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Friday, January 13, 2012

Customer Service with a Tear

What I thought would be just a summer job in a small town became a summer of touching and sometimes tragic encounters with other women's lives.

I was in my 20s, just finished my first year of teaching and needed work for the summer.

Though I knew nothing about retail, I accepted a position to run a small women's boutique in the college town where my husband attended law school. The owner was ill and needed someone to manage her dress shop.

For generations, the boutique's proprietor provided personal attention and service to the community.

Families of women grew up with her dressing them and depended on her to find just the right dress for the special occasions in their lives.

She carefully selected and ordered dresses for the women of the town as if she were their personal dresser.

They were accustomed to her attentive service and the care she took in selecting their garments for weddings, graduations, confirmations, proms as well as the latest fashions to make the women feel special.

Her service and taste were impeccable, and her clients were fiercely loyal. She made them look and feel fabulous.

As her substitute, I quickly learned that women do not tell their true dress sizes, sort of like telling their real ages.

So, when they would ask for a size 10 and were obviously a 14, I simply brought them the larger dress and fitted them without mentioning the actual size, because size did matter.

They would be so delighted at how they looked, they left satisfied customers.

I also learned that women needed dresses for extraordinary occasions. This was the mid '60s and social mores were not very flexible.

Looking for a dress she could get married in, a teenager with a baby bump came in with her disapproving mother.

There was a lot of tension between them; nothing could disguise that the girl was pregnant. Eventually, I found a garment that they could agree on which helped alleviate the uncomfortable situation.

Another customer, a middle-aged woman, was recovering from a double mastectomy and did not have the special post-surgery bra that hid that fact. Breast cancer then was not as understood or openly discussed as it is today.

She pulled out the tops of the dresses and stared at herself to see what she would like as if she still had breasts.

I was taken aback at her acceptance and adaptablility after such a traumatic life event. I wanted to console her, to give her a hug, but I didn't, though my heart ached for her.

She wanted to be normal, so I behaved as if she were "whole," just a woman buying a new dress. I stood by, as she pinched the fabric forward, and told her how lovely she looked. I didn't know what else to say.

The most startling shopper, a woman with swollen eyelids and unstoppable tears, staggered into the shop. Her voice broke when she spoke in her dazed state.

She needed a dress for two funerals. Her brother and cousin were murdered in a bank robbery two days earlier; she was in shock.

She lost two family members in a senseless crime, but she didn't want to wear black.

I found a dark brown, tailored dress that gave her what she needed. She couldn't stop crying as I fitted her. I dressed her quietly and gently. There were no words to help.

My summer of being a personal dresser in a small boutique gave me a new understanding of "retail therapy" and an appreciation for the owner's devotion to the women of her community. She dressed them for life.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2012 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Store Displays photo by Kay Pat

Mannequin photo by msvoluptuos31

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