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.