A Tale of Two Stores

It is zero hour, and I’m trapped in Hell.  Not the fiery demon-haunted domain that the nuns would invoke when I pocketed a quarter from the sidewalk or considered the latest swimsuit calender, but the kind that involves screaming children and Christmas shoppers.  The Saturday before Christmas, Mom requires a few additional presents for her nieces and nephews.  Dad is rearranging furniture from one corner of the living room to another corner; Mom reconsiders the lighting and astrological signs and then asks said husband to slide said sofa or hope-chest fifty centimeters or five feet to the left.  I chose the better of two evils and depart for Toys ‘R Us.

One of the mysteries of the holidays that I’ve never fathomed is the proclivity of parents to tote their tots to the toy store days before Christmas.  To. Buy. Christmas.  Presents.  Just pull back the bloody curtain on Santa’s workshop, why don’t you?  While your at it, why not read the original ending of Anderson’s Little Mermaid: you know the one where Ariel turns into a murderous sociopath.

Even the kids that appear too oblivious or young to comprehend the ruse cry and whine like a recovering alcoholic trapped in a liquor store.  The tantalizing pain of children staring longingly at toys days before Christmas . . . well, every geek recognizes the yearning for ‘stuff’ — collectibles, DVDs, games, figurines, the list goes on and on.  I grabbed two Lego sets for my little cousins and veered down the diaper aisle to escape the crowd and assess my list.

Mom had scribbled down two Lego sets and a nebulous “gifts for Kelsey,” which I assumed was left to my own discretion.  My niece adored Doc McStuffins and Princess Sofia toys so I veered my cart through the pre-school aisle only to encounter a traffic jam.  Carts limped slowly along the aisle as parents gazed bewildered at the empty space where the pre-school doctor doll sat only a month ago.  Now, only the sale price and an empty shelf reminded the shoppers of their dalliance.

A few parents their carts piled high with Nerf guns, Skylanders, and assorted video games sighed and moved on.  One father dabbed at the dribble from his son’s lip and francially called his wife:

“It’s not here.  All they have is a sheep in a tutu and a stuffed dragon . . . Uh huh . . . But . . . Okay.  Well, can Susan use another dragon?”

It’s a common sight during this time of year.  Most panic.  The father for example grabbed a random monopoly game from the shelf and shuffled from the aisle.  Merry Christmas Susan.  Hope you learned about basic finance and adding large monetary sums in pre-school.  Do not even get me started on Free Parking.

Usually, I improvise.  The secret, the real secret to Christmas gift-giving on the fly is finding something that you yourself would enjoy, that you would play with if you were a three or four year old.  Ideally you have a list, but Luckily, having the mind of a child anyway, I can usually find a suitable doll, video game, movie, action figure, or laughing spasmodic Elmo to excite the respective giftee.

Of course, as in the case of my niece — the first grandchild born to doting grandparents — the danger lies in purchasing repeat gifts.  Kelsey sits in her playroom like a dragon on its hoarde, not necessarily spoiled . . . not yet at least, but a yo-yo short of opening her own toy store.  Thus, you either buy something new — most likely on her list and thus victim to eager relatives or Santa — or something unexpected.

Enter Barnes and Noble.  Because no three-year old asks for books on their Christmas list.

Knowing that the bookstore parking lot (albiet the weekend before Christmas) is packed with shoppers reaffirms my faith in humanity.  That people are eager still to buy books for Christmas is good.  That people are still eager to read books at Christmas is awesome.  Moreover, the scent of peppermint and coffee wafes through the entrance like a siren song.  I’ve been caffeine-free these last few months, but the spell alone proves a welcome placebo, drawing me further and further into the store.

Nobody screams in the bookstore.  Nor is it quiet.  The steady stream of conversation fills the empty spaces.  Like bees amid a field of wildflowers, the patrons buzz through the cafe consumed by the fresh scent of steaming caffeine and warm pastries.  A Scrabble game quietly commences in a corner; a group of high schoolers pore over history textbooks; a post-doc leafs through a worn binder of drawings; a four-year old engulfs a cupcake; and behind the tea-rack a couple whisper and giggle, oblivious to their surroundings.  The bookstore is a cultural-economic crossroads for our time.  Those in search of gifts bore into book binding, trying to judge the quality of the stories by the artistry of the cover.

A old hound amid these shelves, I twist and swim through nonfiction emerging into the humor section, a busy gift zone during the Holidays.  Sweet little old ladies pile absurdities into their arms:  How to Tell Whether Your Cat is Trying to Kill You and Sh*t My Dad Says.  Each aisle held a lounging middle-schooler, sprawled on their bellies or propped against the shelving, engrossed in the latest volume of Naruto or teen paranormal-romance.  Kids dance on a ersatz stage with puppets while their parents secretly procure the latest Percy Jackson novel.  I scanned the game aisle for post-Christmas party games, pointless really since the family always chooses Balderdash or Scrabble.  Nonetheless, my eyes lock on the role-playing games, one corner of geekdom, which I’ve never explored.  One day perhaps . . . When I check out with my stack of Christmas presents, the cashier recognizes the Triforce on my t-shirt and dives into a three minute discussion of my favorite video game.  It’s a magical place.

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