“Nordstrom Hosiery, Emily Speaking”

I said those four words in my dreams for years because I said them so many times over the course of the summer of 1998.

Circle_Centre_NordstromMy first real job ever was as a sales associate in the hosiery department at Nordstrom in Circle Centre Mall in downtown Indianapolis.  How luxurious!  Working downtown!  In a department store.  It was pretty much my dream job at the age of 18.  Oh how quickly reality set in.

I had been extremely fortunate in that my parents wanted me to focus on academics and extra-curricular activities in high school, which meant that I didn’t have to work on top of going to school.  The week after graduation, however, it was job time!  There was only one place that I considered working: Nordstrom.  From the moment that store opened in Circle Centre in 1995 I had been obsessed with it.  They originally had a Collectors department there that carried super high-end designers whose creations I’d only ever seen in the pages of Vogue.  That section became the St. John department after just a few months (apparently there’s a limited audience in central Indiana for Junya Watanabe – who knew?), but Nordstrom was still a magical place filled with shiny baubles, shoes in my size (11/12), MAC cosmetics, and an actual pianist!  I knew I had to work there.

I had dreams of evening gowns or maybe the Savvy department with younger designers but the only opening available was in hosiery.  You know, socks and tights.  Hmm…  Not exactly the glamorous entry into the world of fashion that I’d envisioned, but still I was going to be working at Nordstrom.  A real job, with a real paycheck, was mine.

I got lucky in that my manager, Erica, was beyond fantastic.  As an 18-year-old naif with little work experience, I could have easily stumbled, but she made sure I shined.  I quickly learned about deniers, control tops, and the power of selling in multiples.  We switched out displays on plastic legs, fluffed up socks just so, and generally did every imaginable thing possible to make hosiery look sexy and appealing.  The long hours on my feet were totally tolerable – the department was on carpet and I didn’t run around in high heels anyway – but the utter boredom of weekday evening shifts sometimes took its toll.  Luckily I still had plenty of high school pals around to stop by and a couple of my coworkers had friends who worked elsewhere in the mall so they’d pop in on their break.  On really slow evenings I’d wander over to the makeup department right next door to test out a lipstick or gossip with the Estee Lauder gals.  Sometimes I’d test out fragrances or just chat across the aisle with the women’s shoe salespeople, who were also next to us.  Overall it was a pleasant way to pass the hours as a first time full-timer.

Something else interesting happened, however.  I was recruited to attend the “Nordstrom Future Leaders” (or something along those lines) workshop, an all-day event in which we learned about career opportunities in the company and how those might fit into our professional development goals.  I’ll admit, there were times when I was tempted to think about fashion or retail as a long-term career option.  Those were the days when we were super busy (Anniversary Sale time, special promos) or when our buyers and vendors stopped by with new product. Those hours flew by in a snap.  But on the days where I had to slog through my customer book making phone calls about the latest new nude shade from Donna Karan, I was thrilled that I’d be heading to college in a few weeks.  For many of my coworkers, the Nordstrom hosiery department was the end of the line, not the beginning.  They were smart, hard-working women who had chosen their vocation but I’m sure still grew tired of the long hours and irregular schedules just as I did.

I learned so much that summer.  The first time a guy came in to buy hosiery for himself was a real eye-opener for me.  Turns out several of the well-known local drag queens would only shop at Nordstrom, plus we carried the widest range of sizes.  At 18 I just hadn’t considered that scenario before.  And I thought it was awesome.  I also learned how much it sucked when my paycheck was smaller because I hadn’t worked hard enough to earn a good commission, or realized the hit my paycheck would take when I took a couple of days off.  I had lived a pretty comfortable life and was still on my parents insurance and driving our third family car to work, so the true realities of what it meant to be supporting myself on my own were a few years down the road.  But still.  It was an amazing, life-changing experience to be working at Nordstrom.  I felt so grown up, so smart, and so in control, three things every teenager longs for.

I returned to the hosiery department over breaks and holidays in college a few more times before moving on to the lingerie department when Erica received a promotion.  But that’s a work story for another day.  Hard to believe it’s been two years since that Nordstrom store closed at Circle Centre.  It was a part of my history, a great part.  And I still miss it.

Salary: Around $7.25 hour + commission

Hours worked: Because I didn’t have anything else to do that summer besides pack for college (which, let’s be honest, consisted mostly of picking out which fall outfits to take with me), I worked nearly full-time hours, although only on a semi-regular schedule.  Unless there was a convention in town, the slowest days by far  were Sunday afternoons.

The parts I like to remember: A great boss and co-workers One time a classmate from high school stopped by to say hi and brought me a Godiva chocolate, which I thought was super-cool, mainly because I rarely at anything fancier than a Kit Kat at that stage of my life.

The parts I’d like to forget: Inventory!  In those pre-smartphone, pre-touchscreen days, inventory meant sitting on the floor and counting out every pair of socks and hose and tights.  We closed down early one night and everybody and their Mom (no, literally my Mom helped out, as did a couple of other coworkers’) sat around counting and recording for hours…and hours.  That’s an experience I don’t hope to repeat ever again.