I gasped when I first saw Saleslady. Department store novels are fascinating, and department store romances are a sub-genre I have been searching for over the years. I had been looking intermittently for Saleslady by Harold Morrow for about a year and a half when I saw this copy at the 2014 New York Antiquarian Book Fair. Any 1930s book collector could see the instant appeal of Saleslady. I mean, she’s holding up underthings! On the front cover!! In 1932!!!
The Mach Tey cover art is a bit torn up near our protagonist’s face, but no matter. Although I couldn’t capture it well with a picture, the cover art extends to the spine of the book so that a “Lingerie Dept.” sign is clearly visible under the title and author.
Saleslady opens with the main character interviewing and finding employment, in this case, in a department store. Ex-Broadway girl Queenie Sullivan exudes confidence and through the tale of her landing a job at Marshall’s Department Store, we see that she is the most “high hat” character to date, even more than the main character in High Hat! A former show girl with a questionable past, Queenie lands a job in the lingerie department. She is immediately paired up with sensible Ida, but draws attention to herself through loud antics. Queenie receives unwanted advances from a higher up and must navigate the treacherous waters of being supervised by a two-faced floor manager.
Saleslady is set smack in the depression and Marshall’s Department Store struggles to stay above water. They try holding a gimmicky swimsuit sale led by Queenie. As some modern day department stores that will go unnamed could use to learn, quality products win out over silly gimmicks, and the fictional Marshall’s sale backfired when their products proved to be defective. Finally, Marshall’s Department Store hires Stephen Alden to turn the store around. He starts by calling a mandatory meeting. The store workers, who already had their paychecks cut, are clearly resentful of being called in extra unpaid hours to hear a pep talk.
At this point, the story becomes fantastical. Stephen promotes Queenie to be his assistant and together, they produce a musical play to promote positive employee in-store behaviors. A play depicting staff training instructions through song sounds painful. The tale of how a department store manager can properly score a musical and how employees just all happen to perform with Broadway quality requires an abundance of suspension of disbelief. The play is so popular that it even launches as a regular theater production for a non-department store audience! I’ve read time travel novels that sound more plausible.
Queenie’s rise is abruptly threatened when her past resurfaces. Her mother abandoned her at a boardinghouse and Queenie never knew her father. Of course, as is the case in these types of romances, her father just happens to be the millionaire owner of Marshall’s department store. Everything wraps up nicely, as these stories often do, and Queenie doesn’t even have to work a holiday season in the department store!