In 1961, by late November, I had completed my service in the Army as an intelligence undercover field agent in Europe and resumed full-time employment with a Manhattan architectural firm. At 26, I was still an “intern” working toward my architectural license at about $5 an hour.
Living at home in Albertson, I commuted daily on the Long Island Rail Road, so my pay mostly went toward monthly commuting tickets, lunches and expensive “grown-up” dates. Gone were hamburgers and shakes, replaced by dinner and Broadway. I also had just purchased my first new car, a 1962 black MGA sports car. Facing payments, I needed extra cash.
I spotted a holiday part-time help-wanted ad in Newsday for the A&S (Abraham & Straus) department store in nearby Roosevelt Field. This could be an opportunity to earn extra money and get the 10% employee discount for my Christmas gifting and personal wardrobe.
Just before Thanksgiving, I applied and, with no retail experience, I was accepted as a part-time holiday helper -- at the minimum wage of $1.15 an hour. I would work Tuesdays to Fridays, 7-10 p.m., plus eight hours on Saturdays, a 20-hour work week. The weekday hours made my commute a little tight, and I started the day after Thanksgiving. In those days, that was just another Friday, not the Black Friday madness of today.
I expected to be put in the stockroom, gift-wrapping department or another entry-level position. After all the applicants took a one-evening training session, including cash register use, the store credit card and writing sales slips, we were given our assignments. I surprisingly was assigned to the young men’s department.
The first evenings were light on customer traffic, so between sales, I kept busy folding and arranging merchandise, replenishing stock and learning the department’s inventory. By the time shopping crowds got heavy, approaching Christmas, I was as comfortable in retail sales as anyone.
My last night on the job was Christmas Eve. The store would close for Christmas, and the following day would be just a sales day for “half-off anything Christmas,” not the sales crush of today. It would be easily handled by regular employees. I was told that my final pay envelope was in the store manager’s office.
In his office, I was surprised to also see my department manager, and I thought I was in trouble. They apologized for the unusual method of giving me my final pay but then stated that I had outperformed the full-time sales employees every night. They asked how I did that without prior retail experience and offered me a full-time position at a considerable salary increase.
I explained that I noticed many customers had the same problems. They were shopping for one or two young males of unknown sizes, some living out of state, and were at a loss about what gift to buy that could be easily mailed.
While stocking items, I had noticed a boxed set of a wallet and belt reasonably priced that would solve their problem, and I made the sale every time. The customers were so happy that they told friends and relatives with similar concerns to go to A&S and ask for me. When customers started seeking suggestions for girls, I found a similar gift idea in the adjacent girls’ department.
The full-time job offer surprised me, and I politely refused, explaining I wanted to be an architect and that my education and summer employment had been toward that goal. They understood, and my wish soon came true.
Reader Orlando T. Maione lives in Stony Brook.