Friday, April 12, 2013

The Bakery

I fired Betsy because she spent too much time arranging the loaves in the display window. I kept telling her, “We just need baskets so customers can see what we have and reach in to get what they need.” But she kept doing it her way. She spent hours creating elaborate constructions of wheat and sourdough, challah tucked into open spaces as support, round wreath loaves perched atop precarious towers.

Customers used to be able to choose and retrieve their own loaves from the window, until the day a thoughtless customer pulled out a loaf central to the integrity of a pyramid. The entire thing collapsed in on itself. At first the customer, a man in a gray suit coat and jeans, laughed and started to make a joke about the longevity of our pyramid versus the ones in Egypt. But then he caught Betsy’s eye and his laugh cut off so abruptly it sounded like a bark. He laid the loaf gently atop the collapsed pile, murmured “Sorry” so quietly I could only see his lips move, and speed-walked out of the store and down the street fast enough to count as his cardio for the day.

When I got to work the next day, Betsy had set up a barricade of low shelving and was manning the window. A customer would point to a specific loaf, and Betsy would retrieve it, hissing through her teeth when a structurally significant loaf was chosen. It was a several-minute process to choose an appropriate replacement loaf and wedge it delicately into the emerging space at the same time the chosen loaf was nudged out. I always watched this process with fascination, sure that sooner or later the architect would topple one of her own towers. They trembled a few times. One even started to lean until Betsy deftly laid her hand against the exact loaf that preserved the edifice. No tower ever fell.

It was fascinating, but it was too much. Customers had to wait ten minutes to buy a loaf of bread, a transaction that shouldn’t have taken more than three. And then there was the blatant insubordination. Every day I explained a different reason why I wanted the regular basket display. There was the time issue, the fact that customers like to choose their own bread—it’s one of our charms!—and the very reasonable concern that she spent so much time building and maintaining the bread towers that she didn’t have time to perform any of her other duties. 

Every day she nodded, as if she finally understood and the next day would return my wicker baskets to the window, a chastened but wiser employee. And every day when I arrived at work a new skyscraper of gluten awaited me.

So I fired her. I gave her all of my perfectly logical reasons for letting her go. She listened patiently, nodded once with no malice in her eyes, and took off her apron and left. The bell tinkling over the door was her only good bye. I sighed, disappointed that I’d have to come into work early until I was able to hire a new clerk, but relieved that my shop was mine again. I immediately went to the storeroom to retrieve my charming wicker baskets—so quaint! so vintage!—and some clean linen to line them with. There were no customers in the store, so I gleefully pulled a load-bearing loaf from the bottom of that day’s tower and jumped back to watch the entire thing collapse with soft thuds.

Yes, I fired the architect and then I flattened the tower. I did that. I, with my concern for customer convenience and shop atmosphere, am the reason we went out of business. When the towers stopped appearing in the window, the customers stopped coming in. One day I ran into a regular in the diner up the street, and she demurred, clearly lying, “Oh, we’re cutting gluten out of our diet. So unhealthy, I’ve heard.” One day I resorted to propping the front door open and shilling my wares on the street. “I don’t need any today, thanks!” was the invariable answer from the passersby.

Towers. To make it in today’s cut-throat bakery market you need an architect who knows how to build towers.

1st edit: Sat, 4/13/13, 8am.

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