"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.