Kelly Murphy Mason,

Kelly Murphy Mason,

A weeklong electronic journal.
Dec. 22 1997 3:30 AM

Kelly Murphy Mason,

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Four Days Till Christmas:
       Sometimes I think I'm too imperious to work retail. That was my second stepmother's word for me. She said that with my high forehead and red hair, I looked like Queen Elizabeth. (Later I went to college and learned what the phrase "redheaded stepchild" meant.) Last week when I smoked outside the bookstore during my break, a vagrant said he could tell I was the daughter of the queen of England. It wasn't worth denying. After he bummed a cigarette, we parted amicably.
       This is the season of amicable partings. So it seems. I watch them occur from the concrete balcony above the store, in the 10-minute breaks allotted for each four-hour shift. There's always one person who leaves the scene more speedily than the other. I watched a suited man mourn a woman friend for a block or more. She had no idea he was standing bereft on the corner, confused by her absence. I wanted to console him, somehow, but I didn't have the time.
       There are hundreds of people in the store at midday. I asked another bookseller if we weren't in violation of fire code, over maximum capacity or something like that. I think he thought I was trying to slack off. But it seems germane. If I were still in a union, I could press the issue.
       For the first time in my life, I am punching a clock. Figuratively, of course. I have a time card that slides through a machine that calculates my wages for the day. This arrangement unnerves me. I can never remember if I've clocked out for the night. I sit wide-eyed on the bus, wondering whether I should call someone from home and double-check. Then I forget to do that, because by the end of a shift, I am dazed and manic all at once. I keep promising to eliminate my late-afternoon coffee, thinking this will help, but the promise is bankrupt.
       The coffee is perhaps the chief perk of the job--strong, plenteous, and free. The other major perk is the seasonal discount. Everyone I know is getting a book as a gift. As soon as I clock out, I start my Christmas shopping. During that twilight time, I am a customer. Unfortunately, I spend a good part of my workday second-guessing the choices I made then. A new release or a sideline item (listed in our database as "non-literature," a tag I love) will catch my divided attention. The whole enterprise defeats me on a number of levels. According to my latest calculations, I've spent more at the store than I've earned. Borders might as well pay me in scrip.
       Over the past few weeks, I've been working three jobs. Yet I barely made mid-December rent. My landlady lets me pay her in two installments, since I can't make do any other way. She feels a kinship with me because we both lost our mothers in infancy. Still, she believes me to be secretly rich, on a disinherited-princess scale. I am not blind to recurring themes.
       My father thinks my working retail is perverse. In fact, he won't even discuss it, beyond asking--in vague terms--what I am doing with my life. Friends are almost as wary as family; one wanted me to assure him that book-selling was "just for the holidays," as if I could see beyond New Year's. A cool acquaintance got called to my register a few days ago and pretended not to recognize me, blinded, perhaps, by embarrassment. She promptly demanded to know what payment functions her bank card could perform. In the confusion, I neglected to demagnetize her merchandise. She sounded the alarms and was stopped by the security guard, which is embarrassing for anyone. I couldn't have been more gratified if I'd done it on purpose.
       That's not a customer-friendly attitude, I suppose. That's not an instance of customer service at its finest, which only underscores my original point. I don't believe in service so much as magnanimity. Because I--like many booksellers--have a couple of degrees in literature, I've been assigned largely to "information technology." In effect, I'm a mass-market librarian. It's a pleasure to find a pleasant customer a book, because then we can both be magnanimous and part ways.

Kelly Murphy Mason is a free-lance writer and teacher in Washington, D.C. She is working as a bookseller for Borders during the holidays.