This year, I have no serious work and nothing more pressing than the wrapping of a few gifts for Christmas Eve. I don’t even have to go outside, except for exercise, which is a relief, because what passes for a blizzard here is pelting down on the other side of the window. I’m glad to be able to cocoon, and I’m not missing in the slightest those office Christmas Eves in which everyone pretends to work and keeps waiting for the executive officers to set a holiday example and leave early. And, as I smugly settle to loaf, I’m especially thankful that I haven’t spent the past few weeks working in a mall store.
Between my university degrees, I spent three Christmases in a mall book store, and they were the worst so far in my life. It didn’t help that, one Christmas, the mall had only two albums, which the management played incessantly from November 15 – nor that one of them was a Smurf Christmas special. To this day, I retain an aversion to squeaky voices and blue-colored midgets.
Pre-Christmas shopping means longer hours of operation for a store, and more money for the part-time staff, of which I was one. But the extra money did not compensate for the stress of that month. The crowds would always pin two staff to the cash register – the most boring part of the job – and random questions would keep everyone else from housekeeping work like stock checking or re-stocking the shelves. A few minutes snatched in the back room would be a relief, just to get away from the crowd. After a week or so, things were so bad that no one wanted to venture into the mall to eat – although, if you stayed in the back, you would probably be called to help with an emergency on the floor.
The uncomfortable truth is, pre-Christmas shopping in a mall reveals middle-class North Americans at their worst: Impatient, cranky, rude, and self-centered. Everyone wanted the staff’s attention at the same time, and a vocal minority did not believe in taking turns. For many, pre-Christmas marked their only foray into a book store all year, and many were uncomfortable there. Some would try to haggle on already discounted books. Others insisted on special attention that no one had time to give them, such as running their purchases to the post office and sending them off to relatives in Europe. A few always seemed to mistake the book store for the daycare center, and would drop their pre-school kids off to rummage through the children’s section, where only constant policing kept the books in saleable condition, and screaming children running through the aisles added to the chaos of hundreds of people doing something they hated. The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that most of the customers were dressed for winter, and quickly became over-heated in the mall.
Then, just to make matters worse, most of the customers were only interested in only a handful of books that were making headlines just then. That meant that, if you weren’t trapped at a cash register, as a staff member you were bombarded with the same questions several dozen times in a shift. I still think that a white board with the most common questions and answers would have helped. Not that many people will read anything unless prompted, but it might have helped the temper of the staff.
Closing time was almost impossible. Some people didn’t want to leave, and had to be told outright that they had to go. Others would dash in at the last minute, if a staff member wasn’t posted at the door, denying them entry. Even then, the staff was lucky if its members didn’t put in forty minutes of unpaid overtime before limping home, tired and irritated to collapse into bed – where they faced nightmares of endless hordes of customers, and tried not to think that they would be having another extended shift in twelve hours.
The pre-Christmas season was so stressful that I didn’t enjoy any of the Christmases I spent in the book store – not least because, after Christmas, the return season was almost as bad, its only improvement being a return to regular hours.
The only good that came out of the experience was that the third Christmas in the book store gave me the incentive to go back to school for another degree. I had no idea of what I would do with it, but, for a few years, I figured, I would have sources of income that didn’t involve fending off a mob.
But the experience had some long-lasting effects. Even now, years later, I avoid shopping malls whenever possible, but particularly from mid-November to mid-January. If I have to go to a mall around Christmas, I go on a commando raid, at a quiet time, and getting in and out as quickly as possible. My Christmas shopping, I do mostly elsewhere. And, at this time of year, I look back with a shudder, glad that period of my life is over, and only relived in stories.