Quite a few authors must rise through some level of retail drudgery on their way to literary fame and fortune, but you don't often see those jobs reflected in their later work. You could spend an entire day or two listing novels about writers, but the only enjoyable roman à clef about a crappy retail job that I can recall right now is The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, in which Michael Chabon recounts a job at "Boardwalk Books" and how the large, impersonal bookstore transformed books for him from objects of mystery and wonder into merchandise fit solely for commercial transaction. Perhaps successful authors are skilled at avoiding "real jobs," instead hiding in MFA programs and writers' colonies. If that's true, it's a shame; retail environments make for some truly weird stories. Writers could pick up enough material for a lifetime of books if they were to work their way through college at a RadioShack.

The authors in Jeff Martin's The Retail Chronicles aren't household names. Colson Whitehead is the most famous author here, and his story of three years at an ice-cream parlor—"Most people think: Scooping ice cream, I could do that. But they don't understand the complexities, the high-stakes brinksmanship of the modern-day ice cream industry"—is so sarcastic that the page almost smokes with fury. Even with three great novels to his name, he can't let go of the waffle-cone horrors.

Not every author carries the same unruly, indignant rage that Whitehead does: Wendy Spero's adventure as a knife saleswoman remains wholesome and upbeat, even through the story's gruesome ending. But many more of the authors agree with Michael Beaumier, whose story begins, "It's been my experience that people don't have the slightest idea what they want, and will stop at nothing to get it." C. A. Conrad waxes romantic about a homeless woman who figures out how to use his bookstore's PA system; Wade Rouse recalls the Most Enthusiastic Sears Employee in the World, a man with a lisp who would sacrifice anything for his beloved "Sshheearrss."

Retail employees are paid to put up with humanity at its most petty and petulant. Customer replicates that joy of the after-shift bullshit session at the bar down the street, when the shop's been closed up and all the assholes have gone home until tomorrow. At 166 pages, Customer is too slight by half, but it at least represents a good start at the huge untapped mine of great retail stories that must be out there, waiting to be told. recommended