Wednesday, November 7, 2012


I’m starting to see Christmas shopping TV commercials, at least those aimed at the shop-early-and-often crowd. I haven’t even gotten over the World Series yet, let alone the elections. I thought Thanksgiving was the next thing on the schedule. But at least one retailer has resurrected an old staple from my early retail therapy days: Layaway.

Layaway is a form of extreme wishing where the retailer takes care of the storage of your intended purchases while you give them money on a payment plan over time that in theory results in your purchases arriving under the tree at just the right time. As I recall, the penalty for missing a payment is that they keep the stuff you wanted and all the money you paid to date.
The ad for this says “free layaway” as if that’s a new feature. Actually, the deal with layaway was that it was always interest free. Only later did stores start adding handling charges and then credit cards became more and more common. But for the new generation of people for whom layaway is a new concept, this probably seems like a good deal.

I can’t blame retailers for wanting to be innovative about increasing their sales during the holiday season. They are in business. There are plenty of people who want to buy gifts for themselves and others. It’s the basic agreement of commerce.

Layaway represents a kind of cautious optimism. It’s based on the belief that you will be employed in some fashion at least through the holiday season, long enough to get your treasures out of the back storeroom. It’s also based on the caution that you would just as soon not pay interest on borrowed money the way you would if you used your credit card. It’s something of the perfect risk for the young shopper who does not already come equipped with a credit card. (I suppress an eye roll here but I know people whose children have their own credit cards.)

I remember my early teenage years in New Mexico with my first independent shopping forays. When I wasn’t babysitting the adorable little girls next door at 50 cents an hour, I would go to my mother’s antique shop downtown. Our town was small, population 8,000 or so if you didn’t count the university. One friend’s mom worked at J. C. Penney; another, at the office supply and stationery shop near the town square.

These early experiences fostered the young shopaholic urges that really start to bloom in the teen years. It used to be that I was an easy mark for penny candy and twelve-and-a-half cent comic books. My 50 cents a week pre-teen allowance could yield 2 comic books and a hoard of penny candy each week. If my brother and I agreed on the comics we bought, it was like getting four comic books a week. He learned to tolerate my Weird Tales and I gained a certain taste for Fighting Forces. It helped that my favorite penny candy was a treat called Kits, chocolate-flavored taffy squares individually wrapped which sold for a set of four for a penny. Do the math, and I could get one hundred pieces of candy and a week’s worth of thrills and chills every week.

This bit of heaven gave way to more grown up tastes. At age 5 or 6, I had fallen deeply—well, deeply for a 5 or 6-year-old—in love with my father’s friend who was an assistant manager at an office supply store in Florida. Tall, dark, handsome and with a seemingly endless supply of colored pencils, crayons, Cray-Pas, watercolors and an assortment of paper, Phil was ideal husband material in my mind. The small inconvenience of his being some 25 years older was a flaw I was willing to overlook. Tragically, Phil married someone else, an adult with presumably more interests in common. At first I was jealous. Then, I shrugged it off as Phil’s loss. He could have gone hunting with my father every weekend and I could draw beautiful pictures for him.

But I never lost my love of office and art supplies.

I was a frequent customer at the office supply store in our tiny town in New Mexico and craved the fine stationery available there, along with the art supplies. I had lots of people to write letters to in Florida, although not Phil. I mean done is done after all.

Almost immediately after indulging my office supply cravings, I discovered the wonderful world of fashion.

I had grown used to being mistaken for a college student by sixth grade. My figure bloomed early, much to my embarrassment. My generous chest dimension, plus my ease at talking with adults just enough but not too much, something I had perfected in my mother’s antique shop over the years, led shopkeepers to ask me constantly what my major was in college.

“Secondary education,” I lied, clear-eyed. It was close after all. I was in junior high. Just because I was a junior high student was a detail of immaterial consequence in casual conversation.

The drugstore held the wonder of makeup and I was hooked. The self as canvas became a new world, although with my uneven completion I speculated the cloth was less like canvas and more like burlap or dotted-Swiss. But makeup seemed to even that out a bit too and gave me a little confidence that I sorely lacked when I looked more like pizza than I wished.

And clothing! Here is where layaway became essential. I was tired of Peter Pan collars, red windbreakers and matching red Keds. I wanted grown-up clothes. A shop called Mode-o’-Day had a great little number that was a warm floral print on black and I was going to make it mine. I would go into the store and try it on again and again, pleased with the effect, short but not too short, a little daring but completely modest. This was more like a college student!

By the time I got it out of hock it did still fit and I was ready to wear it to a dance. I didn’t worry that it wouldn’t hold up under intense activity; I couldn’t dance anyway. While not exactly Goth, since Goth didn’t exist as a look then, I was satisfyingly dark but perhaps even more satisfyingly dressed in something I had picked out, not Mom.

Mom’s reaction to the dress was to be horrified. I had grown used to this being her reaction to just about everything I did then. A few years later I pieced together that it was just any evidence that I was growing up that horrified her. She sought to devalue the dress by calling it cheap and cited her own standard for purchasing clothing.

“Best to have one good sweater than ten cheap ones,” she instructed.

I fought back with my natural hard-headedness. My money, I reasoned, my purchase.

Strangely, she could not argue well enough with that. I had, after all, not used her money to purchase the awful thing. I was thrilled when I wore it the first time. I was crushed when it proved Mom right and fell apart in the wash.

But I had learned to juggle my funds on my own and went on to buy the best Christmas presents for my family ever, whatever they were. They were the best because I had a job, I used my own money and I bought what I wanted to give them. I was becoming financially independent in balancing income and expenses, like the 2 of Pentacles in Tarot.

Next to new kittens and puppies or a guy with access to endless art and office supplies, financial independence became the greatest high of my formative junior high days. I realized that not being dependent on my parents was the most important goal of my future, even if some things fell apart in the wash.

Best wishes!

No comments:

Post a Comment