Monday, June 1, 2009

The Greatest Store in the Greatest State, Part II

Joske’s really was the Greatest Store in the Greatest State.  They literally had EVERYTHING---and what they didn’t have, they could probably arrange.  Couture, furniture, a grand full-scale travel agency, a Boot department, Saddle department, and Tack department; the Camellia Room downtown; a Real Estate Agency (featuring Farm and Ranch); you name it, Joske’s had it.

Again, Neiman-Marcus had that reputation among the chi-chi in Dallas, but Joske’s had the reputation in South Texas and South of the Border.

When I worked there, the Mexico customers were something else.  Many folks don’t realize that there are a lot of very wealthy people in Mexico (Mexico City is bigger than New York)---and they frequently come to the US to shop. 

I wound up being manager of the luggage department at Joske’s North Star, and was always amazed at the Mexico customers.  You could tell one of them was coming, they usually had an entourage.  An incredibly aristocratic blonde (think “Evita”), dressed in the latest couture, accompanied by her assistants, would sweep into the luggage department and buy a complete set (all 46 pieces) of Hartmann Belting Leather luggage for her upcoming trip to Europa.  (I was, at one time, the #1 Hartmann Luggage salesperson in the state of Texas, and #4 nationally; I still love Hartmann; if you want the best, that’s it).  My favourite demo was to put a Hartmann 26 inch 2-suiter (we had one that had ink stains on it we had written out of stock) on the floor---and stand on it while I sold the customer on the many fine attributes of Hartmann Luggage.  Sold ‘em every time.

We had a “fine foods” department, featuring exotic food items from around the globe, but especially from Texas and the Southwest.  I’ll never forget, I was standing in the Luggage/Stationery/Gourmet/Candy/Notions/Books/Camera department (1/4 of the main sales floor) one day when one of the salespeople asked me to help a difficult customer.  I enquired of the gentleman, and it seems he had a tin of rattlesnake meat (!) from *1966* (we used gum tags, and they had the date code on them) that he had found in a drawer (this was 1974).  He wished to return it for credit. 

I told him I’d have to ask the manager (knowing what the reaction would be), and, trembling, had “Mister A. B. Jones” paged.

Mr. Jones was the God-Emperor of the main floor.  We were all terrified of him, but we all worshipped the ground he walked on.  A retired Marine Corps General, native of Columbus, Georgia, Mr. Jones was 6’4, clocked in about 300, had a mane of white hair, thick glasses, and walked around with a cigar chomped in his teeth (flagrant violation of every rule in the book).  He was also manager of Men’s clothing, and was always perfectly, flawlessly, immaculately dressed.  He had a voice like a foghorn and never seemed to realize that he was no longer a Marine General and we were not his troops. (“JONES!”, he’d bellow at me in front of fellow employees, customers, and whoever else was around, “if yew wud just apply your wuthless GD ass, you might make something of your m*****rf*****g stupid seff!”  It sounds harsh, but he wanted me to be the very best I could be; he strove for excellence himself and demanded that we do the same; we were the better for it).  In short, though, his cussing would make a hardened Marine blush.  He did it at the top of his (considerable) lungs.

So I paged Mr. Jones (our PBX operator, Sallie, who also paged people, was a 60 year old alcoholic Texas “gal” who had smoked waaay too many Marlboros, had her bouffant blonde hairdo piled up on top of her head (of course), and wore tiny, spikey high-heeled shoes, miniskirts, huge jewelry, huge glasses, and enough makeup to put a clown in the circus to shame; I believe she single-handedly kept our Elizabeth Arden boutique in business.  We loved her, too.  She would NOT put up with Mr. Jones’ crap, she gave as good as she got.  This made us love her all the more; she and Mr. Jones had worked together and carried on civilized warfare for years).  “Mistuh AAAAAYYY BEEEEE JONES, puh-leeze” she’d drawl out over the storewide intercom.  (He’d bray, “Whut the GD Hell do you want?” into the phone in response).  If she had to page him more than once (which was every time; he ignored her on purpose…), the more times she had to page, the more drawn out the page would be.  “Mistuh AAAAAAAAAAAAAYYYYYY BBBBEEEEEEEEEEEEE *JONES*, PUH-LEEEEEZE!”

(You’d be paged, then go to the nearest phone and hit something like *8 to be connected to the page.  I tried NEVER to be paged; you really didn’t want that happening…because if it did, Mr. Jones would come barrelling out of the men’s department, cigar blazing, to see why you were not at your post and had to be paged.)

So there I was, standing there with the customer with the 8 year old tin of rattlesnake meat at one register, the one in Gourmet.  Mr. Jones walked up to the neighboring register, in Notions, and hit *8.  I could *hear* him both on the phone AND verbally across the 20 feet of open air that separated us. 

“Ah, Mr. Jones, this is Nick at the Gourmet register; I have a gentleman here who wants to return an 8 year old tin of rattlesnake meat; what should I tell him?”

Mr. Jones (in a voice they could hear at Camp Pendleton, 1,000 miles away): “YOU TELL THAT MFSOB IF HE’S GOT ENOUGH GD GALL TO BRING IT BACK, I’VE GOT ENOUGH GD GALL TO TAKE IT BACK!!!!!”  Of course the customer HEARD every word, as A. B. had intended. He turned bright red, and I refunded his money. ;-)

I thought A. B. was wonderful.

(He had a heart attack and died---too many cigars; too much bourbon; too many blueberry muffins from the snack bar downstairs; they were fantastic, handmade every morning on-site, dripping with butter and crusted with confectioners sugar.  Management closed the entire store chain in his honour, and the funeral procession was miles long.  They took out a full-page ad in the Light, which I still have, honouring him.  I still remember him very fondly.  He was a great guy).


More Joske’s in the next installment, including memories from some of my friends.


  1. Love these stories, but what's up with the link back to my Bridge Club post?

  2. Uhhh, what? Bridge Club post? I don't see a link to that?