Retail Work in the Pandemic Is Hell


Home Haven (name changed), a local, family-owned home goods store, is as close to an old-fashioned department store as it gets these days, with three-and-a-half floors and an array of products that one customer jokingly described to me as “everything you didn’t know you didn’t need.” I begin my work days there by wiping down the catalog keyboard, shared pens, label makers, and pricing guns with sanitizing wipes, then sanitizing my own hands before using the scraper usually reserved for getting gum off the floor to remove dried globs of hand sanitizer from their landing place directly beneath the automatic dispenser.

I, too, sanitize my hands intermittently, although as the day goes on, I remember to do so less and less between tasks. I straighten my magnetized employee badge, greet and make eye contact with customers, try to smile so widely beneath my mask that they can still tell I’m smiling, that I’m ready to help. My feet ache whenever I stop to remember them. A shocking number of customers, required by Vermont law to wear a face covering in the store, seem oblivious to the fundamental science of how masks can keep us safe during this pandemic, slipping their masks beneath their noses and even chins once they’ve entered the store. My coworkers are mostly women about my age, college students and recent graduates. We share leads about other jobs in the area, bemoaning our inability to find work in our preferred industries. Like many people our age right now, we have endured months of professional rejection and share an overwhelming fear for our futures.

Customers come in looking for all kinds of things: slotted spoons, toaster tongs, banana hangers, English muffin slicers, tart dishes, woks, whiskey glasses, 16-piece dinnerware sets, canning equipment. In some ways, it makes sense that people are purchasing so many home goods right now— if we are all spending more time at home than ever, why not buy new baking supplies and cocktail glasses? But it still feels awful to interact with a steady stream of customers looking for frivolous items while the pandemic rages, and to engage with so many people who are “just looking.” The knowledge that so many people are going about their lives as if the pandemic is not happening, or barely happening, is almost heartbreaking. I want to tell everyone to hurry home.

Recently, a mysteriously sweaty young white man came in looking for a beverage container. When I showed him our selection of gallon and two-gallon dispensers, he was dismayed, then explained, “Need bigger. Having a party.” Pause. “Wanna come?” I wanted to ask him what world he’s living in. I wanted to yell that I wanted my life back, too, but guess what? Instead, I shook my head and walked away, leaving him to contemplate his choices.

Chaya Holch is a New Voices fellow at Jewish Currents.