Christmas Behind The Cash Register

“Where are the foot massagers?”

It’s six in the morning, the Saturday before Christmas 2004, and my first customer of the day is Methuselah in poorly pressed slacks and a tan windbreaker, as conspicuous in front of the Grand Theft Auto 3 display as a Daughters of the American Revolution outing to the Apollo. His eyebrows are mangled, overused scrub brushes superglued to his forehead, and he fixes me with the kind of expression a bad poker player wears when trying to buy the pot on a pair of threes.

“This is Electronics Boutique,” I explain, naively possessed of the illusion that this will be information enough. An uncomfortable moment passes. I wait for him to cogitate. He waits for me to sell him a foot massager. Eventually I add, “We sell videogames.”

“No.” This is not a response for which I am prepared. “I bought a massager here two years ago. It broke. I need a new one.”

It takes me five minutes to explain that I know my 400 square foot store’s inventory well enough to know we don’t sell, nor have we ever sold, foot massagers. As I finally usher Methuselah out the door and down the escalator to Brookstone, a half dozen bleary eyed customers, the stink of holiday panic wafting from them like skunk road kill, have wandered in and begun to pick the remaining meat off the shelves.

It’s my twelfth consecutive day of work. In the preceding week, I’ve personally transacted roughly $50,000 worth of videogames, put in 65 hours of work and come to think of time in terms of the piped-in music that jams holiday cheer down the ear-hole of anyone within range. I know that Barbara Streisand’s staccato Jingle Bells means it’s time to open, Garth Brooks’s God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen means it’s time to close and the cacophonous electro-pop-synth nonsense by Manheim Steamroller means it’s time to jam a DS stylus through my eardrums.

It is eight in the morning. The store has been open for two hours, and I’m still alone. The checkout line is averaging six people deep. A desperate father, one among many, asks if I have the brand-new Nintendo DS in stock. I consider it good customer service that I don’t point at him and laugh. Instead, he buys a copy of Tak 2: The Staff of Dreams for the PlayStation 2, a random shot in the dark chosen like a number on a roulette wheel. Normally, I’d help him make a better selection, but were I to show such time-consuming initiative, the five people in line behind him might rise up as one to lay fiery, furious siege to my register.

I see in their impatient expression that they imagine we are like county workers, and for every one person manning the actual job, there must be four more in the back room smoking and looking at pornography. Unfortunately, this isn’t true.

I can only track the three remaining hours until my crew comes to my aid, and people stop looking at the second unused register with the kind of contempt usually reserved for death-row inmates and Green Party candidates.

The day after Thanksgiving gets all the press. And it may be true that the total volume of shoppers is larger on that aptly named Black Friday, but the Saturday before Christmas is historically more productive from a sales perspective. Desperate gift givers make great customers.

It is 2:30 in the afternoon now. The day is flying by in giant moon-leap bounds. A woman has just come in and hurriedly parked her kids in front of the interactive machines with strict instructions that they stay here until she is done shopping. Historically speaking, it’s a reasonable estimate to say that those children will be in my store for at least an hour and a half and will eventually camp out in a corner ripping out-of-date magazines from their plastic covers or asking if I can put a different game in the Gamecube. I will have to ask them not to sit on the floor in front of the PlayStation 2 New Release section at least four times.

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Finally, I have my full crew on the clock. Customers flow through the front door like tiny blood cells, fat with cash liquidity instead of oxygen, feeding the beating heart of specialty retail. The day is in full motion, and I feel a strange kinship with George Bailey fighting off the run on the bank at the Bedford Falls Building & Loan.

My assistant manager, June, is a girl of some 20 years, Midwestern in every way that a person can be, paying her way through technical college on a salary I know to be obscenely small. Many assistant managers mitigate this unfavorable sum by reducing the amount of work they actually do to more closely match their pay scale. June is unusual in that she does all the work, complains very little and succeeds at almost any task I put before her. Unfortunately, the district manager doesn’t care much for her, and that pretty much means that she has reached the ceiling of her upward mobility.

My other full time employee, Adam, is an awkward man-child who is exactly the kind of person you might cast in the role of retail clerk were you doing a treatment for an episode of Cliché Theater. He is wearing a black button-up shirt with red Japanese characters emblazoned down the right side that I think might mean “I’m With Stupid.” I adopt a don’t ask, don’t tell policy on the translation. His black denim pants strain at his girth, and his face is pudgy and coated with a thin layer of something that I suspect could be harvested as an industrial lubricant. As we work, he proselytizes with impassioned, almost academic rhetoric that graphic novels should be counted as serious literature.

The third member of my team is Katie. Katie is 16 and working at her first job because her parents thought it would teach her important life-lessons about responsibility. She is approaching the task with the kind of casual detachment one can only achieve as an adolescent or a corpse. Her friends wander past the door, pointing at their watch or cell phones, clearly describing great plans in what I assume to be some kind of adolescent sign language. I don’t let Katie work the registers.

“I want to trade in my PlayStation 2 for an Xbox.” A kid, who would be offended that I think of him as a kid, lifts up a grocery bag and sets it unceremoniously on the counter. At some point it has become afternoon, and until now, the pulse of the store had been healthy. This transaction is the retail equivalent to throwing an embolism.

The paper bag is filled with PlayStation 2 parts and a stack of games that wouldn’t move even if I offered them for free with candy. The system itself has a marijuana sticker centered on the console, and the smell wafting from the clutter makes me wonder if that particular sticker is scratch-and-sniff. Behind the kid, nine waiting customers unanimously adopt a boy-did-I-get-in-the-wrong-line expression.

“Does it work?” I ask.

“Yeah,” he answers with a degree of certainty I wouldn’t find credible had he announced that gravity is what makes water flow downhill.

An all too familiar dance begins, as impatient fathers slowly merge into the single moving line like LA rush hour traffic in a construction zone. I explain I will test the system. He explains that maybe it doesn’t always work, but usually it does. I explain that we consider that to be a broken system and can offer only $30. He has the temerity to be incredulous that we would only offer him $30 for a system that doesn’t work with a pot sticker on top. I apologize, not meaning it in the slightest. He still has me tally up the total amount I can give him for the broken system and games no one wants. I waste 15 minutes of everyone’s time to come to an offer of $51. He declines and leaves. The music fades, and with a flourish of paper bag and sullen expressions, the dance ends.

The clot having been excised and the blood flow now restored to normal levels, the afternoon rolls into evening, as nameless holiday shoppers shuffle briefly in and out of our lives with half-hearted well wishes and desperate desires to be anywhere but here; a sentiment I increasingly share.

The tide ebbs, and after a remarkable four hours the mother returns for her sons who have formed their own shanty town between the used DVDs and the magazine rack. I stopped hassling them out of pity hours before, even changing the Gamecube game just the one time. Remarkably, the line which had wrapped around the checkout counter is gone, and we are all surprised to find in the aftermath that the sun has set, and it’s 7:00 at night. I try to remember if I ever ate lunch.

I send Katie home early and spend the next 45 minutes fixing everything she touched. On her way out the door, impossibly bubbly and cheerful, she apparently secretes some tidal wave of young pheromones, and a group of passing boys absorb her whole and make way for the food court. Adam is next off the hook with his jacket on and keys in hand, before I’ve taken a second breath after dismissing him for the evening. June stays for a while, straightens up the store, alphabetizes the remains of the Xbox section, which looks as though it had been ransacked by determined cops with a search warrant. Eventually, I tell her to leave as well.

It seems right to close the store myself. A day this long should be experienced on its bookends alone. I start to look forward to counting the cash, tallying up the final numbers of the day and enjoying a store empty of customers and chaos. The hours that had darted by like passing cars on a busy highway are now minutes that creep along with interminable persistence. I try to keep myself busy, to recapture that chronological detachment that makes the day sweep past, but I keep eying my watch until 10:00 finally comes.

“I’m just browsing,” says the only customer in the store. He is wearing a nice suit, five o’clock shadow and cologne. I explain that I’ll be closing the store in just a few minutes, words which I actually see go in one ear and out the other. Then I partly close the gate, the universal mall symbol for I want to get the hell out of here. He wanders aimlessly around the store, as though willfully rejecting my hints. I remind him that we are closing, and he looks up as though surprised. I expect him to apologize and leave. Instead, he asks for advice on which system he should buy for his son.

And then, a strange thing happens to me. I lean against my yellow counter, and instead of ushering him out the door with a baleful glare and mumbled profanity, I ask probing questions, get a feel for what he’s looking for, find out about his son and what kind of games would be appropriate. I invest myself in this man and his Christmas gift, partly because I realize he’s not going to leave anyway, but more because I haven’t had time to really sell anything all day, and by God, when I want to be, I’m good at it. He loosens up, and we talk along a few tangents and minutes start to slip by again. It’s 10:20 when he asks to buy a PlayStation 2 and half a dozen games.

I apologize, because I don’t have a single system left in the store to sell, but I give him a line on a couple of places I know should have them in stock. He thanks me for my time, wishes me the first Merry Christmas all day that’s felt genuine and wanders out of my store into the largely empty mall.

Sean Sands is a freelance writer, co-founder of, and owns a small graphic design company near Minneapolis. He does not miss his stint in retail even a little.

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