Stories of Yesteryear

Today I finally got around to decorating the tree, which shows you just how behind I am with things. (But the bedroom painting and sofa-futon assembly is done!) The Kid chose to go shopping instead of decorating, and I requested some wax worms from the pet store (for my Fiery Searcher beetle), and some groceries. There was about a two second pause, and then the kid asked me cautiously, “Those wax worms aren’t related to the groceries, are they?”

After reassurances to the negative, I handed off the extended grocery list, and started opening the crates with the holiday stuff. While decorating the tree, I remembered some stories of past years. These are from the:

“Some Days I Just Don’t Understand People” File

Some years ago, my mother asked me what I wanted for Christmas. “We really need new towels for our green-and-white bathroom,” I volunteered. Our current towels were over a decade old, and getting raggedy with holes and rips and threadbare spots.

Christmas came, and I unwrapped a large box of towels. It was one of those coördinated sets, two bath towels with two matching hand towels and two matching washcloths. And they were all pink. I don’t like pink; I haven’t liked pink since I was a small child. Nothing in my house was pink, especially not my bathroom. Each towel had a big embroidered appliqué on it, with the bath towels having dinner-plate size areas that were too stiff and rough to make them usable for drying off. I was unfolding a towel and asked her, “Do you think they will soften up after they’ve been washed a few times?”

“Oh you’re not supposed to use them — they’re just to hang up for show,” explained my mother. She was pouting because I wasn’t ecstatic to have a functionless gift. This was not unlike my birthday, when she had given me a heavily-ruffled blouse full of scratchy lace, that was four sizes too large.


A few years later, I worked temporarily at a local garden center on weekends and evenings. They had extended their evening hours until 9:00, but few folks had caught on yet. Maybe it was the freezing rain on that Friday night, and the snow on the Saturday afternoon. But by Sunday the roads had been cleared, and the customers were finally trooping through the store more-or-less steadily.

I was shelving, and overheard a customer ask the store manager, “Do you know anything?” (Now what would Miss Manners reply to that?)

Some wit at the corporate head office decided to put the dog chews and bird seed on sale for 1/3 of their regular prices; I think that’s what they mean by a “loss leader”. So customers would trot in with their coupons to buy just 99 cents of seed and leave again, after much wandering around and asking questions about the other merchandise.

“Can I buy just nine feet of this eleven foot tree? The top’s not really pretty.” No, they didn’t want the tree merely trimmed down (as people sometimes do), they wanted to pay for just part of the tree. But because we bought an eleven-foot tree from the grower, that was the price we had to sell it for. Unlike a side of beef that gets pieced down to primal cuts and then steaks, Christmas trees are a whole-unit item.

“Where are the extension cords?”
“They’re all over here,” I answer, pointing to a small end-aisle display of brown lightweight extension cords and orange heavy-duty extension cords.
Customer, disdainfully: “I don’t like this brown; do you have any blue ones?”
“No. All of the extension cords we have are over here,” I answer, smiling despite chapped lips. This was a small garden center folks, not a gianormous hardware store that stocks extension cords in “designer” colors.

The phone rang.  I picked up the receiver with one hand, and use the other to cover my free ear and block out the background noise of the endless tinny Christmas carols that were giving me a headache. “Garden center and pet store, this is Andrea,”
“Do you have any ponderosa pines?”
“No, but we do have white pines, with or without flocking.” (“Flocking” is the white artificial snow stuff they spray on trees.) I was thinking, ponderosa pine Christmas trees?
“I want a ponderosa pine to plant outside.”
“We don’t have any balled-and-burlap live Christmas trees to plant outside, ma’am.”
“I don’t want a Christmas tree, I want a landscape tree.”
In December? The ground had been frozen for weeks; everything was covered in snow and ice! “No, I’m sorry ma’am, we’re not selling landscaping materials at this late date.”

I was standing with a customer in front of the ornament rack, pointing to hooks and replacement parts for Christmas tree lights (fairy lights). “Do you need any ornament hooks or or replacement bulbs?” I asked, always ready to save customers an unnecessary trip back to the store.
“No, just these balls,” she replied, holding a box of glass ornaments.
“Then I can ring that right up for you … That’ll be $13.92. Do you want a sack for those?”
Customer, staring at her box of purple glass balls, “Oh, do you have any of that wire stuff you use to put these on the tree?”
“Yes,” I responded, unplugging my key from the register and walking back to the aisle where we just were. I held up two different packages of hooks, “We have long ornament hooks, and short ornament hooks.”
“Oh. What’s the difference?”

And this, O Best Beloved, is why I don’t work in retail any more.



  1. Maddy said,

    1 August 2008 at 23:24

    I am not the least surprised!

  2. sam ende said,

    26 December 2007 at 23:02

    sounds like headbanging stuff. couldn’t work there either.

  3. qw88nb88 said,

    26 December 2007 at 21:33

    OMG! That must have been quite the story at the store for some months to come.

  4. 26 December 2007 at 20:33

    In the UK garden centres often have a pets department, like you mention, only a few sell livestock though, I bought some fish for our pond at one, the assistant, caught the fish I selected and put them in to a large plastic bag of water for me, he tightened the very top of the bag and then, filled the remaining space with oxygen, from a bottle of compressed O2, to help keep the fish in good condition on the way home.
    But he over did it, he put in to much gas and blew the bag up, fish and water flew all over the counter and the shop floor!

  5. qw88nb88 said,

    26 December 2007 at 19:45

    Lisa, the garden center did not sell pets, it just sold things for pets, such as collars, bags of kibble, plus wild bird seed, suet blocks, and feeders.

  6. LisaDroesdov said,

    26 December 2007 at 19:15

    That was hilarious! I posted a link to this post on a forum for retail employees where I lurk and occasionally post- so if a bunch of former garden center employees show up to join you in ranting, my fault, sorry! ;)

    Question though- “Garden center and pet store?” Where are you in the world that garden centers also sell pets? It seems like since garden centers are largely outdoors, the pets would get a little chilly… it just seems odd to have both in the same store.

  7. shiva said,

    24 December 2007 at 23:30

    OK, that makes sense. The organisations i know that organise public tree-planting sessions seem to mostly do them in January and February tho, which is when the ground is most likely to be frozen here. As i said, those are deciduous trees, tho…

  8. qw88nb88 said,

    24 December 2007 at 15:53

    Shiva, in our neck o’ the woods, we transplant in the autumn, because the ground is frozen in winter. On the other hand, I’ve never figured out why some things are “seasonal”; I was shopping for cufflinks for a shirt of mine, and the deparment store person said they didn’t have any because cufflinks are a “seasonal” item. WTF?!

  9. 24 December 2007 at 8:58

    Oh Christmas retail, sooooo glad that is far behind me now. I still can’t bare the sight of poinsettias though.

  10. shiva said,

    24 December 2007 at 2:51

    Actually, winter is supposedly the best time to plant or transplant (any kind of) tree, because it’s when they need their roots least. So that one’s sort of sensible…

    Although, thinking about it again, i don’t know whether that would apply to evergreen trees…

    It really does annoy me that certain things are only available for sale at certain times of year. Mostly because i’m always the person who wants to buy something when no “normal” person could be “reasonably expected” to want it…

  11. Grace said,

    24 December 2007 at 2:29

    The towels sounds just like something my mother-in-law would give…

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