Georgia Stanley /Diana Newcomb
When Diana Newcomb looks back at a retail job she had in the 1970s, it sounds bonkers. She and other 20-somethings would sit in the office of a Rhode Island department store and tally sales stubs by hand. They would note sales in a ledger, like this: five pairs of boys size 6 Levi’s — sold.
“I was renting a garage apartment and living off of canned vegetables and Triscuits,” she says and laughs. “You know, I thought I was being independent. I was at that point.”
Newcomb is one of millions of women who built careers stitching together work like this. Retail is the most common job in America, and women hold the majority of jobs in clothing and department stores and gift and souvenir shops. They run cash registers everywhere. About a fifth tend to be 55 and older.
The pandemic recession tore through their stores. Thousands have shuttered. Major chains have gone bankrupt, including storied ones like Neiman Marcus, Brooks Brothers, Lord & Taylor. As other stores reopened, many workers, especially those who are older, felt afraid to put their health at risk. Almost 400,000 lost retail jobs have yet to recover. Newcomb’s is one of them.
“This is one of those times in life that you just don’t see coming,” Newcomb says. Now 67, she’s faced several personal crises on top of the pandemic, including a diagnosis of breast cancer.
Over the years, she has worked what she calls odd jobs: in a restaurant kitchen, at a salvage shop she ran with her husband in Oregon. She got an interior design degree, but time and again came back to sales work: a furniture store, then J.C. Penney. Newcomb was in her 60s when she and her husband separated.
Feeling lost, she did what she knew she could do well: retail. Newcomb got an apartment with her daughter, tied a nice old scarf around her neck and walked to Macy’s at a nearby outdoor mall. She got hired for the holidays and stayed — and soon got promoted to handbag specialist.
Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty