National Service…in Retail???

National Service…in Retail???

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The education of the whole person requires more than just intellectual development, and service learning and other such programs are attempts to fulfill that aspect of education that brings persons into concernful relations with each other. There was a special report on national service progams at But Lewis Buzbee has a corker of an idea, which he relates in his marvelous book, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop–a history of bookselling and a memoir of his days in the book trade. Here’s his idea:

In many countries military service is a mandatory obligation for citizens who’ve reached majority, and between the ages of eighteen and twenty, these young folk wear uniforms, march in battalion, study weaponry, and prepare to defend their country against invasion. In our country, to my eye, we’ve already got too much military (too many guns, at least, informally and otherwise)

I’d like to propose, modestly, a two-year mandatory retail service [emph. added] for all citizens and legal residents. No amount of family money or influence, or college dedicaton, would relieve you from this service. Mandatory; no exceptions. Only the luck of the draw would put you to work in a record store or a bookstore; the rest would have to work in the food industry or at the Gap, or heaven forbid, Wal-Mart. And for those lucky enough to pull book or record duty, the other advantage, aside from all the cool things you’d get exposed to and the free books and records (I show my age: CDs), would be the absence of a uniform.

This is the United States, after all, and as our national holidays make evident, the one thing we do best is shop. The benefits of mandatory retail service are, I think, many sided. The bank accounts of parents putting their children through college would be far less depleted by cell-phone charges, drinking games, and trips to Europe; these liberated funds could be invested to support our failed and failing coporations. Social Security coffers would grow. Because retail employees learn firsthand about the basic tools of business, colleges and universities would be able to restaff humanities departments with the money saved on accounting and marketing courses. Sales of sturdy shoes would skyrocket.

The greatest benefit to my little plan would be in the creation of a truly kinder and gentler nation. Imagine that every American citizen had at one time worked in retail, and you might glimpe the possibility of a future in which all of us, participating in our national pastime, shopping, would have more patience. We would understand that items are sometimes out of stock and life does continue, that service without a smile is still service, that getting rid of your small change is not one of life’s more laudable goals, nor is cashing out a speed trial.

Why has no one thought of this before? I worked for a number of years in both record stores and bookstores. It was the second greatest work I ever did in my life–the first being teaching. And like teaching, retail has long hours, doesn’t pay enough, and doesn’t get the respect it deserves. But education and commerce are at the heart of communal life. Philosophy has been seriously remiss in almost completely ignoring the working life in its contemplation of the mystery of the human person. Peripatetic praxis is about the whole person, including the laboring person, and does not condone the philosophical denigration of work.

Whatever whining you might hear around the office water cooler, polls consistently show that people cannot take more than two weeks of vacation before they miss work. Laboring is essential to being human. And retail is critical work. So next time you’re at the mall, say something nice to that that sales clerk working the floor (Buzbee waxes poetic about being “on the floor” in his memoir; I’ve been there; he’s right!). And here’s another idea: next time you’re in a bookstore or a shoe store or a sporting goods store–any kind of a store that sells things you care about–try to find a fellow customer having a hard time making up his or her mind about a purchase, step up to that person, and offer your help. The customer will take it. And you will feel a cool sense of satisfaction having helped someone come to love even more what you love.

And, hey: isn’t that what teaching is, too…?

p.s. I linked to The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop on Amazon so you can check it out…but why not wander over to your local however-lighted bookshop and see if you can find it there. They’ll be happy to help you!