Monthly Archives: December 2013
It’s been a difficult Christmas. But aren’t they all?
There are a lot of reasons that go into why; from the typical Christmas present buying stress that everyone feels to the typical Christmas present shopping stress that every retail employee feels (the knowledge that before or after your shift of dealing with stupid people, you have to become one of the stupid people); there’s certain ‘first Christmas’ jitters that comes with a new relationship, with new friends, new people. All of these things, if left unchecked, can add a little more anxiety to the already rushed and overwhelming holiday season.
There’s the stress involved in surviving a retail Christmas when the team of people you depend on for exactly that—to survive; to make it out without too severe a nervous tick or a larger drinking problem then at the start—has changed. A few months before the holiday season kicked into gear a total management shift left me with a team that I didn’t know. This was a team pulled together from multiple stores, with new skills and ways of doing things. I was depending on strangers, essentially, and counting on people I didn’t know to pull together during the most intense period of time in retail. That experience alone is already a difficult process, but to do it during the time of year when we’re already overworked and ready to collapse can be a recipe for disaster.
I’ve survived. More or less.
I’ve survived because of something that happened to me the first Christmas I worked at the bookstore. No, it wasn’t the Mary-Kate & Ashley Olsen official fan club key-chain I found on the floor that year. Sadly, that was lost when my car was broken into or I’d still have my store keys hanging from it. (I’ve been on the lookout since for a new one, in case you come across one) It wasn’t the keychain, it wasn’t a physical thing so much as it was something that happened. I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone this story, but it comes to me every once in a while when I get run down at work. When I get exhausted, frustrated and question why I’m doing this, why I want to work here anymore, this is what I remember. It’s good to have a story like this.
I was hired in the spring to work in the stockroom, but a week or two before Thanksgiving I got pulled out onto the book floor. I was going up to the Show, right? This was my big chance to help out at the customer service desk. To the detriment of my sanity, I’ve remained out there pretty much ever since. It seems, unfortunately, that I’m quite good at it. I am apparently able to switch on this alternate persona of “Customer Service Matt” who is cheerful and talkative, and able to engage in smalltalk.
That’s how I ended up working Christmas Eve. That’s how I ended up finding that Olsen twins key-chain. That’s how, about a half hour or so before we closed, I met this mother. At that point in the night we were all chomping at the bit a little. We could taste the eggnog waiting at home and wanted to close up, sticker all the calendars half-off as quickly as possible and get out. We were all in recovery mode, which means putting back together a store that just did two days’ worth of sales in eight hours. We were tired. We were dragging. Everything hurt.
What customers were left fell into two categories: oblivious that it was Christmas Eve or pissed off at us that we didn’t have whatever book they just realized they needed. The book they were looking for was either some obscure title that hasn’t been in print in this country in twenty years, or the must-have biography that year that’s been on backorder across the entire world since Thanksgiving. You don’t want to deal with either group. They’re both complete time-sucks.
A woman came up to me as I was straightening up a table. She was a little frazzled and asked about a specific children’s book. Just what I needed. Half an hour to go and I was forced to venture into the post-apocalyptic wasteland that was the Children’s Department. On a Wednesday night in July you can’t get within five feet of Childrens’ without losing an hour of your life, but during the Christmas season? You stumble out days later, disoriented and near death, hoping one of the girls from the café is nearby with a tray of cheesecake samples you can gorge yourself on.
It only got worse after looking up this title that I had never heard of before as it turned out we had one copy. One. It had come in back in July. It could be anywhere. It could be nowhere. All I could imagine was ending my first retail Christmas by having my ass handed to me by this petite blonde woman over a kid’s book she had realized twenty minutes ago was the most important thing in the world to her.
And so we went to search the shelves, excavate the debris of discarded holiday purchases, forgotten coffee cups, narrowly avoiding a collapsing cardboard display, and what I hoped to Krampus was only a brownie mashed into the carpet. I was a retail Indiana Jones on a quest for the one true cup—or book. This was life or death. The clock was ticking here; the first closing announcement was moments away.
In this situation you’re prepared for one of two reactions from the customer: a burning festive fury or utter indifference. Either you don’t have the book and you just ruined their Christmas, in which case they will make sure you damn well know what a disappointment you are, or you have it and get a mumbled thank you (if that, in some cases) as they run for the registers.
But there it was! I slid it off the shelf slowly, silently, in complete awe at its pristine condition. I was as surprised as she was it was there and I have to admit, I was pretty proud of myself. Deep down I didn’t expect her to share my excitement or even congratulate me on what I saw as winning a hard-fought battle. It was less than that, I didn’t even expect a thank you. I expected her to take the book and disappear into the fog of faceless, thankless customers that had come before her.
Instead, she hugged me.
With tears in her eyes she explained why, at the last minute, she needed this particular book. Her son was sick. He was spending his Christmas in the hospital and I got the impression that he had been hospitalized for a quite a while. On Christmas Eve she had remembered this book, perhaps it was one she had read as a kid, that book that somehow retained all of wonder and excitement that Christmas possesses for you as a child and suddenly wanted to share that with him. There was nothing more she wanted then to spend Christmas Eve reading it to her son. More than any other gift, she wanted to read this story to him, she wanted to share this story, this piece of Christmas magic with him.
She said it was a Christmas miracle. I’d heard that phrase a few times already, and countless times since. Most of the time now we mean it more as a joke than anything else. We found a book actually shelved alphabetically by author like it was supposed to be. Christmas miracle. More often than not we’d find that Christmas miracle in a pile of discarded books for us to put back on the shelf later that night. That saying doesn’t carry much weight anymore. The miracle lasts right up until the moment they see how long the line is. But this one was.
I don’t know her name; I didn’t ask her son’s. I didn’t ask what hospital he was in and I don’t know if he’s even still alive. I believe he is. I decided years ago he was, and not just because this would be a terrible story otherwise. Of course, I wouldn’t recognize the woman now; it’s been too long and there have been too many faces since. She could have come in a hundred times since then and I wouldn’t have known. But I remember the tears in her eyes and I remember her story.
When this store, this job, when this holiday season that’s lost its spark starts crushing me and I feel defeated by the negativity of customers or coworkers, and expectations, by my own pessimism, and by the seemingly endless repetitious pointlessness of it all, I remember this story.
I remember there was one copy of that book, just one copy that had sat lost and ignored on the shelf, unwanted as the thousands of people tore at the titles around it. One copy that, at the last minute, was needed to share this sliver of love and wonder and Christmas magic with a little boy too sick to spend Christmas Eve in his own bed at home. I hope he remembers that story, and remembers to be thankful for the people he spends his holidays with, for the experiences each day that make all this worth it. I hope he reads that book to his kids years from now and maybe he even tells them how their grandmother suddenly went out on Christmas Eve to find it for him they stayed up late while she read it to him. He should add to his version of the story a terrible snow storm his mother had to battle through. It might add a little more excitement to it. A little embellishment isn’t so bad. Over the years of remembering and clinging to this story I may have exaggerated my memory of it. I might remember him as being much sicker then he was. For all I know he only had a broken leg or his tonsils out, and his mother is a very emotional woman who unintentionally led me to believe the kid was on his deathbed. I like the story I have now. It’s a good story. It’s special to me.
I hope the story that he has to be special for him. I hope that picture book gives him a reason to find that something hopeful and brand new in a holiday that so many of us have buried beneath a pile of meaningless presents.
So I remember.
I remember this mother, running out at the last minute on Christmas Eve, not to buy some toy or other empty thing, but instead to buy this book, a story, an opportunity to create a beautiful memory in being able to read this story to her son. That’s the only Christmas miracle I believe in.
Maybe you said it enough for both of us that night, with tears in your eyes and the excitement of going back to your son victorious, but I’m the one who should have said it. Thank you.
If you’re not going to listen to what I tell you, then why did you ask me in the first place? This one’s for all those customers that will ask for a book and then question everything I do to find it for them. I work here. I have worked here for a long time. Please, stop judging me only by my incredibly handsome face, I also know what the hell I’m doing. So shut up, just shut up. If you were so great at finding books, why’d you even ask for my help?
Guy: Yeah, can you help me? My kid wants this book, it’s called Alice, by Stacy Cordially. And I need some, what are they, wimpy diaries?
Me: Ok, we might have a copy of Alice in our Biography section, and then I’ll take you back to our Kids’ department.
Guy: Why are you looking here?
Me: Because Alice is a biography.
Guy: Oh. Is it supposed to be here?
I always want to ask them why I would be looking for a book that was not supposed to be here. Why? Why would I see that we had zero in the store and go look for it anyway? How stupid do you people think we are, that we would look for something that does not exist?
Guy: Why are you looking under R, her name’s Alice.
Me: She was a Roosevelt, so it’s supposed to be under R.
Guy: But it’s not there, great.
Me: I don’t know, that’s why I’m looking at the shelf.
I’m muttering to myself while scanning the shelves. She was born a Roosevelt but married a Longworth, maybe its under L? Not there, double-check R, just in case. I know this because I looked at the cover of the book. This isn’t time consuming research I did, I read the cover. Problem is, the book came in back in March. March to December. We’re three days out from Christmas and this book hasn’t been seen since March. This book could be anywhere.
Me: All right, I’m going to check in the back for Alice, but I’ll take you back to the Children’s Department, and you can take a look at the Wimpy Kid books.
Guy: Yeah, where are those wimpy books, are you going to show me those? Where is that?
Me: Yes. They’re in the… I’m taking you there right now.
We get back there, I point out the newest book and the new blank diary that looks just like the main character’s diary. That’s pretty cool. I assumed he would just need the newest book in the series since Wimpy Kid is like crack to these kids. They swift fury and determination with which they pre-order these books is unparalleled outside of sci-fi/fantasy fandoms.
Guy: We have up until the last three or something, where’s the rest of them?
Me: The rest of them are on the shelf here, they’re numbered on the side, here’s 5 and 7. Let me check for number six.
Guy: Aren’t these numbered, who are you supposed to know the order they go in?
Me: Yeah. There are numbers on the side. That’s… that’s the order they go in. Ok, here’s number six, there’s also a boxed set with five through—
Guy: But you don’t have book three?
Me: Why… you said you had that one. You needed the last three.
Guy: Which ones are those?
Me: Five, six and seven.
Despite having them in my hand and holding them out to him while I say this, the guy turns around and starts scanning the shelf, then pulls off books 5 and 7. I try to point this out to him, but he doesn’t hear me. He’s searching for book 6, which I had to get from another display because it wasn’t on the shelf. Which he should know, because he was standing there the entire time.
Guy: Well that’s too bad though, you don’t have book three.
Me: You don’t need… forget it. I’m going to go find Alice.
That was under C in Biography, mistakenly shelved by the author’s last name, which was Cordery. I’ll see you the day after Christmas when you want to exchange your Wimpy Kid books for the ones I tried to sell you in the first place. You won’t have the receipt either will you?
Some customers are content to ask just one bookseller a question and call it a day. Some customers prefer to ask every bookseller they can find the exact same question for a variety of reasons, from the completely innocent to the downright mean-spirited; they’re crazy, they’re 104 and don’t remember the answer, they called the first bookseller stupid to their face because they didn’t like the answer—it could be anything. But then there are the customers who prefer to ask multiple questions of multiple booksellers as though there were not several dozen other people in line also waiting to ask questions.
As I survey the crowd in front of the information desk, which, at three days before Christmas is more zombie hoard than multiple lines, I offer to help whoever is next. This is like throwing the bouquet at a wedding.
Crazy-Eyed Woman: Yes, I have another question.
Me: Well, the other girl was helping you already, she can—
Crazy-Eyed Woman: I’m looking for a book for—
Me: You’re just going to ask anyways though…
Crazy-Eyed Woman: Yes. I was looking for a book for a family of six; ages 6 to 62. Can you suggest something?
I think to myself its kind of like that Christmas song, if it had been on a strict holiday budget—which, I found out later was actually named the Christmas Song—you know, instead of 1 to 92. All this time I thought it was ‘Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire’.
I bet there’s someone out there that gives a shit about that fun fact. There is, actually, I helped him two weeks ago. I looked up the oldest Christmas song still used and found him a book with the history of Christmas carols. We had a lovely conversation. He didn’t buy the book. Why would he? My time isn’t worth anything.
I don’t make my comment about the Christmas song. She wouldn’t get it. She doesn’t deserve my witty banter.
Me: You want something for the whole family? They’re going to read it together?
Crazy-Eyed Woman: Yes.
Me: Like a Christmas picture bo—
Crazy-Eyed Woman: No!
Doesn’t want that. Isn’t going to offer me any clues. I say clues because she clearly knows exactly what she wants. Whatever I recommend is going to be received with a simply ‘no.’ The problem is that she knows exactly what she wants, and that thing does not exist. Only this very specific imaginary book she just decided she needs immediately will do and nothing I recommend will fill the void of her under-medicated soul. I look around. Really, I turn in a circle and try to think of something, as much so she won’t see me roll my eyes as to spot something on one of the nearby table I can throw at her as a distraction while I make a run for it.
Me: And it was six to—
Crazy-Eyed Woman: To sixty-two years young!
That is not a thing. I hate you and everyone who uses that phrase. Except my grandmother, that sounds like something she might say. She’s allowed to, my grandmother’s adorable—but the rest of you need to stop.
Me: Yeah, I have no idea, that’s really a ridiculous question. Here comes the girl with your other book. She might know. Can I please help who was actually next?