Julia Nunnally Duncan


        I had not aspired to work in a shoe store. I wanted to teach English in a college. But I needed money for tuition that summer of 1979 before I entered Warren Wilson College in August and was lucky enough to be hired by my husband's grandmother to work in her shoe store. The family shoe store was a two-story brick and wood building, the lower floor housing rooms of shoes, the upper floor a ramshackle storage area that had previously been living quarters for family members. In past times, under different ownership, the building had housed a beer joint and then a restaurant. Located just off Highway 70, the store had a reputation as a family discount shoe outlet and maintained a mostly older clientele who had shopped there since the business opened almost twenty years earlier.
        My tasks were simple. When I arrived at the store around 9:30 a.m., I swept the worn wooden floors, vacuumed the area rug in the front showroom, set out newly arrived display shoes on shelves, and stuck price tags on shoe boxes. As customers started coming in around 10, I waited on them, finding particular brands and styles of shoes they requested, fitting them in the shoes if necessary. Even though I'd had no special training in shoe styles, I observed and listened to my experienced manager Nina, my husband’s aunt and also a co-owner. I parroted her. She was a hard-nosed business woman, savvy at selling and making money. She knew how to please customers. When she touted a particular tennis shoe or nurse's shoe for its support, flexibility, and comfort, so did I.  Another longtime employee, Carla, advised me on women’s shoes, but Carla was mainly useful for helping pass the time with idle gossip and complaints about her ovaries.
         Customers assumed I was an expert on feet, as if this were a podiatrist's office. One elderly customer Mrs. Davidson, a regular visitor, offered a special challenge. Nina warned me about her my first morning on the job.
        “She'll try on several pairs of shoes,” Nina said, “but she won't buy anything. She has one big foot and a little foot, so she's hard to fit. Just put up with her. She comes here to have something to do.”
        Sure enough, on that day and every other day I worked that summer, Mrs. Davidson arrived and asked for a pair of matching shoes in size five and size seven.
        “Look here,” she said as she settled on the padded bench and held up her mismatched stocking feet. “I'll need two sizes.”
         This request wasn't necessarily easy to accommodate, as both sizes in a particular brand, style, and color weren't always available. So, for her, I had to search the shelves a little harder. Even though Nina had predicted the woman would not buy anything, I was up to the challenge.
         “Ooh, these feel so comfortable,” Mrs. Davidson said one day after I'd fitted her with a pair of soft Dexter loafers. She walked down the aisle, stopping to check out her reflection in the long mirror.
         “Those black ones look good on you,” I said and stared at the reflection of her feet in the mirror. “I have a pair of the brown ones myself, and I love them.”
        “You do?” she asked and looked at me over her glasses.
         “They're good for dress or casual,” I added. “I wear them to church.”
         “What church do you go to?” she asked, her interest piqued.
         “St. John's Episcopal in town,” I said, a bit hesitant.
         “I'm Baptist,” she said curtly. I was used to this negative response in a town with scant Episcopalians.
         “I plan to wear my Dexters to college in the fall,” I added, to redirect the conversation.
        “Oh,” she said and looked at me again, her expression brighter.
        “They're a reasonable price, too,” I said.
        She reached for the box and squinted at the red price tag.
        “You get what you pay for,” she said. “This store carries the best shoes in town, worth every cent.”
         “That's what a lot of people say,” I affirmed.
        “And you get attention here,” she said and nodded solemnly. “That means a lot to a customer.”
         “We do our best,” I said, my pulse accelerating. Was I about to prove Nina's prediction wrong?
        “Well, I guess I'm about finished,” she said and I watched her remove the shoes, first the right foot—size seven—and then the left—size five. She placed the loafers in their box and folded the white tissue neatly over them. Then she returned her feet to their old shoes.
        “Would you like for me to ring these loafers up for you?” I asked, picking up the box and tucking it under my arm, ready to head to the cash register.
        “I believe I'll look around a little more before I make up my mind,” she said and picked up her pocketbook. Before I could offer to show her something else, she was out of the ladies' section and closing the front door behind her. Another failed attempt, but I never lost hope in her.
         Mrs. Davidson could be a headache, but not as much as the mothers of young children who were also regular customers. While the mothers browsed and picked up display shoes to examine, they were oblivious to their children. This left the kids free to run through shoe aisles, pull out shoe boxes randomly and stick them back in wrong sections, hide display shoes in inconspicuous places, climb on ladders, run in circles and slide on throw rugs, whine and cry, beg to go to the bathroom, lose their socks, and yell for tennis shoes when a mother wanted to buy them dress shoes.
         I was always asked to measure the child's foot. A metal contraption with a built-in ruler was provided for this purpose. The problem was I didn't know exactly how to use this device or how to interpret the measurement. Thankfully, mothers often helped me figure this out. I did know a rule for fitting children's shoes, one I'd heard Nina mention: choose a shoe 1/2 a thumb length longer than the child's foot. This allowed foot growth and ensured comfort. So I spent a lot of time pressing down the toe of the new shoe, trying to feel a child's big toe to gauge the appropriate length of the shoe. Mothers seemed to appreciate my efforts.
         Teenagers, on the other hand, did not appreciate my efforts. I might pull out twenty shoe boxes, the floor cluttered with them, and not find a satisfactory pair. We simply didn’t stock the trendy fashions available at mall shoe stores.
         One day a woman came in with her teenage daughter, a tall blond who wore a scowl on her face and a chip on her shoulder. Even though the mother shopped for herself, she showed every pair of dress shoes she considered buying to her daughter, seeking her approval.
         “Well, what do you think of these, Beth?” she asked, holding up a foot sporting a red patent leather pump.
         Beth shrugged, shifted on the bench, and looked away with smoky gray eyes.
         At the woman's instruction, I pulled out another box, knelt at her feet, and fitted her with a pair of glittery gold flats.
         “What about these?” the mother asked.
         After several more fittings and no approval from the daughter, I said, “Maybe Beth can show us exactly what kind of shoe she does like.”
         Beth rolled her eyes and the mother was silent. In a minute they both stood.
        “All right then,” she said to her daughter, “we’ll go somewhere else.” They had to step over a pile of opened shoe boxes and shoes to leave. As I cleaned their clutter, I heard the front door bell jingle as they departed.
         One of the hardest parts of my job was dealing with dirty feet. You'd think anyone coming into a shoe store to try on shoes would take time beforehand to wash his or her feet. Not true.
        Granted, some folks might have just left a factory job at 3 p.m. or a cornfield at 5 to come find an emergency pair of shoes or boots. In truth, they likely didn't have time for even a quick dip in a dish pan.
         One middle-aged couple was particularly memorable. They were both dark-skinned and leathery from years of working in the sun. He wore dusty overalls and ragged boots and she a grimy cotton dress, bobby socks, and cloth sneakers. Her graying hair was pulled back in a girlish ponytail. Their body odors were a mix of earth, sweat, and unmentionable bodily fluids.
        When the woman removed her sneakers, I held my breath and fitted her with a new pair of white Keds, identical to her old ones. I went through the same routine with the man, finding him a new pair of Wolverine work boots. After I rung up the sale, I rushed to the store's restroom and washed my hands and arms. I worried that my long hair might have picked up the couple's sour smell.
         Body odors were bad enough to contend with, but lecherous men were worse.
         One day a man—yellow-haired, red-skinned, short and heavy-set—came in. He wore a dark blue Dickies work uniform stained with axle grease or motor oil. He sat on the bench in the men's back-room section and unlaced his work shoes, removed one and then the other, letting them thump on the floor as if he were getting ready for bed. His white crew socks were dingy and worn thin in the toes.
        He looked at me with watery blue eyes.
        “I need to find me some new work shoes,” he said, his voice gravelly. His breath was tinged with the odor of beer. “But you'll have to measure my feet.”
         Measuring children's feet was one thing, but handling this man's feet was another story.
         “Excuse me, I'll be back in a minute,” I said. Carla was on her lunch break, so I went to find Nina, praying she wasn't too tied up with Mrs. Davidson. Nina, a fifty-year-old divorcee, had the sophisticated good looks and hard edge of Marlene Dietrich. She could charm a man but maintain complete control of him. I, on the other hand, was twenty-three and timid.
         When I found Nina, she wasn't thrilled that I'd left the man unattended, but she agreed to wait on him if I would stay with Mrs. Davidson.
        In a few minutes, Nina came to the ladies’ section and took me aside, out of Mrs. Davidson’s earshot.
        “That man didn't want to buy shoes,” she said indignantly. “He wanted me to play with his dirty feet.”
         Indeed, I didn't have to work in the store long to discover that some men assumed that the saleswomen were available for more than just assisting with shoes. To them, “The customer is always right” meant they had the right to anything they wanted, including the women working in the store.
        On a Saturday afternoon two men came in while I stood near the front picture window organizing a display of shoe care products.
         One of the men, a tall cowboy-type who wore tight blue jeans and Dingo Boots, walked over to me.
         “Hi,” he said, hands on his hips. The other man stood back and watched.
         “Hello,” I said. “May I help you?”
         “I sure hope so,” he said. “You're a new salesgirl, ain't you?”
         “Yes,” I said, wishing the radio weren't blaring so loud. Kenny Rogers' “She Believes in Me” was getting on my nerves.
         “Ain't seen you here before,” he said and sized me up, lingering on my legs, painfully exposed despite my knee-length skirt.
        “I'm just here for the summer,” I said, glancing to see if Nina were nearby. Though she went out of her way to accommodate a loyal customer, she wouldn't tolerate any nonsense, and I felt safe in her icy presence. But I didn't see her now.
         “I bet you’ll give us a discount, won't you?” he said with a grin and shot a look at his cohort. He stepped closer to me, and the Brut cologne emanating from his plaid shirt triggered the onset of a migraine.
         “A discount?” I asked.
         As far as I knew, these men didn't fit the store’s criteria for customer discounts: clergy, law enforcement, or family. “You’d have to speak to the manager about that,” I said. “I’ll go find her.”
         “Now, c'mon,” he said. “That ain't necessary, is it? I want you to wait on us."
         “I can show you some boots or something, but I can't help you with anything else.”
         "You positive?" he asked, his voice low and intimate as if this would be our little secret. When I didn't answer, he said, "Well, then, I guess we'll be going." The men left the store, and I didn't see them again.
         Though he was a flirt, at least the cowboy wasn't out to rob the store. Shoplifters were a problem, robbery a potentiality, and we had no security guard on the premises. We, the saleswomen, were watchdogs. So part of my duties was to walk around and observe shoppers, especially women who carried oversized pocketbooks.
         One such customer—a well-dressed woman in a skirt suit, her hair in a fashionable upswept style—had a local reputation as a shoplifter. Nina had clued me in, and when she came in, I was ready. She and I eyed each other as she browsed, neither of us fooling the other. I never caught her in the act and don't think she ever stole from us under my watch.
         But shoplifting happened, especially on busy Saturdays when customers were scattered in the various shoe rooms and we couldn't supervise them all. Thieves tried on new shoes, unassisted by salesclerks and stuffed their old shoes in the shoe box. They literally walked out in a pair of new shoes and without being caught.
         Only at the end of the day, after closing time, would Nina, Carla, and I discover old pairs of shoes in the boxes. The store lost money in these thefts.
         The store also lost money in hiring me, I'm afraid. Besides miscalculating price totals on the adding machine that sat alongside the antique cash register and making mistakes in counting out a customer's change—usually to the advantage of the customer—I also referred customers to other shoe stores—a taboo in retail. Like the Macy's Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street who tipped the mother to shop at Gimbels, I offered advice to an older man who wanted to buy a pair of sandals for his daughter's birthday.
         “What size is she?” I asked.
         “I don't rightly know, ma'am,” he said and looked at my sandal-clad feet. “About your size, I reckon.”
         “Size eight?” I asked, and he nodded.
         “I like the ones you got on,” he said, satisfied.
         I was embarrassed.
         “I'm sorry,” I said. “We don't have these sandals in this store.”
        “That’s the kind I want,” he insisted.
         I quietly told him where he could go to buy a pair—a Shoe Show a few miles down the road.
         This was not the only time I did this. I found myself feeling sorry for our poorer customers, those who had limited funds and no desire for name brands like Hush Puppies or Florsheim. Though we had a reputation as a warehouse-type store, we couldn't compete with the newer discount chains that specialized in cheaper materials and lower prices.  So I sent our needier customers elsewhere.
         In that summer that I worked at the family shoe store, I saw more feet—clean and filthy; well-formed and deformed by ill-fitting sharp-toed high heels and cowboy boots—than most people see in a lifetime. At moments, I was engaged and useful. But more often I was bored and watched the clock, waiting for 6 p.m. to come so I could make the front door bell jingle.
         That summer I was also fired for the first and, I hope, last time in my life. After a month's employment, Nina told me I was no longer needed. She was miffed that I hadn't reported for work the week of July 4th—a schedule mix-up between us. At least I assumed this is why she fired me.
         Even so, I believe I did a fair job as a salesclerk that June in 1979. I sold shoes, anyway, even if some of them were for the wrong store.


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Julia Nunnally Duncan is a Western North Carolina author, whose published books include two novels, two short story collections, and three poetry collections. Her latest book Barefoot in the Snow was released spring 2013 by World Audience Publishers. "Salesgirl" is an essay based on her experience working in a family shoe store in the summer of 1979. Ironically, this store, still family-owned, was recently destroyed by fire.