It was the Depression and people cut back on eating out.
My grandfather’s restaurant failed and the family’s life changed in an instant.
They moved out of the nice place they found when the restaurant was thriving
and wound up in a third floor walkup. My grandfather went to work for the
railroad, managing the dining service on trains that ran to Miami.
My mother’s older brother withdrew from what was then Drexel Institute and
took his drumming skills on the road with a jazz band. Her younger sister, who
couldn’t cook, talked herself into a job as a short order cook. My mother went
to work behind the candy counter at a five and dime.
At first she was angry, resentful, and hated her job. Then, as she said years
later, she realized that the world outside probably wasn’t going to change, so
she would have to. She decided that she would become the best salesgirl at the
She started by watching. She noticed what made the customers smile and what
made them frown. Soon, she was greeting everyone who approached her with a
smile. The customers smiled back.
She noticed that when she overfilled the scoop and had to take some candy
out, the customers frowned. So she started deliberately under-filling the scoop
and adding one piece of candy at a time until she was at the correct weight. The
Instead of asking “May I help you?” the way the other salesgirls did, my
mother learned to ask, “What brings you here today?” She learned that question
always generated an answer and that when she had a conversation with a customer
that customer usually bought more.
She learned to greet her regular customers by name. She took notes about them
and what they liked and didn’t like. It wasn’t long, until she was the most
popular salesgirl at the candy counter. And she found that she enjoyed what she