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Working at Jo-Ann's: Real-World Graduate School

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Message Sandra Lindberg

Conventional--mainstream--traditional wisdom argues that the personal perspective of a writer has no place in a news story. But in a world where we've been down so long it looks like up to me--in a world ruled by people who wield concepts like sabers, I must tell the truth and shame the devil.

When I fled academia because I finally had to admit that my willing embrace of a fantasy paid my mortgage and guaranteed that students who had studied with me would be working minimum-wage jobs after graduation as they searched for stardom--I'd been a theatre professor, after all--when I woke up with a grand hangover after over twenty years teaching acting, I was still addicted to life as myth. I still thought that my belief in a fanciful reality could make it real both to myself and to others with  whom I spoke. In other words, leaving academics had not completely cured me of my taste for imaginary versions of reality.

A case in point: who else but a theatre professor would imagine that she could have a good time working as a sales clerk for Jo-Ann Fabrics? But that is exactly what I convinced myself I could do. In retrospect, I now think of my year at Jo-Ann's as real-world research. What I saw and was required to do at this store also feels like a 21st-century form of penance. Sheltered within a university's walls, I had no real understanding of what sales clerks across our country must cope with every single day. At Jo-Ann's I experienced first-hand what students holding undergraduate degrees, in a field that offers no paying jobs, will encounter when they accept retail jobs to pay off their college loans. I think of my year with this company as a sobering graduate-school experience in which I came to better understand how many, many people in our country are forced to spend their working hours.

In March of 2013, wearing my friendliest smile, I walked into the local Jo-Ann Fabrics store, identified the most mature, knowledgeable-looking woman on the sales floor, and asked if she would take a look at the samples of sewn, knitted and embroidered pieces I'd brought in for her to see. 

My home-made needlepoint pillow
My home-made needlepoint pillow
(Image by Sandra Lindberg)
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Though she seemed the most likely candidate for store manager, and though she admired the tailored jacket, knitted pullover, and needlepoint pillow (the one pictured is from a kit created by Ehrman Tapestry: I'd brought in to demonstrate my handiwork skills, she told me two things that--if I'd really been listening--I would have considered very deeply. One, she was not the store manager. The twenty-one-year-old who looked frazzled and uncertain was, as the older woman termed it, "manager of the day." MOD, they call them at Jo-Ann's. And two, applications for sales positions are not filled out in the store; they are filled out on line using the Jo-Ann Corporate website. I thanked this friendly woman who had steered me right, and then went home to apply for a sales position at Jo-Ann's using their on-line site. I should have been paying attention to the corporate philosophy inherent in these details.

You see, when I was twenty-one I'd worked for a fabric store and really enjoyed the experience. Now at loose ends, and needing a little extra income before my retirement kicked in, I thought I'd employ my crafting skills by working part-time at a fabric store in 2014.

I had no idea how much working retail had changed. But, because the store manager did hire me, I spent the next twelve months learning exactly how selling fabric to American women had embraced the most ruthless of corporate strategies. What I experienced was a huge departure from business practices of 1978.

So What's Jo-Ann Fabrics?

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Sandra holds a B.S. in theatre, and an M.A. in theatre criticism from Illinois State University. Her M.F.A. is from the Professional Actor Training Program at the Old Globe Theatre--University of San Diego. She also recently completed a Paralegal (more...)

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