My family’s drives up to the Catskills in our Chevrolet Suburban Carryall on summer weekends in the early 1960s weren’t for rest and relaxation. Our car was loaded to the brim with the pedal-pushers, Keds, flip-flops and paper fans we were hoping to sell from the side of the road to the mountain vacationers.
We’d beep our horn as our car slowed to a stop, and the bungalows would empty out with sun-tanned revelers looking for a good buy.
With the back trunk open, our “store” became a bustling haven for vacation purchases. Before long we had sold out of summer merchandise and headed back home to Long Island to start our weekday work at the Bay Shore farmers market.
There, my job was to sell used comic books, five for a quarter. Sometimes I accepted a tip and a pat on the head from a nice grandparent walking by. I pocketed the tips and before the day was out, I usually was able to buy myself cotton candy and Jawbreakers.
The back and forth to the Catskills coupled with four days a week at the farmers market was taking a toll, so my parents decided to open a clothing shop in Rocky Point instead.
Now my job was to sell The New York Times to parishioners leaving Sunday morning Mass at St. Anthony of Padua Church, which was opposite the store. To get ready for the customers, I had to be up at 3 a.m. to put all the sections together. My parents let me keep any of the profits, which at best were less than an hour’s minimum wage.
I longed for the days of my used-comic book sales.
When I turned 14, my mom gave me an opportunity to be a pseudo-salesperson behind the store’s counter or as a floor person straightening up the inventory of multicolored flip-flops, sneakers, bathing suit cover-ups, sunglasses, headbands and baseball caps.
One day she encouraged me to approach customers to see if I could be helpful. It was both nerve-wracking and exciting.
For years I had watched my mother engaging customers of all ages and backgrounds. She seemed to know exactly what everyone needed and how to manage every sale. I aimed to learn selling skills by osmosis.
One day, overjoyed with my sales ability, I ran to the back of the store to proudly announce to my mother that I sold a man two pairs of socks.
To me this was huge since he could have purchased just one pair.
My mother gently took me down a peg while offering a lesson in sales that wasn’t my last.
“You didn’t sell the man anything, son,” she said. “He came in for the socks. You should have sold him shoe polish, slacks or sneakers. Then you would have sold him something.”
Another day, I watched my mother interact with a customer who’d brought back a pair of Keds she’d claimed did not wear properly. The sneakers were well past worn.
My mother said to the customer, “You’re absolutely right. I will give you a brand-new pair and return these to the manufacturer for a refund.”
The customer smiled, picked out a new pair and waved goodbye.
I was dumbfounded when, after the customer left, my mother proceeded to throw the sneakers in the garbage.
“Mom, you told the lady you’d send the sneakers back,” I said.
My mom smiled and told me that the sneakers were well past their prime and no manufacturer would accept them.
I probably stared at her with that quizzical deer-in-the-headlights look.
“I now have a customer for life,” she said. “That’s why the customer is always right.”
She’d be proud to know I spent 33 years in sales, retiring five years ago.
YOUR STORY Letters and essays for My Turn are original works (of up to 600 words) by readers that have never appeared in print or online. Share special memories, traditions, friendships, life-changing decisions, observations of life or unforgettable moments for possible publication. Email email@example.com. Include name, address, phone numbers and photos if available. Edited stories may be republished in any format.