My life changed forever inside the walls of a Payless shoe store.
Last week, the small-but-mighty chain of shoe stores from Topeka, Kansas, announced the closing of its 2,100 stores. At Payless, known for affordable footwear, you could always find a pair of shoes to keep your toes dry and leave a few dollars in your pocket.
But it wasn’t the knock-off Sperry boat shoes that changed my life — it was the job as a shoe clerk inside the modest buildings that changed my life.
I was in college and needed a job. Payless needed a clerk. Not exactly a match made in heaven, but a job nonetheless.
Back then, the school posted jobs on a bulletin board on note cards. When you ran across one you were interested in, you pried out the thumbtack and carried the blue card around the corner to the job placement department. The lady at a small desk picked up the phone and arranged an interview.
After a career of typical high school jobs of making pizzas and dropping chicken into vats of boiling grease, my job application probably did not knock the store manager out of his shoe-fitting stool. But for some reason, a manager gave me a shot.
Gordon was an interesting man. With his oversized-plastic glasses continually sliding down his nose, Gordon was what we called a Shoe Dog. Unpacking cardboard shipping boxes and carefully arranging each pair of shoes into a precise order along the half-dozen rows was his kingdom.
But there was more. Gordon taught me to sell.
“Walk up to the customer, greet them, and offer to help them find something.”
He made it sound so simple and effortless. But for me, it was terrifying.
First time I was left alone in the store I almost threw up in the backroom toilet.
One day, I remember hearing a lady with her small daughter on the next row looking for a pair of shoes for Easter. With my back against a row of men’s work boots, my stomach began heaving, and a wave of sweat washed over me like I was back shoving pizzas in a stone oven. I took a deep breath and forced myself around the corner offering to help.
I don’t know if I sold a pair of shoes that day. But I do know I relived the same physical and emotional nightmare repeatedly until one day, curiously, it faded away into the background.
Soon, I learned the art of meeting strangers, discovering common ground, and finding a way to help them along the way. And to my surprise, this rewarding empowering lesson altered the course of my life for the better.
Today, whenever I find myself facing an intimidating or stressful situation, I always remember standing with my back up against the wall of boots sweating and panting — trying to break free from the chains of self-doubt. And then suddenly, I know whatever is on the other side isn’t so scary after all.