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Chapter 1

My writing career had gone well from the day I graduated from college, whether I had a staff magazine or newspaper job or worked freelance. But by the fall of 2007 I was scared of the precipitous decline in my industry, journalism. I was also newly aware, after pneumonia landed me in a hospital bed from overwork, I needed a ready, steady source of cash, something solid.

And so I decided to join a populous, if largely ignored, tribe - the fifteen million Americans working in retail, one million of whom sell apparel.

We all have to sell ourselves, to get or keep a job or win a promotion, grant, or fellowship. Even a first date, if you like the person and hope for another meeting, is a sales job. I figured selling skills, if it turned out I even had any, could only be helpful in the future, no matter what I did professionally. I’d always found it difficult reaching out to new clients - who likes rejection?

The North Face sells its products worldwide through hundreds of other retailers in addition to their own freestanding stores. I knew and liked their stuff. Living in New York, at least, you see their products everywhere, from the backpacks lugged by middle-aged male commuters jamming the train into Manhattan from Connecticut or Long Island, to the wildly popular fleece and nylon jackets worn by their teenage kids, desperate for that coveted curved logo. Their products looked decent. I figured they couldn’t be that difficult to sell, since so many people already knew and loved the brand.

But putting on a white plastic badge with my name carved into it proved a powerful eye-opener in many ways. I had never worked in any job that paid so little for such hard work.

The American economy relies heavily on consumer spending - 70 percent of its GDP. Yet retail sales associates, clerks, floorwalkers, team members - whatever you choose call them - remain oddly invisible in the media, even as we buy from them every day.

Their lives, their needs, and their concerns, whether for safe, clean workplaces or livable wages, often go ignored, both by reporters more attentive to corporate profit projections and by the many corporations who employ millions of associates and rely so heavily on them. Most workers doing these tough jobs for low wages are those least able to afford losing them. They have a powerful incentive to remain silent.

Rarely, then, do you hear what it’s really like to do this ubiquitous job, one that’s practically a rite of passage for many Americans.

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