Help Wanted by Adelle Waldman: ‘To all retail workers’

Cover image for Help Wanted by Adelle WaldmanThat subtitle is Help Wanted’s touching dedication which had me predisposed to like Adelle Waldman’s novel from the outset. My only experience of retail is bookselling which has left me with a fellow feeling for all who work in this low wage sector which has become increasingly insecure. Help Wanted is about the logistics section of a branch of department store chain, Town Square, in a small New York town which has seen better days.

Time was of the essence. Corporate insisted the unload take no more than an hour. If they took a minute longer, Meredith, an executive manager, had to submit a “failure report”, as she called it. Having to do that guaranteed she’d be on the warpath for the rest of the morning.

Pottersdown has never recovered from IBM’s departure, relying on a burst of summer tourist trade plus weekenders to keep its businesses going. Established in the early twentieth century, Town Square prided itself on customer service and quality but intense online competition has resulted in constant budget cuts while attempting to appease customers wanting the same level of service at internet prices. Big Will, the store’s popular manager, has done his best in Pottersdown but is both thrilled and relieved by the promotion that will take him back to Connecticut where he plans to settle down. The staff are all agog, not least Meredith, the loathed manager of Movement, who’s convinced the job is hers for the asking. When Big Will announces senior management plan to wrap up the appointment speedily, asking the logistics staff what they think of Meredith’s management style, Val hits on a novel solution, convincing the others to join her. As is so often the case, things don’t go entirely to plan.

The online retailer – this was how Town Square executives always referred to its competitor, as if this bookstore-that-wasn’t-really-a-bookstore had occult powers by which the utterance of its name would strengthen it – enjoyed several key advantages, above and beyond not having to bear the cost of maintaining a network of physical stores. For one, it wasn’t saddled with the legacy costs – pensions and benefits – that stemmed from decades of being a good employer. 

Waldman’s empathetic novel takes aim at the ubiquitous online store which has made itself indispensable to so many consumers while never naming it. Her narrative shifts from character to character engaging our sympathy for the hard-pressed Movement staff on minimum wage with no benefits or medical insurance. With just four hours work each day, all are juggling other jobs just to keep afloat. Waldman tells her story with a good deal of humour, carefully avoiding making Meredith a caricature, ending on a note of hope for most of her characters. I enjoyed this novel which explores the consequences of twenty-first century consumerism and its appetite for ever cheaper goods in an entertaining and engaging way while smartly bringing its readers up short now and again. In the end someone has to pay.

Serpent’s Tail: London 9781805221654 288 pages Hardback (read via NetGalley)

22 thoughts on “Help Wanted by Adelle Waldman: ‘To all retail workers’”

    1. Me, too. I hadn’t read it when I put my wishlist together otherwise I would have included it. Not a subject much written about in fiction and Waldman handles it well.

  1. It seems the messages apparently delivered by this book can’t be delivered too often, and if it’s done with wit and a light touch, so much the better. I’ll look out for this. Thanks.

  2. I just finished this! I liked her commitment to making every character at least slightly sympathetic, although I found some more fleshed out than others. My favourite (not in terms of likeability, but complexity) was Milo.

    1. Milo’s storytelling skills were clearly wasted! I thought she managed to make some serious points about low paid, mundane yet undervalued work in a very entertaining way. She must surely have worked in retail at some stage.

  3. Always enjoy a satire about the workplace, and I’ve read a few real-life accounts of working in low-paid retail jobs as well.

  4. As soon as I heard about this one, I thought of you, suspecting you would enjoy it as much as I expect to myself. Great concept. (I was concerned it might not be available as immediately in the U.K. but there it its!)

  5. I often like novels about workplaces, albeit usually the ones I read are backlisted, workplaces of a different generation. Still this sounds well done, with some added satire which I also like.

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