“In the early 80s my persona was larger than life with a too loud laugh and too-wide smile. I dressed in outlandish styles, bright colours, and oversized jewellery.” -Phyllis L Humby*
Humour is often difficult to write but Phyllis L Humby weaves her wit seamlessly in her memoir and debut trade book Hazards of the Trade, virtually launched by Crossfield Publishing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bravo, I say, and not because I know and have followed the journey of this seasoned writer for a long time (which I fully disclose here), but because she has a special gift.
Gregarious with a natural flair for creating entertaining stories, this Canadian writer and columnist often lights up a room with her infectious laughter. This unique ability to razzle-dazzle and woo her customers (and readers) is evident throughout her book.
Aptly subtitled: An Intimate Reveal of the 80s and 90s Lingerie Boom, her memoir shares the inner workings of a boutique she owned and operated in a small but prosperous southwestern Ontario community.
“Customers appreciate individual attention,” writes Humby in her story “Customized Care” “Well not all of them…” (p. 135)
“…We always knew when it was a full moon. We’d receive strange phone calls, some obscene. And there would be unusual requests and bizarre behavior. Just bizarre.” (p. 136)
If you are thinking of the books Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey stop right now. You may wish to look elsewhere. Humby’s writing style has more class than that. Her 190-page book features 21 tastefully written stand-alone chapters ranging from 3 to 12 ½ pages in length. Many of these sections remind me of her well-known columns written for a local business publication. Her recollections are personal, insightful, and humorous.
Her opening lines pull me into her memories. Her story “Cocktails at Four” launches with “Are you always this bitchy or are you having a bad day?” (p. 33) Her closing words are like the finishing touches to a well-made garment: “I nodded and carried the robe to the counter, grateful that is didn’t come with matching slippers.” (p. 86) Humby also has an excellent ear for dialogue, a great eye for details and often includes other sensory descriptions in her work.
For example, one of my favourite lines is “He left the room so swiftly that he outran his cologne.” (p. 146) I can almost smell that lingering scent. In an earlier story, she writes, “I sniffed again. My nose twitched like a hound dog following a trail, turning from one direction to another. Then I knew.” (p. 124)
Her funniest story “Fur Accessories” describes the discovery of a black squirrel in the boutique’s air ducts. Some stories are more serious but display different but strong storytelling attributes such as suspense or a hint of sexuality in the story “Revealing Sentiments”, or the poignant and reflective moments such as those in the tale “Leather and Lace”.
Did she mention shoplifters? You bet! For example, she reveals: “There are two kinds of shoplifters. Those who are scared to death of being caught and those who dare you to catch them.” (p. 40)
And her thoughts about changes to the lingerie business? “The fashion market had now taken on the semblance of a fruit and vegetable market with crowded stalls of rolling racks and small round tables.” (p. 177)
If I had to find one weakness in her book, I would suggest trimming some of the foreshadowing from the prologue and the first story “Purveyor of Fashion”. Hearing about the squirrel or the husband’s anniversary gift or the outfit for the mother in the casket or the stalker made me want to read more but it also weakened the build-up of suspense when the full story presented itself later in the book.
However, once I became absorbed in the memoir, her memories scanned beautifully from paragraph to paragraph.
As for the complementary and matching bookmark tucked neatly between the book’s pages, this small gesture is indicative of Humby’s customer service training and experience with slipping small gifts inside her customers’ gift bags.
Each pre-printed bookmark message stems from her heart: “Dear Readers…Sorry we can’t do this in person”
How touching during this time of social distancing!
Definitely an entertaining book to read while escaping from all our COVID-19 concerns!
*from the “Prologue” printed in Hazards of the Trade: An intiate reveal of the 80s and 90s lingerie boom (Crossfield Publishing, 2020) by Phyllis L Humby. (p. 6). Reprinted with the author’s permission. Copyright © the author. April 2020.
A Q and A with author Phyllis L Humby will be posted later this summer.
Additional information about Crossfield Publishing, Hazards of the Trade, and the author Phyllis L Humby appears here.
An earlier blog post with Humby and her involvement with the Our Plan to Save the World anthology appears here.