The summer I was seventeen I worked at Bi-Mart, a thoroughly Oregonian department store that sold everything from diapers to ammunition. It had a rural 1970s chic, with polished cement floors, employees in blue smocks, and pallets of merchandise (wine and hosiery and potting soil) dropped into place at the ends of wide aisles of assorted miscellany.
Sometimes it could be tough to navigate if you weren’t a regular, though just about everyone was, as customers had to be Bi-Mart Members, and were issued a small paper card when they paid their $5 to be buzzed in through the swinging half door at the front of the store. Rustic, I suppose it would be called today.
I’d like to say that I learned hard work that summer at Bi-Mart, but I didn’t; putting effort toward a goal was a lesson taught to me by coaches on countless practice fields long before my senior year of high school. One lesson from Bi-Mart, however, has stuck with me through today, and in its way, provided an example of the strange sources inspiration can come from.
“Always walk the customer to the merchandise.”
He was a tall man with a long nose wearing the red smock of a department manager. I was newly promoted to work the floor, after proving myself unloading lawn furniture and barbecues from trucks out in the parking lot for what Bi-Mart called the Summer Tent Sale.
“You could tell them what aisle what they’re looking for is on,” he explained to me, “but what really makes a difference is stopping what you’re doing and taking them to it.”
I didn’t think much of it at the time, just more advice to an awkward teenager wearing the required tie beneath my blue smock. I filed it alongside “always face the toy aisles last” and “keep the beer shelves full.” But as June turned into July and I kept regular in practicing taking customers to what they wanted, I began to see just how much it really did matter.
The relieved smile as I walked a grandmother to the ace bandages, the appreciation on the face of the little boy looking for legos, the genuine “thanks” from the man who hadn’t been able to find toilet wax, all these people taught me the value of taking a few extra minutes that they weren’t expecting you would, and leading them to exactly what they needed.
It’s a lesson I’ve carried with me to my work as a site administrator.
The parents I listen to in my office don’t know about Bi-Mart, though I’m told sometimes (often months later) that they appreciate the extra time I take to hear what they have to say. This doesn’t mean that the answer I walk them to is always the one they came in after at the start, but it’s always an honest answer, delivered, I hope, with the same level of respect the seventeen year old me showed the customers when I walked them to fishing lures or portable electronics.
Yesterday afternoon an even more literal reminder of my days in a blue smock presented itself when a mom and her daughter arrived at Diegueño to register for school. New to the area, they came prepared, brought all the right paperwork, and got signed up for classes. Then, like an octogenarian searching for hard candy, they peeked into my office and asked if they could look around campus.
That advice from almost thirty years ago whispered in my ear, and with my best Bi-Mart smile, I put down the work I was doing and said: “I can show you around.”
The look on the mom’s face was the best part of my week.
Thirty minutes later we finished our campus tour, and they left with a little more information and a little less anxiety than they’d had when they arrived.
Would I have done the same thing if I hadn’t gotten that direction from the beak nosed department manager back when I was seventeen? Maybe. I’m honestly not sure.
I do know that in each of the eight years I’ve been a site administrator, not a month has gone by that I haven’t thought about standing there on that polished cement floor getting words of wisdom from a man in a smock.