At Our Convenience:

Working and Playing in the Convenience Store

1I have recently resigned from my casual job at a convenience store where I worked for over five years. During the farewells that took place as I finished my last shift, one of my co-workers asked me if I had any regrets about leaving, and whether there were any fond memories I could recall from the period of my employment. For those of you who have had the somewhat dubious pleasure of working at the lower end of the retail food chain, you'll know that my co-worker could not possibly have been expecting a serious answer to her enquiry. Working in a convenience store is mind-numbing at the best of times, and even if you think you have an iota of intelligence, there are plenty of customers and employers willing to disabuse you of this self-deluding pretension on your part. Despite the facetious quality of my co-worker's question, this article does offer her an answer, but my approach has less to do with memories about the work as such, as it does about the play that went on alongside the work, in order to endure the work.

2In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau speaks of the art of making do as practiced by individuals as they go about their everyday life. He introduces a clear distinction between his understanding of the concepts of 'strategies' and 'tactics'. De Certeau argues that while systems may implement 'strategies' to designate particular activities to specific places, 'tactics' offer innumerable ways to evade or traverse this imposed "law of the place" (29). Tactics are "a clever utilization of time" (39) that take advantage of the opportunities that momentarily present themselves as cracks in the strategies that are enacted by the "surveillance of the proprietary powers" (37). De Certeau illustrates how the mobilisation of tactics is in effect the mobilisation of "ways of using the constraining order of the place" (30) where an individual has little choice but to live and work. In this regard, de Certeau advocates the notion of a creative approach to everyday life, where the individual resorts to artisan-like inventiveness, trickery and "guileful ruse" (37), and thus introduces play into the foundations of power (39), so that she or he may survive the strategies enacted by power.

3Since for financial reasons I had to work in a convenience store, I always hoped, I admit rather naively, that it would be of the kind that I saw in the movies. I liked the film Grosse Point Blank for a number of reasons. First, for the point in the script where the central character, played by John Cusack, returns to his hometown and attempts to revisit the house he grew up in; in place of his family home he finds a convenience store. Aside from the poetic resonance of this scene with my own life (after five years I began to feel as though I lived at the shop, and even had the front door keys), I envied the guy who worked there -- at least initially, before the shop was turned into a fireball. The convenience store's employee had taken advantage of the absence of an owner or manager to introduce into the workplace an activity usually associated with not-working, with being a customer. He had literally introduced play into the workplace, taking the opportunity to use the shop's video game as his own personal arcade. He was ensconced in a world of his own making, complete with headphones, defiantly oblivious to the customers and the low flying bullets around him. The explicit introduction of play into the workplace is also apparent in Clerks, the film that first highlighted the dissatisfaction of the convenience store employee. In this film, work as a place is transcended in a flagrant example of 'tactics' winning bet on time over place (39), as the employee closes the shop during working hours, and takes to the roof to play a pre-organised game of hockey.

4 Central to the antics of the characters in both films is the absence of power in the form of the owner, or a manager. In my own case, the first four years of working were invariably in the presence of the owner of the store. Given this potentially punitive restraint it was difficult to inject much in the way of overt play into the workplace; however, as soon as the owner was away from the shop, the opportunity to play was seized with both hands. I remember walking into the shop one day, and finding one of my co-workers sitting on one of the benches, formulating questions for another co-worker in anticipation of a quiz game they were going to play, based upon knowledge about the idiosyncrasies of the shop and its customers. A sample question went something like this: What are the names of [insert the name of the bread delivery man here]'s children? For extra points tell me their ages. No doubt the prize was going to be a generous, though unwitting donation from the store's owner.

5 Until the reorganisation of my boss's schedule I had merely wished that I could stand behind the counter and indulge in the leisurely activity of reading the magazines like the employee in Clerks. The opportunities to make use of my employer's time were very fine cracks indeed, so it was true, in accordance with de Certeau, that a particular kind of inventiveness was called for. An example of a creative use of the work place in the face of considerable restraint was the existence of the 'staff lollies' jar. The jar, a re-used plastic confectionery container, appeared one day; someone had gathered all the half-opened packets of lifesavers and chewing gum scattered about under the counter, and labelled them. The effect of the appearance of this container was to sanction the consumption of confectionery that was not paid for, under the ruse that somehow if you didn't either take home, or personally finish the packet of sweets that you had opened, then you weren't stealing them. It was even more okay to finish a packet that someone else had opened, because you couldn't be held remotely responsible.

6 The establishment of a 'staff lollies' jar is not entirely explained by de Certeau's understanding of la perruque, where an employee essentially uses the time and equipment of an employer for her or his own means, without actually stealing goods; that's what reading the New Weekly, then returning it to the magazine rack is about. Having a 'staff lollies' jar is an extension of using "tactical ruses and surprises: clever tricks of the weak on the adversary on his [sic] own turf, hunter's tricks, maneuverable, polymorph mobilities, jubilant, poetic and warlike discoveries" (40), which arise in response to a particular rational system. Although when one first begins to work in the type of shop I have been discussing, one is the proverbial kid in a candy store, the conditions of employment are such that it is not acceptable, or even legal, to freely consume the goods. There were however, a variety of refinements of the practice of not-stealing in my former workplace that made it possible to play further, but within the expectations of compliance to legal constraints. Such trickery extended to the trial of new products; how could we respond effectively to customer enquiries about newly arrived products if we hadn't sampled them? In the most subtle manifestation of this ruse, the first aid kit, although ostensibly provided by my employer, was in fact stocked from the shelves by the employees. All in the name of workplace health and safety we provided ourselves with a never-ending supply of nail polish remover, cotton balls, under-arm deodorant and body sprays, tampons, vitamin C and garlic tablets, glucodin energy supplements (like we needed more sugar!), and at any given time, at least three boxes each of the more usual fare of Band-Aids and headache relief capsules. A less subtle and more obviously jubilant manifestation of our ways of using the store's goods resulted in a meandering trail of Australian salamander species -- toys procured from the Kinder surprise-like Yowies -- which were blu-tacked to the inside of a window frame behind the shop's counter in a semi-permanent ligne d'erre: a squiggle of our consumption, our way of using the constraining order of the work place.

7There are many more examples of play, insofar as that means taking delight in inventiveness, trickery, guile, and ruse, than I can explore within the limits of this article, that the convenience store employee utilises to make do within the framework of subservience in which she or he operates. While I have only dealt with aspects of the employer and employee relationship here, there are certainly many tactics that are employed by the employee to deal with her or his similarly subservient position to the store's customers. For an insight into the dynamics of this relationship Clerks provides an all too brief expose of weird and unreasonable customer behaviour, in response to which the convenience store employee must, at least on the surface, appear to adopt the maxim 'the customer is always right'. Of course, as maxims go, this one is patently not true, but I'll leave it to you to reflect on your own experiences in the convenience store, so that you might ascertain how the person serving you is using tactics.