Tysons Galleria in 1996 was a wasteland. 35% occupancy, my little store often went for days without a customer dropping by. It was recovering from the "Tysons II" era of its construction, and the mall was so dead, sometimes stores would cover for other stores that had a lone employee just so they could go to the bathroom or whatever. To my right was "The Franklin Mint," a tiny "as seen in magazines" knick-knack store with more employees than necessary (sometimes 4 during a shift). There were some more blank spots, then a "Circuit City Express." At the time, Circuit City had a fishbowl you could drop your business card in for a weekly drawing. I won several times; so few business cards meant a much better chance. I got a TV set, a Walkman, some CD gift certificates... other stuff, I forgot what. We were on the third floor, which had maybe 10 stores in 30 slots. Sometimes the traffic was so light, nobody even made it up to our floor. You ended up making friends as employees of other stores just wandered out into the hall in a bored-out-of-my-skull daze in the stale air that wafted to the sunlights. The mall was so empty, the usual sounds of people present in a mall didn't mask the drone of the huge air ventilation systems. When the sun moved across the sky, you could hear the structural creaks and cracks of the skylights as they expanded and contracted with heat. There would be the occasional twitter of a trapped sparrow flying in the rafters. But the Muzak system was the worst. It is meant to be background noise, but when it's the primary noise of an area, it has all the appeal of a sound system in a 1970s roller rink. The program went like this: 15 minutes soft music, 15 minutes silence, 15 minutes jaunty music, 15 minutes silence... repeat. The music changed about 3-4 times a year; notably at Christmas.
I had come from a store in Springfield Mall that hadn't seen a profit in over 6 years until I took the reigns. I made it profitable, but then the contract for the site ran out, and they closed the site down. Tysons Galleria used to be a "Penalty Store," where they sent employees they couldn't legally fire, and hoped they'd quit. The store was losing hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. It had never made a profit, and actually negated the profit of two more stores in the area. It had be decimated by punished manager after punished manager; they were put into the penalty store for a reason, and the work I inherited showed. I lasted there over a year before I quit, but when I left, I may have not made the store profitable, it only lost $60,000 in that fiscal year. Go me.
But the thing that got to people was the long periods of solitude. Especially because each store was only "allowed" to have a manager (48 hours) and assistant manager (48 hours) and a part timer (10 hours). Many bad managers didn't have an assistant, and even the good ones couldn't find anyone desperate enough that was also a good employee to be an assistant. I, myself, went 2 months with nobody but me as an employee when my assistant abandoned her job. That was 2 solid months with no day off, 8am to 9pm, every day but Sunday, when it was 11 to 6. Alone. In a store.
I did all my daily duties. Dusted, cleaned, fluffed, redid the sheets, and straightened. Twice a week, I got stock. Not much, because it was a catalog showroom, but we had some in-store stuff selling. All that comprised only a few hours a day. What do you do the rest of the time? It was dead at other stores, too. Not as much as mine, but sometimes managers would call each other and chat for hours about nothing. Then an excited, "Oop, customer, gotta go!" Maybe, on a good day, I'd have an hour's worth of customers spaced here and there. Most were "just looking." I had this grand scheme where I went through every old customer who ever bought anything from our store, and if I still had the paperwork with their address on it, I sent them postcards (hand written) and a catalog. Most of my sales were from previous customers, only 10% were anybody new. But even then, that was about 30 hours of work a month. The rest of the 80% of my day was spent standing behind a counter, staring at nothingness.
Yes, once in a while, I sat. It was torture, being in a room full of comfy seats and not being allowed to sit. Our company had spies and "secret shoppers." I was one of them sometimes. I used to spy on Landmark and Lake Forest as a favor to managers trying out new assistants, but sometimes my boss, the district manager, would send me to spy on someone without the manager knowing. It was often for a good reason, like the assistant was suspected to abandon the store, not approach customers, lie on the beds, steal cash purchases, drawer skimming, and so on. Sometimes I sat at a dining room table set when I did paperwork. It was "against company policy," but the few times I got written up about it, it was wiped from my record when I showed proof I was doing paperwork. But you can see, I valued my job, and stood a lot.
I did a LOT of soul searching, and it wasn't until I thought about it today that I realized the Tysons Galleria was like some meditation place on in the mountain wilderness somewhere. It was behind that counter I mulled over my life, and how to get out of retail. It was behind that counter I went into a bored trance, often having flashbacks of my childhood because of sensory deprivation. Sometimes, I'd be standing there, and realize several hours had gone by, and what happened to them? It was noon when I looked at the clock on the Zon machine, now it's almost 5pm? Yeah, it was a form of mental torture, but luckily I was crazy enough anyway to endure the torture. We had a radio, but technically were not allowed to use it. Sometimes I'd play NPR news or classical music, but I got caught a few times, and eventually, my boss threw away the radio. Eventually, I hacked the store's computer system, and got it to load floppy disks. I had a small word processor and I wrote some stuff, mostly fiction and bad jokes.
After almost a year of tech interviews, I finally got hired at AOL. I stayed at Cargo part time for extra money as well as to train the new manager (formerly the assistant at our Laurel location) for a few months, working two jobs until the new guy was trained. When I left, the new manager, a hyper short guy with bad teeth and a crewcut, said his goodbyes. Both of us were confident he could continue my trend and maybe make the store profitable for the first time ever. I found out a few months later that he had been fired shortly afterwards for sleeping in the store (during open hours, snoozing on the couch). I don't find the fault all his. Some people can take that mall, and some people can't.
I didn't say on that last day, "I am never coming back here!" but for some reason, I never did until today. Almost 12 years later.