RIP, Len Druskin stores: How I grew up and found everlasting friendship working at the Galleria shop

Len Druskin Outlet in City Center in Minneapolis.

Len Druskin Outlet in City Center in Minneapolis. Joel Koyama

You don’t expect to find a family amidst a jumble of rolling racks or behind a register.

When you work a retail job, you expect to clock in, help someone find a new pair of designer jeans, clock out, and go back to your regular life. That’s what I thought when I started my full-time job at Len Druskin Galleria in 2010. I never would’ve believed that I’d meet the people who became my family there, but I did, and no pair of Citizens of Humanity jeans will ever be quite as precious as that.

The LEN stores have just closed; the City Center location reopened under a new name, and Len Druskin as we knew it closed last summer after moving from the Galleria to Southdale. Now that the stores have closed, I’m more and more thankful for my years there.

I started working at Len Druskin right out of college; I had a journalism degree, and basically everyone who spoke to our classes told us to get the hell out of this industry, and fast. I needed a job, though, and I was obsessed with clothes, so it seemed like a good fit. I was terrified to start; all my new coworkers seemed so cool and stylish and confident, and Len himself had very specific instructions as to how one should aide his customers. But I learned fast, and soon I could fit and sell $200 jeans with the best of ‘em.

Len Druskin was a family-owned business, and Len Druskin is a real person. His son took over in the ‘00s, and following that Len Druskin stores expanded into LENs in nearly every ‘dale. In 2010, when I started, the Galleria store was still busy, and fitting rooms were hard to come by on a Saturday afternoon.

Many bought their first pair of sparkly True Religions or a candy-colored Juicy Couture sweatsuit at Len Druskin, or waited outside for one of their legendary blowout sales. Len Druskin helped bring these lines to the Twin Cities, and dressed its citizens in the mid-aughts’ hottest trends, all before the plaid-and-flannel heritage style came in with its clunky Red Wing boots and changed the dynamic of local retail.

I did all my growing up at Len Druskin. It was the first time I’d made actual money, and was entrusted with keys and codes. But the lessons went way past counting down the drawers at night. I wouldn’t be the person I am now without those four crazy years, wherein I threw up in every store’s bathroom while hungover, slept on a table in the break room more than once, kissed my coworkers over Wondrous Punch at the Red Dragon (Len’s old favorite), stayed up all night on Black Friday in the dark and dead Skyway, spent all my paychecks on Rag & Bone, and figured out who I was -- with the help and love of my new family, of course.

Working retail is not an easy job. Everyone should spend at least a few months working a service job, because you learn a lot about your fellow humans fast, and become a more patient, understanding person. The hours are long and your feet hurt. Customers can be equally lovely and unbearable, and people constantly surprise you.  I learned that everyone has a story, and that you can learn from everyone who crosses your path, even if you never see them again. And when you spend eight to 10 hours with your coworkers, you’re bound to get close fast.

And we got close. Really, really close. Occasionally, we got too close. (Oops.)

When I think of my time at Len Druskin, I don’t think about nasty customers or 12-hour shifts on a slow Tuesday in June. I think about dancing between the racks in my coworker Anthony’s arms, the customers who’d bring us Dairy Queen, the welcoming hugs, the jokes and the pranks, and the sheer joy of knowing I was going to spend the entire day with people I really, truly loved.

Most of us left the confines of Len Druskin and its offshoot stores when things started to go downhill. We went to other stores or joined the corporate world. But that doesn’t mean that family feeling died. Now we meet for Sunday dinners and drink white wine on the patio, blasting ‘90s rap music in the kitchen while we do the dishes or take a Monday evening barre class. When one of us needs a soft place to land, the others are there. We laugh, we cry, we share shoes. We’ve seen each other through heartbreaks (shoutout to all of you who listened to my boy problems), weddings, babies, surgeries, and illnesses.

The gates may have closed on LEN and Len Druskin, but I’ll never forget what, and who, it gave me.