In retail liquor, customer relations can be stressful


The officially announced recession, which just as officially was declared at end more than a year ago, really hasn’t made much of a difference in Oscar Tanner’s life. He has remained employed and hasn’t altered his spending or shopping habits. He has, however, gone from renting to owning, having recently been approved to purchase a house. 

“I’ve never changed,” he reflects, “because the economy has always been bad. The government has a way of putting wool over America’s eyes, but [the economy] has never been okay. So, I’ve never changed the way I think.

“I’ve never been a big material person. My father raised me that what we want in life you have to sacrifice for it. But, so far as this economy goes, I spend the way I always have. Because it’s always been messed up. The money’s been gone.”

Since 2008, he has worked in a downtown Minneapolis liquor store. Oscar came along at the right time, when the store was in a state of flux, changing ownership. After a year and a half, he was promoted to assistant manager and now is lead manager of the late shift (four in the afternoon to closing at 10).

“I get the most responsibility,” he says, half-jokingly adding, “Whenever anything goes wrong, whatever it is, it’s all on me.” Those responsibilities, as generally is the case in retail, fall along the lines of the old phrase “chief cook and bottle washer.”

No job is too big or small to land in Oscar’s lap. He is accorded the sensitive task of interacting with the bank, making deposits for the store, and carrying large dollar amounts over to come back with change for the cash register.

By the end of the day, several staff have manned the register, ringing up countless sales, and it falls to him to both oversee this personnel and tally up the tape so that money in the drawer matches figures on the receipts. If anything doesn’t add up, be it at the bank or at the register, the owners come looking for one person — Oscar Tanner.

He also pitches in to help out with the grunt work. “Sometimes, when you walk in the door, you wouldn’t think I’m the manager.” That’s when he’s in accord with another time-worn expression that goes, “a-holes and elbows.” If all his subordinates are tied up with the midday, early evening or last-minute night rush, duties like floor-sweeping, bottle-dusting and shelf-stocking still have to get done.

“My biggest thing,” he notes, “is dealing with customers.” That, of course, goes without saying in retail. However, we are not talking shoe shop, bodega or card store. We’re talking a liquor outlet smack in the middle of downtown Minneapolis with a great deal of traffic from the well-heeled who happen to work in the vicinity or be staying at a ritzy hotel next door or across street, as well as threadbare wastrels streaming in from the nearby homeless shelter or wherever else they flopped last night.

Tending to customers takes on a new, improved sense of expecting the unexpected. “You have to be,” he says, “a strong person in the evening time, working with the general public and alcohol. It’s stressful. You can come out of character if you let people get to you who are dealing with their addiction.”

And the longer the night goes on, the more he and his co-workers are contending with folk who couldn’t reasonably be considered social drinkers. They are, pure and simple, drinking to get drunk. “My responsibility is to keep a positive attitude toward situations we have going on here.”

True enough, Tanner isn’t easily riled. He maintains a low-key demeanor and speaks respectfully to all. There is that about his person, though, that does not encourage stupid behavior, drunken or otherwise. And once you force his hand, he’ll either show you the door or push a button below the register that summons a nearby cop.

“We have to put at least two or three people out a day, because they can’t act right,” Tanner acknowledges. “After we gave them chance after chance.” Then, of course, you have those who walk in the door already lit. Legally, the store must refuse them service. Which does not make for cordial interaction.

“Sometimes we just have to be the bad guy. I’ve been called all the names in the book.” Not everyone is cut out to handle it. Turnover has been high. As Tanner says, “[A lot of people] can’t handle the amount of stress.”

So, he deals with the hard economy and holds down a fairly tough job. What does he think about the way President Obama is going about making change the everyday man and woman can believe in?

“The last time I checked, he was talking about Super Bowl and basketball and other things that [don’t] matter. We were so happy to get a Black man into office. We wanted [someone] to do things such as Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. And we didn’t get it.

“That’s what I’m saying about the wool over our eyes. We have a Patriot Act and he hasn’t said one thing about it. That’s taking away my freedom. To me, Obama is a puppet who fooled everyone. He talked about change. What did he change?  People from the [civil rights] struggle were looking for real change.”


Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.