Caitlin Kelly's memoir of working in retail reads like a long shift behind a cash register. Interesting and educational at times, slow and repetitive at others, with lots of griping throughout.

Kelly, a middle-aged freelance journalist, spent a couple of years as a part-time sales associate for the North Face, an outdoor clothing and equipment chain. As a middle-aged freelance journalist who recently spent 16 months as a part-time sales associate for a different retail chain, I can vouch that "Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail" (Portfolio/Penguin, 226 pages $25.95) paints a mostly accurate picture.

The paltry wages. The low status. The boredom. The co-workers from various walks of life. The pressure to meet sales goals. The sore feet.

Kelly grounds her personal recollections in an overview of the retail industry and its employees, America's third-largest workforce. She convincingly shows that although sales clerks constitute the human face of their stores -- the people who actually get customers to buy stuff -- they're underappreciated, underequipped, underpaid (median hourly wage: $8.92), and take a lot of crap.

"The opportunities for praise, encouragement and financial rewards [are] few, the odds of punishment for some minor infraction always high," she writes. "As every single consultant told me, many of retail's senior executives still consider their faceless armies of associates disposable."

It's easy to understand her outrage on behalf of these millions of disrespected workers. What's harder to fathom is the depth of Kelly's outrage on her own behalf.

Dispiriting as retail work can be, Kelly takes it all awfully personally for someone who worked only one shift a week. She rages about inadequate equipment, supervisors' occasional (mild) criticism, ill-conceived corporate policies, rude customers. All frustrating, sure, but her reactions -- crying on the job, challenging the boss in staff meetings, smashing a piece of equipment until it breaks -- seem excessive. She presents them as the natural responses of a dedicated employee facing insufferable conditions.

And although she claims to enjoy meeting and helping people, her continual depiction of the store's affluent customers as "spoiled," "toxic" and "vicious" (not just the occasional offender, she suggests, but the bulk of her clientele) made me wonder if she might be overreacting.

Even in her anecdotes, few customers quite match that monstrous profile, most coming off as merely short-tempered or annoying. Maybe it's regional -- Minnesota Nice vs. Kelly's upscale New York suburb -- but at my store, most shoppers were actually pretty pleasant.

Whereas here's Kelly: "I was sick of being treated like garbage, like an illiterate moron, like someone with no options or skills or accomplishments or worth. I was sick of having to hurdle, every single shift, day after day after day, people's insulting assumption that we were all nothing more than human trash."

Guess it's just as well she got out when she did.

  • Katy Read is a Star Tribune staff writer. Her work has appeared in Salon, BrainChild and other publications.