do. All the bras and panties must be hung properly on the hanger and then put on the rack smallest in the front, biggest in the back. What, no customers? Well now you get to get all the hangers organized! YEAH! I used to race my co-workers to the checkout so I could be done messing with those freakin’ hangers! Yeah, needless to say I realized that retail wasn’t the place for me.

    I think now that I’ve had 3 kids and boobs aren’t such a “blushing” category, I could probably enjoy that job immensly, but back then, NO WAY…although, I guess I would still be cursing that dang hanger-inventor!

  11. Chourou says:

    Every workplace has its own culture. You had learned what WORKING is at Mervyn’s, and I also have a simillar experience like you during my college days. So I feel sorry to hear about the crush of the very place where raised you up,so to speak, and I think the competition among companies getting more and more challenging under this devastating economic downturn. The same problem arises also in Japan, and I found it that really good stores would not always be suvivers…

  12. The Sci-Fi Fanatic says:

    Can you imagine that? A code of conduct, responsibility, a work ethic, discipline. It seems many of these things are also in decay- a sign of the times once again. Places like Mervyn’s definitely ground us and connect us, comfort us. They give us that sense of community and friendship we all yearn to nurture. You should feel sad. These are special places in our hearts and I fear there is more to come. The fellow you mentioned had that industrious, pioneering spirit. It is something that will always persist thankfully, but lately seems in decline. We should all feel sad indeed. Thanks as always Cheri for reminding us of that which is important even if it’s through the closure of a special store like Mervyns.

  13. Cheri Block Sabraw says:

    Lots of funny details in your comment. 🙂

    Your English writing is really improving. I am impressed. And with regard to the economic downturn we in the US are experiencing, you in Japan know all too well about a long period of economic decline. The Yen and the Dollar are are certainly struggling against the Euro.Thanks, as usual, for your thoughtfulness.

  14. Cheri Block Sabraw says:

    Sci-Fi Fanatic,
    Welcome back, and thanks for the societal summary. I tend to agree with you but still fight the urge to become pessimistic. Is becoming pessimistic a product of experience or age? Or something else?
    Perhaps science fiction is the escape genre. Any good science fiction reads you could recommend?

  15. The Sci-Fi Fanatic says:

    Hi Cheri.
    I know. It’s something that has been happening. They always say the flipside of the idealist is the pessimist and I once was quite idealistic. I try to find the good in people and often they let me down, which must speak to my pessimism I suppose. Still I always engage with people and never stop trying. My son says I always make people happy. I suppose it’s a sign I haven’t given up yet.

    As far as science fiction reads, I recommend The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury. I always liked that book of short stories. There are some really terrific, imaginative tales in there. Classic science fiction. I also liked Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? which inevitably was filmed by Ridley Scott as Blade Runner. Apart from that I’m a really big fan of essay collections and I loved the series FIREFLY for which two collections are based. There are so many more books, so little time. Pierre Boulle, a French author, wrote Bridge On The River Kwai and the classic Planet Of The Apes of which I recently blogged.

    Always great visiting your site Cheri, perhaps you keep me grounded in reality helping me maintain my faith in humanity. That and the fact I wax nostalgic and generally get a good feeling when I visit here.

  16. Dina says:

    I worked retail in my teen years as well and it was an invaluable learning experience – from the pride of earning my own money, to learning how to deal with difficult customers, to realizing the value of providing good customer service even when I wasn’t in the mood to be at work. Your older ladies in the story make me think of my grandmother, who worked at Montgomery Ward until the day she retired. I used to like visiting her there. I wonder what the younger employees thought of her. She was a bit serious at times, but if you gave her the chance she was also a lot of fun. Not sure if she ever showed her fun side at work though. 🙂

  17. Cheri Block Sabraw says:

    Sci-Fi Fanatic,
    Thanks for the recommendations. I will read one of them. And, for the record, I too, suffer from disappointment in people.

    Gosh, I haven’t thought about Montgomery Ward since you mentioned it. That store, too, closed several years ago. Thanks for your visit and comment.

  18. The Sci-Fi Fanatic says:

    Sorry to hear that. Still, I’m glad that I’m not alone and I’m in good company with you.

  19. Sandra says:

    I can totally relate to this, Cheri. I worked at L.S. Ayres, which was very similar to Merlyn’s. They too were acquired by a larger company, and then they were acquired again and are now a Macey’s. But I have fond memories of working at Ayres and learned many of the lessons you learned at Merlyn’s.

  20. Wendy says:

    Such a well-written, funny and wistful tale. I really enjoy your writing.

    I had that same “arranged marriage” you were speaking about. My grandmother, the matriarch of the family, called down to a business owner in town and explained to him how OF COURSE he’d want to hire me. So at 17 I started in a hardware / appliance / gift store (back then there was no Wal-Mart in our town). My building of work ethic was to remove all the inventory from the shelves, wash the shelves down and then put it all back up. It took me two weeks and just as I was nearing the end I decided I had built up enough character and couldn’t stand it anymore. They must have sensed danger because they immediately gave me some newer, cooler stuff to do.

    Those were the good old days when people actually aspired to have good work ethic and were proud to serve the customer. These days I’m happy if I can get anyone to greet me when I go into the store!

  21. Cheri Block Sabraw says:

    Hi Wendy,
    Yep. Doing what you did in that hardware store is definitely character building.
    Thanks for your kind words and reading my blog.
    Much appreciated.

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