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Guest Posts, memories

Walked (and Found) in a Strip Mall Drugstore

May 17, 2024

Most Christmas Eves, I worked the night shift in a small-town drug store tucked, not stuck, at the end of a suburban 70s-era strip mall. The store was located a few yards from a major highway, its exits and on-ramps always growling. Dinner consisted of a tuna sub with extra relish (ordered from the pizza shop next door just before its early close, owner’s treat), a full-sized candy bar (typically Twix) that I’d make last until twelve, and a bottle of cola (typically Orange Crush). I’d select the candy bar from the drugstore’s front display and the Crush from the ice box cooler, then count out my coins at the register. 


The stacks of leaning pennies, nickels and dimes would be anchored by a single quarter. In the towers, I’d imagine bright lights and big cities. I’d wonder if the holidays were celebrated similarly. My hometown went all in, with lights and carols, though my family, small – just my father, a goldfish, and me — rarely noticed. My father worked nights at the local hospital and took on extra shifts whenever allowed. I knew he grew up in what he called “the projects”, but I had always understood that to mean that we made something out of everything, and nothing went to waste. I saved extra earnings (tipping strictly prohibited, all register drawers carefully checked at shift changes and closing) for gifts come Christmas morning. I had them pre-picked and on layaway. 


While my tag proclaimed by official title – clerk, I embraced the role for all its unknown worth. I always felt at home in the store’s aisles. I thought of my job as service oriented. Christmas Eve, I adopted an even more universal attendance. I was as determined as Rudolph when it came to ensuring all customers left with a heartful of holiday warmth.


I manned the front of the store and the register – a manual machine with hand-stamped numbers and letters. One more soul in need of Christmas dough worked the store’s back wall. I’d eat just before eight. Then, I’d buy a pack of Life Savers (butter rum or cherry) and wait. Last minute shoppers were my pride and my forte. 


On one side of the storefront, there was concrete. Hard, unforgiving. A reality. On the other side of the chimed door, the wall-to-wall carpet was dark. Unnoticeable. Like me; I could blend right in. The store was more than a destination for pain relief; it was also a home to a new way to see. The shelves were stocked of items brimming with possibility. From Aspirin to Band-Aids. Clorox, Deodorant, and Eyelashes (fake). Gnomes from the 1940s. Hallmark cards and ice cream treats. I don’t remember the lighting, pot lamps I believe. There was a single camera, tucked in the back with the pharmacy and its mysterious bottles. It provided an aerial view of what, I believed, was a homemade Disneyland. Each day, and especially Christmas Eve, we created real-life manifestations of dreams.


Our customers were as varied as the store’s collection. Slumped shoulders in plaid overcoats. Construction workers in high-top boots. Suits and heels. After-doctor visit details. Those for whom we had to raise our voices to be heard. Others with whom signing to cross language barriers was the only path forward. Singles. Double. Triples. One of my favorite aspects of the chimes above the door was the unpredictability of who’d come into the store. 


Hello, I’d say. Welcome to Bluestones!


Most would turn, nod, then carry on. I’d designate characters as I watched. Jane Eyre, Ebenezer Scrooge, and Nancy Drew all shopped with needs to fill. Except for Christmas Eve, when all hearts were open and varied needs morphed into visible displays of need. A last-minute invite, oversight, oh my! Of sorts. Customers would enter the store, the chimes still on, and then take a hard stop. Like a deer (sorry Rudolph) in headlights, the 3000 square foot artificially lit box was a lot.


I’d get right to work.


“Merry Christmas! Can I help you find something?”


“Yes, please” was the most likely response.


I’d field requests for babies and bouncers. Grandparents and ghoulish neighbors. For first loves and final visits. Forgetful spouses. I’d lead and they’d follow. I had gift ideas from every aisle.


In between customers I’d take stock in preparation for the late-night, last-minute flock. I had patterns, as did they. While last-minute shoppers would typically start to wander in around eight, my work began days prior. I was anywhere from fourteen to eighteen. Dressed in black combat boots and spandex leggings. I wore my hair straight. A group of local boys liked to come in and giggle. “She’s Elvira,” I’d hear them say. They couldn’t bother me, as much as they’d try. Not on Christmas Eve. 


I’d curate mental notes of curious collections. Stationary, toys, cosmetics. I knew all the hidden sales. I prepped for all budgets (with most sales under $5), reminiscent of my own days at elementary school holiday shops and book mobiles. Cash in hand. Hurry, Transactions in demand. I helped process rebates (answer this, sign here), shared coupons (clipped and cut), and spread holiday cheer.


The gifts were as varied as the shop’s stock. Sock puppets, Sweet and Sour Mixes. Boxes of Red Hots, Jawbreakers, and L’eggs plastic hose. For the readers — three recent paperback releases (from Harlequin romances to Stephen King’s trances), tie-dye reading glasses (powers of 1.5, 2, and 3), and a case of Kleenex. Matchbox cars for adventurers. Jean N’Ate, heart-shaped box of Whitmans, and an I Love You sticky notes for first-timers. For the love struck: a small teddy bear, cranberry lip gloss. For the movie buff — five pre-selected dollar store flicks, microwave popcorn, and a fleece blanket. A traditional — 12 candy bars – one for each of the 12 days of Christmas. For the bird lover: dove soap, red robin hand cream, and hummingbird-shaped mints. Kodak keychains, rolls of film, print-while-you-wait images. Baby reveals and sounds of music.

Plastic recorders and handwritten dinner orders in a spiral notebook with a promise to clean and cleaning supplies. About faces – makeup bags for night’s in. 

I helped teens find gifts for working parents. I helped working parents find gifts for their support networks. One year, Christmas Eve coincided with a fiftieth wedding anniversary. We packed ten packs of Juicy Fruit (five sticks each), a soft teddy bear Beanie Baby, a faux rose for old time’s sake, and three packs of pop rocks. Love sizzled bright. For a builder — Potato Sticks tubes and letter blocks. The alphabet from A to Z. Toothpicks and marshmallows. For the word lover — word searches and a can of Campbell’s soup, all for two bucks.

I’d study the card aisle and I knew what overstock was in undershelf bins. I’d color coordinate all pickings — A $100,000 Grand bar and ten pouches of Pop Rocks for the guy who planned to propose a life of big dreams. Big League Chew and soda pop for an impromptu gathering of a baseball team.

We offered gift-wrap services for no extra charge. I knew how to tuck corners and apply invisible tape with no marks. As I wrapped, I’d listen. Visibly relieved that their shopping needs were met, the customers would inevitably want to chat. Some told tales of loss – a first, second, third holiday without someone or something. Each of them had a tale and, often, wanted to tell it.


I’d consume stories of sugar plum fairies and red brick houses. Three-tiered cakes, decorated with spice. Drops of candle wax, gold bands (engagements to be) and American Bandstand (nostalgia always sprouting like seeds). Carrots and walking sticks. Fountain sodas with two straws. Drugstore aisles stocked of final desires waiting to be shared or salvaged. One year, an elderly man was desperate to replace his wife’s scent. She had recently passed, and he couldn’t recall the name of the perfume she’d wear. The next year he returned in need of gifts for a newborn grandson. For some, the holiday was a blend of the beauty in the world and the terror of being alone. 


Sometimes, customers paused and took pity on me. “You poor thing,” they’d say. “What are you doing here on Christmas Eve?” At the time, I simply smiled. Truth is, even now, I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be. I’d return tomorrow if I could. But the local shops are mostly closed. 

 Jen Schneider is an educator who lives, works, and writes in small spaces in and around Philadelphia.

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