I worked lots of extra hours my first Christmas season as a clerk for Dancer’s, the department store in my small hometown of Wayland, Michigan.
I’d started the job, which paid 85 cents an hour, that summer of 1966 after getting a work permit at age 15. Our neighbor Arnie Wilde was the manager, and I soon learned how to fit shoes, measure and cut cloth, and keep the shelves of shirts and underwear nice and neat.
We closed at 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve, and at 5:55 a local farmer came in to find gifts for his wife. Arnie told me this was a holiday habit of Mr. Johnson’s, and that we’d do our best to take care of him.
I knew Mr. Johnson, whose daughter was in my class and in the band, so I went to help him. We wandered through the sweaters, dresses and skirts, the pretty towels and practical flannel nightgowns. We talked about size and color and what I thought Mrs. Johnson would like. After nearly half an hour of mulling, Mr. Johnson decided on a flannel nightgown with pretty pink fuzzy slippers to match and a piece of jewelry that I’d pointed out to him. I wrapped his gifts and completed the sale, and Arnie and I walked home for dinner.
The next Christmas Eve, like clockwork, Mr. Johnson came in at 5:55. We went through the same process, taking lots of time again to choose and wrap gifts. Tired but happy, Arnie and I headed for home.
By my third Christmas at Dancer’s, I was an experienced salesclerk. Mrs. Johnson had come into the store in late summer to buy school clothes for the kids, and we visited while I helped her shop. As she commented on pretty colors and the lovely way a dress was made, I made mental notes.
When Mr. Johnson made his last-minute appearance on Christmas Eve, I was ready. I told him, “Mrs. Johnson was in not too long ago, and I noticed how much she liked this royal blue sweater and the plaid skirt that goes with it so beautifully.”
She’d also told me that she really needed new boots, confiding that she was ashamed to walk into church with her old ones.
I’d found some perfect boots in her size and had put them aside for Christmas Eve. Well, Mr. Johnson was impressed, and I think more than a little relieved. We had him out the door by 6:10 with everything wrapped in paper and ribbons!
The big stores in Grand Rapids may have had more merchandise and glamorous Holiday window dressing, but in a small town like ours, neighbors take care of each other.