Excerpt: Death of a Shrinking Violet by James Robinson, Jr.


Today I’m featuring an excerpt from the essay collection Death of a Shrinking Violet by James Robinson Jr.


             Sam’s Club can be a lonely place; sometimes the only sound you hear is that annoying beep-beep of a forklift as it shifts stock around over the hushed din of a shopping public. I enjoy my share of quiet time but not necessarily when I’m shopping in a building the size of a football field. What’s that they say about there never being a cop around when you need one? Well, let’s be fair; the police have a lot of ground to cover. Our cities are large places; crime is rampant. We can’t expect a police officer to come riding up on a bike every time a drug deal goes down or a purse is snatched. But, when it comes to shopping in a place like Sam’s Club, how come there’s never a salesperson in the store when you need one? I just want the satisfaction of knowing that there is someone in a sales capacity somewhere in the building, who can answer a question, if need be.

I figure if management really wanted to offer some assistance there are frugal ways to do so. I’m not asking that someone be assigned to ride around on those two wheel upright standing electric scooters like the security guards maneuver about in the malls. (I’ve always wanted to see one of those gizmos get into some type of high-speed scooter chase with speedy shoplifter.) But I see no reason why Sam’s can’t place stations at strategic locations throughout the store—mile markers given the size of warehouse stores—with buttons attached for customers to press to alert the store that they need assistance—informal, crude  perhaps, but effective.

No, the message is clear: “You’re on your own, dude. Here are our goods. They’re all nice and neatly arranged. Its’ the highest quality, state-of-the-art merchandise available and it’s cheaper than you can get anywhere else—so what if you have to buy two ink cartridges to get a good deal. Items are stacked neatly by the display. Just pick one up and take it to the cashier. Don’t make trouble. Don’t look for a salesperson; there aren’t any. How do you think we sell this stuff so cheap? If you need help, you should have read Consumers before you got here. Mind your manners. Have a nice day.”

It’s all about cutting costs. Sam’s Club hires as few employees as possible; we’re well aware of that. Therefore, when I visit a Sam’s Club outlet I come mentally and physically prepared, armed with a certain mindset. If it takes a tumbleweed or two rolling down the aisles to keep me in character then so be it. I’ll do what it takes. As the O’Jays sing, Money, money, money, money…Almighty Dollar. I know I’m not going to get assistance so I don’t expect any. I know that no one is going to approach me and ask: “Are you finding everything okay?” God forbid, I might say no.

Knowing that I’m going to be buying in bulk and that I have to find my own method of carrying my goods, I concentrate on finding just the right boxes for the trip home. Yeah, there’s an art to this thing. One can’t just wait until they get to the checkout line to think about how they’re going to tote their array of goods; picking boxes is as important as picking the right merchandise. Pushing a cart to your car is one thing; getting that delicate combination of potato chips and barrels of king-size mayonnaise into your house piece by piece, is another.

Many times, I actually find myself shuffling canned goods from one box to another while they are still on the shelves so that I can get an empty box. I’ve actually thought of saving boxes from previous trips and reusing them but the cardboard containers have usually taken too much of a beating to be salvaged and, besides, there are some things that even I don’t have the time or energy to do.

I envision a utopic time when a Sam’s customer takes their goods to the check-out line and the cashier/bagger scans the items and boxes them for the customers in containers stacked and ready at the checkout line; but don’t hold your breath on that one.

It’s not a big mystery how super market and retail chains utilize their own strategies to cut costs. While Sam’s hires as few employees as possible, grocery stores hire the young, the elderly, and the otherwise unemployable—anyone to whom they don’t have to pay more than the $7.25/hr. minimum wage, or health benefits. While the disinterested youth scan your items, one of the other categories of employees bag them, only certain cursed personnel have the hated job of retrieving wayward shopping carts from the lot. But as is the case with just about everything in this life: “You get what you pay for.”

When we approach the register, we’re lucky if we get a half-hearted hello from the scamps, rascals, brats, imps, and infidels scanning our items. Eye contact is virtually non-existent, which can sometimes be a blessing.  After that semi-greeting, all bets are off as the serious discussions begin between the cashier and the bagger.

“When are you done?” the bagger queries the cashier.

“Not until 11:00. Have you had your break yet?” asks the bagger.

“No, not yet.” cashier says a bit perturbed.

These two are so busy exchanging small talk that the bagger may put my canned goods in with bread leaving me with croutons by the time I get home. The elderly are much better baggers—more efficient though they don’t make for such good conversation for the kids. Can you imagine the type of intergenerational banter that might take place?

“My daughter is coming in for the weekend,” the elderly bagger might say. “She just had another baby. I’m a grandfather for the fourth time.”

“Oh yeah,” the cashier might answer (bored to tears) “that’s great. I’m going to see Niki Minaj on Saturday.”

“Niki who?” asks the bagger with furrowed brow.

“You know, she’s the one with the wild hair and…never mind. I’m not done until 5:00 tomorrow so I have to get out of here quickly. Maybe I’ll wait to take my break till just before I leave.”

Many of the elderly baggers do, however, seem to have trouble standing for long periods of time. I’m not sure how they do it. I don’t think I could survive as a bagger for a day.

“Yoo-hoo,” I’m always tempted to say as I listen to the youthful cashier chit-chat, “remember me? I’ll just stand here looking useless until it’s time to pay.”

Although Starbucks trains their employees on a regular basis on how to satisfy the customer, large grocery store chains apparently don’t bother to offer their new employees any tips on how to deal with patrons. The training need not be extensive, how about: “Your customer is your number one priority. When you are with a shopper don’t speak with another employee; that makes the customer feel neglected and inferior.” The youth have young and impressionable minds; something would stick. Starbucks, on the other hand, hires a more sophisticated level of adult employee for their stores, pays them more money, and charges five bucks for a cup of coffee—unfair analogy, but I can dream can’t I?

In the meantime, no one even asks if I want paper or plastic anymore. Why? Because management doesn’t want to give you a paper bag unless they have to—they’ll just keep tossing your milk and Twinkies in those razor-thin plastic bags until you say uncle or ask for paper. I’m sure you’ve heard about the “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy instituted as a policy for gays in the military. Well, the retail stores have apparently instituted an unwritten policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Offer—if the customer doesn’t ask; don’t offer.

The Don’t ask, Don’t offer policy reminds me of a time when the Krispy Kreme donuts franchise came to town to spread it’s tasty, high cholesterol joy into our area. The first store opened in a small town called Cranberry about fifteen miles from Pittsburgh. Yes, a gooey hot Krispy Kreme glazed donut was such a delightful treat that we actually drove fifteen miles on weekends to get one.

My wife and I were enchanted by the clever neon sign which, when lit, informed the world that a hot batch of donuts had just come off the line. Employees eagerly greeted each customer with a free hot glazed donut—still drooling with creamy icing. Some customers didn’t even buy donuts; they just sat at a table and ate their free donut with coffee. Of course, we bought a dozen or two—one or two of every variety—to make the trip worthwhile and gave a taste to family and friends.

Imagine our delight when a store opened in the Robinson Township area—a bustling region where we shopped almost exclusively–only five miles away. Our lives were complete. We had all we could ever want: an Eat N’ Park, Sam’s Club, Wal-Mart, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Sears, Macy’s, and now the cherry on top of the sundae, the dessert to all of these entrees—a Krispie Kreme Donut franchise to call our own. We drove right past the store every weekend and were drawn to that shining donut light like a ship to a lighthouse beacon in rough seas.

Unfortunately, the novelty and the demand for Krispy Kreme donuts began to wane—perhaps partially undone by their free donut policy. But even as sales declined, the light continued to stay lit. Unfortunately, despite the fact that my wife and I continued to frequent our shop, purchasing donuts in large quantities, we noticed that the store had gotten stingy with the freebies. We had to ask for our free donut and, even then, it was given to us grudgingly, as if the cost were coming out of the employee’s own pocket. It was obviously a cost-cutting maneuver–Don’t ask, Don’t offer. It was the beginning of the end. Eventually, without warning, the store closed. The light went dead.

It’s an odd feeling when a beloved institution closes without notice; it’s paramount to coming home and discovering that your parents have moved. Oh sure, they sell Krispie Kreme donuts at grocery stores and at the omnipresent convenience stores–the gas, snack, and slushie outlets–like 7 Eleven and Sheetz, but it’s not the same; they’re not hot, and they’re either pre-packaged or sit in a large, clear plastic case with magnetic doors. Even now, when we drive by our vacant store, my wife still mourns the unlit sign. “Let it go,” I tell her, “let it go.”

In contrast to the Krispy Kreme tragedy (no, I’m not being overly dramatic), Sam’s cost-cutting policies have not led to its undoing; their dogma is more like: They won’t ask, so no need to offer. But while the warehouse giant can’t seem to have anyone on staff to explain the difference between LCD and Plasma to their roving customers, they can manage to have employees strategically placed throughout the store to prepare food for their customers to sample–I should know; I’ve taste-tested just about every tidbit they set forth.



James Robinson, Jr. has experienced a lot in his sixty years of living. He documents many of his life experiences in his new book: Death of a Shrinking Violet: A Collection of Essays For Our Time. Death of a Shrinking Violet—which consists of thirteen humorous essays covering a variety of topics—has nothing to with death or the sadness associated with a shrinking violet. Written by award winning essayist and satirist James Robinson, Jr., it celebrates all of the daily moments and collective events that we all share; all of the things we have in common as living, breathing members of the human race. As you read, you’ll find yourself saying: “That happened to me,” or “Oh, that’s so funny!” But mostly, you’ll nod and say: “I know exactly what you mean.”

Get ready to smile, laugh, and cry; Death of a Shrinking Violet is about you and me.


James Robinson, Jr. retired from the working world at the age of fifty eight to pursue his passion to be a writer in 2010. He is the award winning author of the humorous memoir Fighting the Effects of Gravity: A Bittersweet Journey Into Middle Life. Robinson resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with Deborah, his wife of thirty-six years. He has three adult children and four grandchildren.

Also, be sure to get in on the tour-wide giveaway HERE!

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