Keeping Shop

Susan checks her watch, 9:45. Right on time. It’s odd, even when traffic is light, it still takes half an hour to forty minutes to get here.

She rummages through her coat pocket, feeling for the lanyard with the shop keys. Finding them, she unlocks the shop door. The deadbolt is acting up again; better oil it, or call the locksmith, or both. She mentally adds that to today’s to-do list.

The old man heading to the donut shop nods at Susan, as he does every morning. She smiles and waves in return, pretty sure he’d notice if she were late, even if no one else did. When was the last time someone was waiting on the bench for the shop to open?

Susan flips the Open/Closed sign hanging on the glass door. She wonders if she should flip it after she finishes her routine – lights, put her lunch away, register – but it’s not like they’re lining up to get in. She notices the door’s window is looking a bit splattered. The heavy rains a few nights ago must have been blowing in from the street. She’ll have to clean the windows. Better add that to her list.

She wonders about the lack of crowds on the streets lately. It’s odd, every post-apocalyptic, end-times, dystopian, or futuristic story includes a marketplace, and not always for illegal contraband either. So why is it that shops like hers have to work so hard to get people in the doors? What will happen between now and the grungy, ugly, dystopian future so many predict, to nudge everyone back to person-to-person shopping?

Susan moves a memorized distance to the right and flips the light switch. The fluorescent lights buzz and whine to life, adding to the ever-constant noises of the old building. The room gets brighter in increments, as if the shop is blinking itself awake, shaking off sleep.

“Good morning.” Susan says to the empty shop, hoping a cheerful greeting will put something out there, put something positive in the air; hoping it will topple the scale in favor of a good day.

She places her travel mug of tea on the counter, on the coaster waiting for it, and deposits her lunch in the mini fridge next to the water cooler. Stepping down the hall, she hangs her coat and hat on the hooks and walks into the office. Susan removes her calendar, a book, and her laptop from her tote bag, stacks them neatly on the desk, and stows the bag between the filing cabinet and the desk in the office.

Office. That’s a laugh. Really, it’s a closet. A big closet, but still a closet. There are no windows. The desk and filing cabinet are at one end, and the HVAC unit is at the other. It’s brightly painted and well lit, the desk chair is comfy, and the bulletin board and walls are decorated with thank-yous, memorabilia, and photos. But it’s still a closet.

Susan returns to the counter, unlocks the register and counts the money in the drawer. After recording the amount and closing the drawer – another day, another dollar. She walks back to the office and opens up her laptop and her calendar.

Check email, write how-to blog post, update schedule on all online sites, make flyers. Today’s list isn’t bad, but she hopes customers keep her so busy, she can’t quite get it all done. She adds ‘fix deadbolt’ and a few other things to the list – reorder widgets, clean bathroom, wash windows.

The door chime pings. She stands, picks up her laptop and calendar and heads out of the office, to the register counter. Good, looks like it might be a busy day, she’ll have to try and get her work done at the counter instead of in the office.

“Hello, can I help you find anything?” Susan asks.

“Wow, such a neat shop. My Grandmom used widgets. I didn’t know this place was here! She would have loved this store.”

The woman fumbles with a stack of papers and folders and continues, “I’m with the organization a block away and we’re having a fundraiser. We were hoping to get donations from all the neighboring businesses for our event. Here’s the information.” She hands a packet of information to Susan; a sign for the window, donation request, 501c3 information.

“We get a really good turnout for our event. It would be great publicity for you. This is a great shop, it would help let people know what you sell, that you’re even here. How long have you been here?”

Susan smiles politely, “Just about 10 years.” Hmm. Looks like it’s going to be a long day.

“Oh.” The woman pauses just slightly, “Well, would you like to donate to our organization?”

“I think I donated a gift certificate last year, is that still acceptable?” Susan asks. She opens a drawer under the counter and begins preparing a gift certificate. She wonders if this woman even knew she donates to their event every year. Was she given a list of people to contact or is she just wandering around visiting shops within a certain radius of the organization?

The woman finds the donation paper she’d been looking for in her stack of folders and fills it out, “That would be great! Do you have any information about your shop we could put with it? What’s the name of your store?” She looks around, looking for a sign, anything with the shop name on it, anything that might tell her where she is.

“Widgets, Gadgets, and Thingamabobs.” Susan replies nodding to the 4-foot sign on the wall behind her. “And yes,” she reaches to the stack of flyers at the end of the counter, next to the woman’s bag, “Here’s a flyer with our schedule, and all our social media information.”

The door chime pings.

“Hi Mary! Did you finish your last project? Need a few more gadgets?” Susan asks as she finishes up the gift certificate and the woman collecting donations hands her a receipt. Susan puts the receipt on the stack of paperwork behind the counter. She really needs to get to last week’s paperwork, maybe later today.

“Thanks again.” Says the woman as she stuffs the gift certificate into one of the many folders she’s carrying. “We really appreciate everyone’s support. I’ll have to come back if I ever need widgets.” She smiles at Susan, nods at Mary, and leaves the shop.

Susan and Mary talk about gadgets and widgets. Mary needs a few for her next project. The talk about Mary’s latest project, and Susan’s latest project. They talk about what they’re making for dinner, what produce is fresh at the farmers’ market, Mary’s most recent trip to the vet. Except for the gadget and widget transaction, you’d think they were just a pair of friends catching up.

And they are. Which is odd to Susan, since so few of her friends have ever actually seen her shop. But then again, she’s never been to many of her friends’ places of employment either. Why would she pop in to visit someone at their office? And she can’t really visit her teacher friends, or nurses, at their jobs either. So why should it be strange that her friends don’t visit her place of business?

But it still seems odd to her that she knows more about her customer’s children and pets than her own friends’. She knows what colors her customers like, their spouses’ names, where they go on vacation, their favorite foods. Does that make her customers’ friends? What does that make her friends?

Susan gets some work done after Mary leaves. She starts updating the schedule on all the social networks. Good thing she can cut and paste from the flyer copy. Even cutting and pasting, she still needs to reformat for each site. This one requires days of weeks spelled out. That one doesn’t get descriptions. This one uses a calendar format. She’s very methodical about it, but it still takes a good portion of a day.

The mail arrives. Bills. A request for a donation to a medical expense fundraiser for a local man.  A coupon for a big box office supply chain. Periodicals she can’t sell for two more weeks. She puts the bills and donation request on the stack of paperwork by the register. She uses a smaller store that’s on her way home for office supplies, so she tosses the coupon in the recycle bin. The periodicals go in the office, on top of the printer so she remembers to put them out on issue date.

Customers wander in and out throughout the morning. It’s nice to see so many people wandering around town. It’s amazing how the crowds are influenced by weather. Today is nice, sunny and warm, but not yet hot, so there a lot of lookie-loos; people exploring their neighborhood, visiting town, and people who live nearby, maybe a town or two over, who haven’t yet explored this town.

“Wow! A whole store of widgets. I don’t use widgets, but that’s pretty cool.”

“Does anyone use thingamabobs anymore? Do you actually sell enough to stay open?”

“There’s nothing here but gadgets, widgets, and thingamabobs. Let’s go.”

“Didn’t this used to be an ice cream parlor? When did they move? They had the best ice cream. We’d stop every chance we got.”

“Do you really only sell widgets, gadgets, and thingamabobs? Can’t you buy them online?”

Mixed in with the disappointed, and the disappointing, are those that searched the shop out; those who came to town just for widgets; those whose faces light up when they step inside; those who gasp in joyous disbelief when they see the gadget they’ve been looking for. Mixed in with the doubting lookie-loos are the seekers, that group of gadget, widget, and thingamabob users who make up the shop’s primary demographic.

The seekers share pictures of their projects and how they used their gadgets. They plan and plot their next projects. They check colors, quantity, details. They ask about products. They ask about hours and schedules. They ask about shipping policies and social sites.

Sometimes they’re so flustered to find a shop with what they were looking for, they can’t remember what they actually need. Sometimes they buy just a token widget, something to remind them of their visit – a souvenir. Sometimes they giggle, and make excuses for their purchases, as they pile gadget after gadget, widgets, and thingamabobs on the register counter.

Purchase made or not, it’s the interactions with the widget, gadget, and thingamabob users that make the repetitive questions and statements that much more bearable for Susan. Like a positive wiping out a negative, the seekers help settle things back to zero.

But today is not a positive day. There are more Negative Nellies than Positive Pattys. Susan tries not to let that bother her, knowing most people mean well. She tells herself that, technically, most of the statements aren’t meant to be negative, most of the people aren’t being intentionally malicious. The negative statements are only negative because they aren’t outright positive, and because Susan hears them, or some variant of them, a hundred times a week. “Wow! My grandmom would have loved this store!” is not a negative statement. It just feels negative because it’s in the past tense, and the person who would have loved the store isn’t currently in the store.

Things start to slow down early in the afternoon. Susan checks the time, 1:48. How did it get so late? She closes her computer and eats her lunch in the office. She’s been eating her lunch later and later recently. That’s not really a problem, except that she doesn’t feel like she got much done before lunch today; and now the afternoon is flying by too.

Maybe she’ll get to that paperwork after lunch. Or wash the windows. Or fix the lock. Or clean the bathroom. Sigh.

The doorbell pings. Susan quickly cleans up her lunch, washes her hands in the bathroom sink and walks out to the register counter.

“Hello. Can I help you find anything?” Susan asks the woman.

“My, this is a lovely shop! I’d love to open a gadget, widget, and thingamabob shop when I retire. It would be so nice to sit around all day, working on my projects, surrounded by gadgets.” The woman smiles broadly at Susan. “What are you working on?”

Paperwork. Washing windows. Fixing a lock. Cleaning the bathroom. Fixing the website. Scheduling classes.

“A gadget project right now.” Susan replies, pointing to a table in the middle of the room. The project on the table hasn’t been worked on in a week or so, but the woman doesn’t know that.

“Oh, it’s wonderful!” the woman exclaims. “I’d love to try something like that. I bet you get to try all the new stuff. I’m using red widgets. Do you have any red widgets?”

Susan smiles and shows the woman where to find the red widgets. She wonders what her retirement will look like. She might actually have time to work on some of her projects if she didn’t need to do the paperwork, wash the windows, fix the lock, clean the bathroom, fix the website, schedule classes, or place and order to restock the thingamabobs.

After the woman leaves, Susan sits down at the counter and sorts the paperwork. Bills. Orders to place. Sales receipts. Banking, Requests for donations and upcoming town event information. She sighs, opens her computer and starts with the bill on the top of the pile.

It’s funny, how much time Susan spends on her computer. She often wonders if she’s doing something wrong, if it really should take her that long to accomplish something. But then, once in a while, she gets a glimpse into someone else’s life and realizes, no, it’s not her. It really doesn’t take that long to do all this computer stuff.

Done with the computer entry part of last week’s paperwork, Susan files the actual paperwork in the office, grabs a drink out of the mini fridge,  and takes a short break. She stares into space, wondering for a brief moment, why she keeps doing this every day.

It’s not that Susan dislikes the shop. It’s more that she wonders about that expression – insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results – and how it applies to her life and the shop.

People are enthralled with online shopping, yet they also want to promote shopping small and local. Malls are struggling and being razed, while shopping plazas are being built on the adjacent property. Main Street America is struggling, while there are campaigns to beautify downtowns adding new facades and pedestrian infrastructure. Big box stores are closing, and being replaced with other big box stores.

Susan wonders, how crazy does she have to be to get up and do it all over again, every day? Battle the big box discount prices. Compete with online selling sites. Stand up for the little shop. Shout about buying local. Answer the same questions over and over again, in person and online. Respond to product requests time stamped 3am.

The church bells chime in the distance. That’s Susan’s cue to lock up and go home.

She settles the credit card machine, checks the cash drawer and removes money to deposit tomorrow morning. The credit card machine makes it’s reassuring screech as it prints its report. She picks up her computer, walks to the office and packs her bag – computer, lunch containers, empty tea cup, book, and calendar. On the way back out, to the front of the shop, she grabs her coat and hat from the hooks, turns of all the lights, flips the open/closed sign, and locks up.

The windows will need to be washed tomorrow. And she’ll need to check on that lock. And clean the bathroom. And reorder some widgets.