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Archive for the ‘shopping’ Category

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.

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For me, sanity in December is defined as keeping out of the shopping malls. The hordes of increasingly desperate shoppers, all over-dressed for indoors and getting increasingly hot and frustrated is one of the worst ways I can imagine to suck all the joy out of whatever mid-Winter festival you happen to celebrate (For years, I’ve sent custom cards with every possible greeting from “Merry Christmas” to “Io, Saturnalia!” crossed off one after another).

This attitude is hardly surprising. To start with, I’m not a recreational shopper. I can’t imagine having so little to do that I would wander around looking for something to buy. For me, shopping is generally a grim, serious business, comparable to a commando raid, in which getting in and out in the least time is the main objective – which is why I do the grocery shopping; I can be counted on not to overload the budget with impulse purchases. The two exceptions are books and music, and I don’t count them as consumer items, since I get the same pleasure out of a library or someone else’s music collection, and much of what I buy is not only hopelessly untrendy, but bought to keep.

Such shopping as I do tends to be in small street front stores. The store rents in malls are so high that interesting stores, or even stores that offer anything except the latest fashions were long ago banished elsewhere.

If you want a tailored shirt, fine Japanese porcelain, or weapons grade chocolate, you don’t go to a mall – you hunt down a small store front that is either rented by an ambitious immigrant or has been in the same family for three generations, and do your shopping there, socializing with the clerks and maybe sitting down with a cup of herbal tea before you pay for your purchases. That’s shopping as it was meant to be, and mall stores simply can’t offer it.

Besides, between degrees, I worked in a mall book store for several years, and the experience left me with a disinclination to linger in malls at any time of year. The way that buildings are used for extended periods leaves a patina of emotion over them, and, although malls fall short of the oppressiveness of a prison, they are still far from being intimate or comforting places to linger.

Add this general nature of malls to the fact that I spent two Christmases having nightmares about endless lines of customers by night and being tormented by day by repetitions of the Smurf’s Christmas album every forty-five minutes (the mall only had two seasonal albums), and the wonder is that I don’t flee screaming from mall entrances like some hapless South Pacific explorer who’s just raised Cthulhu from R’lyeh.

Still, even without these preferences and previous experiences, I would find malls in December an unpleasant experience. For one thing, the seasonal decorations feel like they are trying to jolly you into a good mood, and that always brings out the worst in me – I’m generally an easygoing person, but I clench my jaw any hint that someone is trying to manipulate me.

For another thing, the sheer number of people who descend on the malls in December is overwhelming. I’m not thinking physically so much, although recreational shoppers can be frustrating for those of us who treat shopping like a bombing mission. While you want to walk briskly, they stroll slowly, making abrupt stops and darting out suddenly in front of you and generally getting in your way.

Instead, I’m thinking of the sheer number of purposes all boxed in together and conflicting. Emotionally, it’s as though everyone is smoking highly individualized cigars in a confined space – the effect quickly drains you.

You don’t get this same effect on public transit or at a concert. In these places, most people have much the same purpose, such as waiting out the ride or listening to the music. But a crowd of Christmas shoppers is not a group. It’s a mass of individuals, each filled with their own purposes.

Then, just to make matters worse, the longer shoppers have to search or wait in line, the intenser their emotions become. And, many of these emotions, of course, tend to be negative ones; you almost never seen holiday shoppers looking pleased or excited, or expressing how pleased the person they are buying for is going to be with a purchase. Instead, the concern is whether an item is in stock or can be ordered in time, or whether they can find a place to sit and eat or why the mall overheats everything and whether that person over there is going to cut into the cashier line. Such emotions and concerns become increasingly heightened as the month of December continues, culminating on the last shopping day before Christmas, then bursting out in one last ugly outbreak during the post-Christmas sales.

If you’re at all sensitive to the mood of crowds – if you can sense how a band has left everyone mellow of full of social purpose, or whether a protest march is about to turn ugly – then about fifteen minutes of this stew of concentrated negative emotions is all you take. Then, like me, you either have to flee or find a quiet corner where you assume the fetal position without being noticed.
Rather than face this disquieting experience, I find it easier just to avoid malls in December. If I miss a few bargains, so what? They were likely on items I’d never purchase anyway. And the main advantage of this avoidance is not just that I find buying presents less stressful, but I arrive at the holiday feeling less exhausted.

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