Thursday, December 17, 2015

Growing up at the family store

     Every afternoon after school from the beginning of November until Thanksgiving, I practiced. It didn’t come easy. I was determined, though, and I had “the master” for an instructor.
     I rolled out the thin ribbon. FYI: Grosgrain ribbon is a durable yet supple woven type and best for inexperienced fingers to handle. The characteristic crosswise ribs give grosgrain enough body for a crisp appearance despite multiple false starts.
     Next, I measured the length of my arm one time. Then I began the process of folding and refolding it until I made a bow.
     I tied it to the box holding it down so the bow wouldn’t slip and I pulled out the loops to make each one even. The red bow sat smartly on the package.
     My father beamed at me when I turned the box over to the customer at the store. I had followed his advice and learned to tie a bow like a pro.
     I got “hired” at my father’s store at 14 before the actual employment age of 16. I didn’t get paid a salary and worked only a few hours per week as a family member. I do remember receiving a “gift” of money on Christmas Day, and since it was so many years ago, I don’t expect the IRS will come after me at this late point in life by admitting that fact in print.

The County Review, Riverhead, NY, December 15, 1949 - I wasn't old enough  in 1949 to work in the store in case you were wondering.

      One of the tasks required was wrapping a package with no wasted paper. Dad had his Christmas paper in large commercial rolls and I had to mentally measure the proper amount for each size box before I cut it. Fortunately, the boxes used in a linen and lingerie store were standard ones, and I didn’t have to contend with oversized or odd-shaped items.
     After school I would rush to the store about a mile from my high school, and rehearse wrapping and making bows – the customer could choose between red and green – when the store was free of customers.
     Those were the days before pre-made bows could be bought in bagfuls and stuck on a box as easy as pie. I will admit to using them today, and rarely tie my own anymore.
     We are all in a hurry – not good- and we don’t slow down permitting the hands-on creation of a bow its room for expression. How I admire someone who offers a gift artfully wrapped and embellished for I know that loving care has gone into the presentation.
     Still, as I do place on a bow, I wistfully think of those hours and hours of training I received that taught me more than just how to tie bows and wrap packages skillfully.
     I learned that working for a goal – the process - gives as much satisfaction as the final outcome. Nothing comes easily, and the earlier that you learn it, the better off you are.
     Perhaps more importantly, I spent hours with my dad talking over life together. That’s the best package I could ever want. His advice has stood the test of time in every season.
     Although I never have had any desire to work retail after growing up in a family owning a small business, I truly appreciate those who have the entrepreneurial spirit offering specialty products, services and love for customers on main streets across America.  
      Dad was a tough taskmaster. After all, he had a reputation to uphold as the largest store of its kind on the East End of Long Island.  He gave stellar service to his customers, and there was no way one of his packages would leave the store imperfect.
     Often hurried customers would leave their purchases and go off to other stores before returning. Dad let me begin my training working on their packages, and it was easier not having someone staring at me while I put on the finishing touches.
     When I had passed the final “test” and was cleared to wrap on the floor, of course, worrywart Kay wondered who might be her first customer. I had been around the store enough to know that a lot of dad’s clients were handled with kid gloves. He had a lot of high- end folks come from the South Fork – namely Southampton – and their demands often seemed unreasonable.
     My dad said, “A customer is always right.”
     I couldn’t for the life of me swallow that, and I had to bite my tongue in back of the store watching dad smooth things over as any expert negotiator would do with a cranky customer.
     The afternoon came when I was ready to proceed ahead on my own.
     Thank goodness, my first “real” customer was a pleasant lady. She had been my third grade teacher, and I got along with her very well. In her classroom I loved hearing her melodious voice read stories to us after lunch.  
     She chatted with me about what I was reading in English class, and I just nodded back trying to focus my attention on doing a good job for her. I couldn’t multi-task quite yet.
     When I gave her the package, she told my father that he had been a good teacher. I was a certified wrapper.
     I went on to more and more opportunities for holiday gift- wrapping. One year I counted the hundreds of boxes and bows, but I have forgotten the number now.
     Let a simple red bow remind you to slow down your day and take in the wonders of the holiday season.  

My dad and I about the time I was working in the store.