The Next Chapter

The only job Barbara Gowdy has ever been fired from

The author of Little Sister talks about the summer gig that she just couldn't do.
Barbara Gowdy is the author of the novel Little Sister. (Ruth Kaplan)

Barbara Gowdy is a three-time finalist for the Governor General's Literary Awards and a two-time finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Her latest book, Little Sister, follows a woman as she comes to terms with the death of her sister. But before Gowdy was an eminent author, she struggled to keep track of grocery store inventory.

"The oddest job I ever had was the first job I ever had, other than babysitting, and that was in 1965. It was a summer job and I was hired to be a comptometer operator. A comptometer was a medieval-style adding machine. It was very clunky and heavy. You had to stand above it and push down the keys very hard.

"What you would do as a comptometer operator is go to chain stores, like Dominion or Loblaws, and take inventory by going up and down the aisles. I found, on my first day, that I was singularly unqualified for this because I could not approximate. So say you're in front of the Gerber's aisle and there are roughly 40 cans of Gerber's at 30 cents each, that's 12 bucks. I had to count every single can and what do you know, there's 43 cans! If you made a mistake, there was no function to go back. You had to start all over again. I'm sure all the other comptometer operators, young women like me, were just thinking, 'So I'm out $100 by the end of the aisle.' But I was a perfectionist and still am. I had to start back at the beginning of the aisle and count all over again. I was fired, but it's the only job I was ever fired from."

Barbara Gowdy's comments have been edited and condensed.