a peek inside the fishbowl

25 Oct, 2006

Employment history

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Misc. life

I worked in retail for most of my time at university. I worked at the Rideau Centre in a store called Canary Island. Imagine piles of shirts stacked in wooden shipping crates (oh, the slivers!) and an overall jungle-theme which included an endless rotation of Jimmy Buffet on the stereo. The store was eventually overhauled and became Northern Elements, owned by Venator what used to be known as Woolworth. (They also owned Northern Reflections, Northern Getaway and Foot Locker, among others.)

I hated working for minimum wage. An hour of my time was worth much more than $6.85. There were also a lot of annoying rules we had to follow. These have forever cemented a deep sympathy for retail workers everywhere. One of the things we had to do was greet customers within 10 seconds or three metres of entry, whichever came first. Sometimes that meant RUSHING from the back of the store (because it wouldn’t be good to shout) all the way to the front to deliver not only a cheerful greeting but an open-ended question. Which is, by definition, a question that cannot be answered with a yes or no.

Good greeting: “Good afternoon! What are you looking for today?” Followed by a chipper “just to let you know, our socks are on sale 3 for $9.99!”

Bad greeting: “Can I help you?”

I really hated harassing people. A good salesperson learns to read people. A good salesperson can tell whether or not they are the type of customer who likes attentive service.

Oh, and I hated team-building exercises. Every once in awhile we’d all gather somewhere and perform dramatic re-enactments. Ugh.

The other thing I hated about this job was the closing routine. There were always two people to close at night. The shift would end at 9 p.m. I would be paid until that time. But the float had to be counted and deposited by both people. So one person would count while the other hung around and straightened up the store. We’d stay as little as 15 minutes or as much as one hour. But it usually meant an extra half hour for which we were never paid, each time we closed. I figured this was illegal. And it bothered me. It bothered me more that I was a university student who was too chicken to complain for fear of losing a Mcjob. 

Shoplifiting is a big issue in retail, and the way they dealt with it was to have each of the two staff members check each other’s bags on closing. This infuriated me. But we had to do it because we lived in fear of “the spies from head office” who no doubt were lurking around the corners, watching to make sure we rummaged through each other’s backpacks after we locked the door. I refused to do the search. And when I was a more senior person on staff I only made the most cursory of glances. I hated being treated like I was stealing something. I hated treating my juniors staff members like that too.

What else did I hate about that job? Well, some of the customers were doozies. Demanding, irritated, impatient, condescending…  Here’s a tip: if you’re nice to salespeople they’ll want to be nice to you. But for every bad customer there was a good one. Or a funny story. I was working with a friend one day. I went out to get us some coffee and when I came back he was freaking out. He was wide-eyed. He looked like he’d seen a ghost.


“What’s going on?”

He told me a grannie had come in to try on a shirt. She started to disrobe at the front of the store. My friend tried to direct her to the change rooms at the back, but she pretended not to hear him. She took her top off and wasn’t wearing anything underneath.

“SHE CAME DOWN TO HERE,” he described, making a yanking motion at the waist.

Poor guy. He’d never seen a naked wrinkly elderly person before, who was so, um, gravitationally challenged. “I DIDN’T MEAN TO LOOK!!” he shrieked, while I rolled on the floor with laughter.

I liked the people, and that’s ultimately what kept me there. My friend, the traumatized one, liked to play very loud dance music. Gloria Estefan would be discarded for Whigfield (remember that song called “Saturday night” ?) which we would blast until the point of distortion. We were never caught.

He and I had a running joke. We’d go buy a coffee at the Second Cup. I’d order a medium Ethiopian. He’d lean over to the person behind the counter and say “but she’d REALLY like a large Frenchman!”

Oh how we laughed. There was this unspoken bond between retail folks in the mall.

Staff came and went (retail is a big rotating door of employment) and most of them were good to work with. For the most part the customers were pretty cool too. When the store converted into menswear-only it became more interesting. There were plenty of clueless fellows to keep me amused. They’d wonder aloud if this shirt matches those pants etc etc. There was also an equal number of men who primped and fussed and worried whether the pants made them look too fat.

In my final year of journalism school all of my friends were mailing stacks of resumes far and wide. The job board in the main foyer always featured at least one reporting job in Flin Flon, MB. I didn’t want a reporting job that badly, so I stayed where I was. In Ottawa. In retail. One day, my thesis advisor and TV prof suggested I needed find a real job. He’d heard of a writing/research gig at a non-for profit called the Media Awareness Network (MNET) that wouldn’t necessitate a move to Manitoba. They were right here in town. And so, with some trepidation, I arranged an interview.

It was downtown in the old National Film Board office on the corner of Rideau and Dalhousie. (Now a Second Cup and a pizza place.) The NFB was a major sponsor and had given MNET some office space. There were film reels stored in the back.

I don’t remember much from the interview. I do remember Ann, the boss lady, offering me a cup of coffee. She poured it in a mug and asked if I wanted cream or sugar. I drink it with plenty of milk and also sweetened, but I was so nervous (and didn’t want to offend) so I declined the additives and accepted the black mug of steaming coffee. And I forced myself to drink it throughout the interview. It was not unlike drinking hot battery acid.

I was hired, and it wasn’t until I started that I realized what a cool place this was. MNET was, and is, a clearinghouse of information for parents and teachers about media literacy and gender stereotyping in the media. It’s grown quite a bit since I left. There are some amazing (free!) resources in there. They’re quoted all the time in the major media. I’m so proud of how far they’ve come. The women who work there believe so passionately in their cause.

At the time however, they didn’t have such a broad reach. The World Wide Web was in its infancy and a lot of our information was being distributed by snail mail. My co-workers and I had to teach ourselves to update our website. (Haha – this was the old homepage. What an eyesore. I think I did that. Eeep!) I remember what a huge deal it was, because we used to email the files to our service provider for updates, even for things as simple as adding an image to an existing page.

The staff consisted of an amazing group of women. People came and went, but there were always 6 or 7 of us at the core. At lunchtime we’d sit around the lunch room and talk about the issues of the day. It was such a great experience for someone like me. I was a twentysomething girl surrounded by all these terribly smart women. It was amazing. And I was sad to leave. I moved into private/for-profit industry in the area of website production for the promise of a better paycheque. So much for my journalism degree. I have, however, been starting to make better use of it in recent years.

I meet up the MNET ladies about once every six weeks or so. I count them among my good friends.

Had my professor not found me that job with MNET, I wonder where would I be today. That job was a real fork in the road. I’m glad I took it.

10 Responses to "Employment history"

1 | Anne

October 25th, 2006 at 11:12 am


I totally remember that store in the Rideau Centre. I worked at Magpie next to the Second Cup. LOVED it.

2 | nancy

October 25th, 2006 at 12:16 pm


I used to shop at Canary Island in the mid-80’s….were you there? I so remember that store, and I recall really liking it. I believe one of my fave blue denim blouses was from that store.

3 | andrea

October 25th, 2006 at 12:21 pm


1980s! I was just a bay-beeee !!!!
Kidding aside, I worked there in the mid-90s. :)

4 | Sweet Pea

October 25th, 2006 at 1:49 pm


I used to work next door to Canary Island at the Shopper’s Drug Mart in the early 90s (before it moved to the first floor). Thanks for sharing your experience in retail. Not much different than mine.

As for finding a job after j-school…where would I be if I hadn’t moved to Mtl? I would have never met Scott even though we grew up minutes away from each other. Of course, it took us moving back here to hook up. Strange.

5 | Suebob

October 25th, 2006 at 2:21 pm


What a long, fun story. I worked in the mall at the movie theater. Every single day I went to the cookie place on my break and got chocolate chip cookies and milk. The theater charged us full price for snacks, despite our low wages and the overpriced food.

I would not have been good at retail. I was far too mean for it at that age. I’m still not much better.

6 | Chantal

October 26th, 2006 at 8:26 am


I loved Canary Island. Okay, I never really bought much there (for a while though, they were the only place to buy khakis which I needed for my job as an ice cream girl), but it looked really cool.

The Rideau Centre was basically my home through high school, since school was on Bronson. But I made my wages at the Zellers on Sparks. Talk about humiliation for $6.85…

7 | andrea

October 26th, 2006 at 8:41 am


Chantal: when did you work at Zellers? The worst job I ever had in my life was at that Zeller’s. It was so bad it deserves a whole post on the topic.

But to summarize: I was the Zeller’s Credit Card Girl who harrassed people as they walked in the front door.

8 | twinmomplusone

October 26th, 2006 at 11:48 am


“I worked in retail for most of my time in university.” Yep, me too. At Reitman’s (same company as Smart Set) as a cashier/saleslady to assistant manger on week-ends. Yes, teh minumum salary sucked but what great memories I have of interactions with co-workers, co-mall workers and shoppers. A wealth of life experiences. And having that 20 % off to buy things was great too ;)

9 | DaniGirl

October 26th, 2006 at 12:01 pm


Ooo, my first job in Ottawa was cashier in the smoke box at the Zellers in Carlingwood. I quit university to work there full time!! (Shakes head in rueful shame.)

10 | Chantal

October 26th, 2006 at 5:20 pm


I was there from December of 1991 to just before I left for Halifax in August of 1994. I was in the smoke shop. I wasn’t treated badly by my bosses as much as I was by the clientelle. I was held at knifepoint TWICE. Once by a homeless man pissed off that I would not give him cigarettes from free. The second by a woman because I would not cash her cheque.

And hey, we made THREE bucks off each credit card referral we got! :)

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My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human daughters: Emma (20) and Sarah (18). During the day I work as a writer at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, family travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa for families. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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