Long-Suffering Checkout Lady Tells All - French Grocery Store Clerk Scans Eight Years of Insults and Indignities to Bag a Best-Selling Memoir

Anne Sam's book, "Tribulations of a Cashier," catapulted her from obscurity to fame. The lighthearted description of a grocery checkout clerk's life became a summertime sensation in France.
Anne Sam's book, "Tribulations of a Cashier," catapulted her from obscurity to fame. The lighthearted description of a grocery checkout clerk's life became a summertime sensation in France. (By Marc Olivier)
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 11, 2008

RENNES, France -- When Anna Sam entered the supermarket world as a part-time checkout clerk, she was 20 years old and still in college, intending to work for a short while to help finance her studies.

But graduation came and went, and no other jobs were available. So she stayed on. And on. Eight years went by, "beep, beep" at the cash register day after day. Anna Sam, student of modern literature, had become a checkout lady. Her professional universe had been reduced to a supermarket behind the soccer stadium in this Brittany city 200 miles west of Paris.

Then in June came the book "Tribulations of a Cashier," which catapulted Sam from obscurity at the checkout line to fame as a best-selling author. The book, a lighthearted account of what it is like to ring up sales all day long for customers who hardly acknowledge your presence, became a summertime sensation, selling about 100,000 copies.

"It is so easy to read that even supermarket customers can read it," Sam said in an interview, offering a glint of the soft malice that runs through her 190-page memoir.

The success of her book and the fame it has earned her are proof that, even in an increasingly complicated world, ordinary people can still change things in France by putting forth strong ideas and compelling political leaders to listen. From the beginning, Sam said, her goal was to describe life in the workplace from the perspective of someone who had actually been there, not someone who had studied it in graduate school or read a government report on it.

"This shows we are not condemned to listen only to those who govern us," she said. "A normal person can raise his voice and be heard."

Since summer, the book has inspired a movie project, with a script that tells the Cinderella story of Anna Sam. Other writers have come up with a musical to be produced by the Paris actor and director Jackie-Georges Canal. Publishers have decided to put out a comic book version. Translations have been negotiated in the Netherlands, Italy, Portugal, Brazil, Germany, Spain and Taiwan.

Sam, suddenly a celebrity, has been invited to appear on television talk shows to explain to French people the deeper meaning of something most of them experience at least once a week. She was summoned this week by a French parliamentary commission, eager for her views on whether the law should be changed to allow stores to open Sundays. A German company that makes checkout stations recently hired her to advise its engineers on what cashiers would like to see in their product.

Sam, now 29, said she and her colleagues, most of them women, teased one another over the years about how they should write a book detailing the indignities they were forced to suffer. Slights came from the bosses, who knew the women needed their jobs. But mostly they came from the customers, many of whom seemed to regard checkout clerks as part of the machinery -- the cash register, the moving belt, the credit card gizmo and, oh, yes, the tired-looking woman in a little smock swiping bar codes over the scanner.

"I always said hello and thank you," Sam recalled. "It's a minimum. But people didn't understand."

Sam started raising her voice last year in a blog, where she provided a running account of what went on in the world of checkout ladies. The blog attracted a large number of readers, some of whom messaged back their encouragement. It also attracted several newspaper reporters, who visited Sam and her husband, Richard, and wrote articles describing this new voice for the underdogs.

The Paris publishing houses, it turned out, were listening, and some saw the opportunity for a bestseller. Several publishers approached her in the spring, Sam said, and she picked Stock, the one she felt would give her work its due. The checkout ladies were about to be heard.

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