Tag Archives: mercantile

Stupid Questions

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There are no stupid questions, educators like to say, but that’s clearly a lie. I’m no stranger to stupid questions. Anyone who works with the public has probably heard plenty of questions eliciting an eye roll or shaking of the head. Of course, we think we’ve heard it all until the next one comes along. I didn’t think I was capable of being surprised but in about 30 minutes one September afternoon, I heard two of the dumbest questions to ever stimulate my eardrums.

I walked out of the back door of the mercantile, step stool in hand, ready to close the yurt’s windows. An SUV was stopped on the road between the mercantile and the camp host’s site. A woman jumped out of the SUV, smiled, and said hi to me. I greeted her, and she asked, The ones with the open signs? Are they open?

She was referring to campsites. Any campsite that’s not been reserved is marked with a sign that reads “open.” Apparently the woman didn’t trust signs and didn’t believe the campsites clearly marked “open” were actually available. I didn’t trust myself to answer her question without saying something snarky, so I simply directed her to the camp host.

After closing the windows, I went back inside and told the mercantile manager what the woman had asked me. We shook our heads and rolled our eyes and felt assured this one took the cake.

But wait! There’s more!

Just as the manager was about to shut the doors for the day, a car pulled into the parking area in front of the store. The people in the car wanted to walk the trail, so the manager said we could sell them the access pass before we closed the register.  The tourist lady was talking a mile a minute as she walked up the ramp to the mercantile. She must have asked the manager what the platforms throughout the campground were for. The manager said, yurts, but before she could explain what a yurt was or say that the actual structures had been taken down for the winter, the tourist lady busted out with Do you have to bring your own yurt?

Perhaps the woman didn’t know what exactly a yurt is. Maybe she` thought “yurt” is just another name for “tent.” She must not have known that yurts are big (the ones the company I work for rents out to campers are 15 feet in diameter) and expensive. While yurts are movable, it’s quite a bit of work to set one up, then take it down. Most people probably don’t have a yurt and those that do probably aren’t traveling with them.

I couldn’t help giggling a little when I heard the woman ask if she needed to bring her own yurt. I had settled my face into a neutral expression by the time the woman entered the store. I took her money and handed her an access pass, and she went on her way.

Bring your own yurt? the manager and I said to each other and laughed. This question really did take the cake.

I’d planned to end this post here, but on my last weekend working at the parking lot, I got what is quite possibly the stupidest question ever. I can’t imagine a dumber question, but then again, people never cease to amaze me.

I was working at the parking lot on the very last day of the season. The sky was hazy with smoke from a wildfire fifty miles away. The fire had been burning for at least a week, and every morning, the sky was hazy from its smoke. By the afternoon, the smoke cleared and the sky was blue until the sun set.

All day people had been asking about the smoke and the air quality. Campers from one campground I was covering decided not to stay another night because they were worried about hiking the next morning with smoke in the air. Honestly, I don’t know if the air quality was dangerous. No one bothered to give me that information. We were’t wading through low-lying smoke and there was no ash falling on our heads, so the air quality seemed ok to me.

A car pulled into the parking lot, and I wasn’t surprised when the passenger’s first question was about the smoke. It’s what she asked that earned her the distinction of stupidest question ever.

Is the smoke from fire?

I didn’t even ask her if it’s possible for smoke to come from any other source.

Lovies

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The family in the mercantile was an interesting one.

There were two older people—a man and a woman—who seemed to be the grandparents. With them was a younger adult male who seemed to be the dad of the two kids on the group. The girl was the older of the two children. She was probably 11. The boy was quite a bit younger, maybe four. Everyone in the group except the girl had some sort of British (or of British heritage) accent.

 

The little boy was immediately drawn to the plush puppets. He grabbed a bunny puppet and hugged it close. I love him, the boy proclaimed in his adorable accent. The boy held onto the bunny puppet as the family milled around the store.

I thought the dad might buy the puppet for the boy, but no. The dad told the boy to return the bunny to its friends. The boy didn’t seem happy to reunite the puppets, but he did as he was told without throwing a tantrum. (I’ve seen many tantrums thrown over those puppets.)

I thought the family would leave after the puppet was put away, but they continued to walk around Rana | Frog by Mawthe store aimlessly. The little boy picked up a green plush backpack in the shape of a frog. It was nearly as big as he was, so he struggled a little to carry it around the store.

After a few more minutes, the dad told the boy to give the frog a hug and put it away. The boy gave the frog not only a hug but several kisses on its head. The manager of the mercantile and I couldn’t help but grin at each other like the childless middle age women we are and whisper Oh! How cute! a few times.

As the boy put the frog back into its bin, the father said they’d be bringing home no more stuffed animals.

The girl looked at me and explained that in their house, each family member had a small bin (she demonstrated the size with her hands) to put stuffed animals in. All stuffed animals owned had to fit in the bin with no parts sticking out. If anyone wanted a new stuffed animal, he or she had to discard from the bin so the new one would fit.

The dad piped in that he and his wife had as many stuffed animals as the kids did. Then the older man added that he and his wife were still storing stuffed toys from the dad’s childhood. These were some serious stuffed animal lovers!

Multicolored Teddy Bears Background by GDJThe girl went on to tell me about the downsizing that happened before the bin storage system was implemented. Everyone in the family chose their favorite animals to keep in his or her bin. They gathered up all the stuffed animals they had decided to discard, and she and her dad took them down to Tijuana where they donated the toys to an orphanage.

I was happy to know this family had donated their excess to people who had less, rather than chuck it into a landfill. I bet it felt just like Christmas to those Mexican kids when the girl and her dad handed over those toys.

 

Images courtesy of https://openclipart.org/detail/159691/rana-|-frog and https://openclipart.org/detail/230149/multicolored-teddy-bears-background

Scruffy

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Shortly before Labor Day Weekend, two coworkers quit suddenly. The Man was sent to work my old job in the parking lot, and I continued to staff the mercantile. The manager and I worked alone on the two days the other had off each week, and we worked together on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

After Labor Day, weekdays were very slow. Some weekdays, the mercantile took in less than $100. Slow was fine with me. I entertained myself by writing or reading, and I got paid the same no matter what I sold.

One Wednesday I was working alone. The weather was cold and rainy, and only a few people had been in the store all day. Late in the afternoon, a man and a woman—both with totally white hair—came in.

Are y’all here for the trail? I asked the couple.

They said they were. I told them there was a $5 parking fee.

The fellow with the white hair started to laugh. That’s what the guy down the road told me, he said.  I told him to take a hike!

I assured him the parking fee was real. The fellow with the white hair insinuated The Man (who was working the parking lot alone that day) was an imposter ripping people off $5 at a time.

Don’t you think it’s a long way to come up this mountain to hustle people?  I asked the fellow with the white hair. It’s a pretty slow day for that too, I told him.

He didn’t have on a uniform, the woman said.

He didn’t have on a uniform? I asked incredulously. I was confident The Man was wearing a uniform when he’d dropped me off at the mercantile that morning. He wasn’t wearing a jacket like this? I asked,  gesturing to the company insignia on the jacket I was wearing.

He was wearing a uniform, the fellow with the white hair said, sounding irritated.

That’s not what you told me, the woman said.

The fellow with the white hair looked at me and said, He was kind of scruffy.

I was aghast. That’s my boyfriend! I told the fellow with the white hair. He had the decency to look embarrassed.

The Man has facial hair, it’s true, and his jacket may not have been pristine clean since we live away from civilization and can’t always do laundry the moment our outerwear gets dirty. However, I’d call him handsome, perhaps rugged, but not scruffy.

The fellow with the white hair continued to defend his doubts about The Man’s validity as an employee empowered to collect parking fees. He knew a woman, he said, who hustled people by collecting money in parking lots…

Where? I shot back at him. Grateful Dead shows?

He nodded, while his lady friend grew increasingly embarrassed.

I told him again it sure was a long way up the mountain on a slow and rainy day to tell lies just to get a few bucks. He continued to look embarrassed, but not nearly as embarrassed as the woman with him.

The fellow with the white hair may have doubted The Man’s valididy, but he didn’t doubt mine. Not only was I wearing a uniform and a photo ID, I was standing behind a cash register in a store. I collected that old coot’s $5 parking fee before he went back to his car.

 

Accent

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It was late in the afternoon when the family came into the mercantile.

Mom was maybe out of her 20s. She wore her dark hair straightened and had on obvious makeup. She looked more like she was on a date at the mall than out having a nature experience.

Dad had the look of a jock whose mid-30s metabolism was slowing down. He wasn’t fat, but his middle was getting soft. He talked loud and fast and seemed accustomed to being the center of his family’s world.

The oldest kid, a son about seven or eight years old, had dark hair like his mother. He spent his entire time in the store trying to convince his parents to buy him a walking stick.

The second child was an adorable little girl, a toddler who was probably not yet three. Her hair was long and straight and blond like her father’s. She had plump, rosy cheeks and was obviously the apple of her father’s eye.

While the woman had a lot of questions about the nearby national park (How far away was it? How did they get there? How late was it open? How much did it cost to get in?), she and the man let the kids roam freely through the store. The little girl was drawn to the breakable bear figurines. Her parents never once discouraged her while she moved them around on the shelves where they were displayed. They allowed her to pick them up one after another and bring them up to the cash register. She could hardly reach to set them on the counter in front of me, but no one in her family tried to help her or take them out of her hands. For one glorious moment, I actually thought the dad was going to buy every bear the child set before me, but I quickly realized he was only letting her play with the merchandise.

All the while the mom was talking—to me, to her son, to her man, to the girl child. Something about her accent was familiar, but I wasn’t sure my guess was correct…

Where are y’all from? I asked.

Texas! the dad boomed. Near Houston.

I supposed it was a Texas accent I recognized. However, the more the woman talked, the more I was convinced it wasn’t Texas I was hearing.

She was standing near the counter when I looked at her and asked, Did you grow up in Texas?

No, she said. I grew up in Louisiana.

I knew it!

You’re Cajun! I exclaimed.

The woman seemed surprised, but confirmed her Cajunness.

Me too! I said. I told her my last name and the town where I grew up.

Cajuns: From Acadia to Louisiana
She told me her last name and the town where she grew up. Although I didn’t recognize her family name as one of the pillars of Cajun culture, I remember a book I once read that said there’s three ways to become Cajun: birth, marriage, or through the back door. Maybe she’d had a non-Cajun male ancestor who’d married a Cajun gal and assimilated. No matter what this customer’s family name was or how many years she’d lived in Texas, her accent gave her away to anyone in the know.

To his credit, the man of the family returned to their shelves all the bears his daughter had set on the checkout counter. Of course, he plunked them down any old way, and I had to arrange them artfully after the family left.

When they were gone, The Man asked me how in the world I’d known the woman was Cajun. I shrugged and told him it was all in her accent.

Bold and Germ-Free

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There were several customers in the mercantile. I stood next to the cash register, angled so I could see the people near the back door. The manager of the mercantile stood behind the back counter, facing the front of the store.

I noticed an older woman standing almost directly across from me, looking into the glass display case. She was definitely older than I am, in her 50s for sure, maybe in her 60s. She caught my attention by rubbing her hands together over and over, as if she were rubbing in lotion or carefully spreading hand sanitizer over her skin. I figured she had her own lotion or sanitizer or that maybe this hand rubbing was a nervous tick. It was a little strange, and our pump bottles of Purell were between her and the manager, but I tried to keep my thoughts about the woman positive. After all, I hadn’t seen her do anything wrong. I’d only witnessed her rubbing her hands together.

PURELL Naturals Advanced Hand Sanitizer - Hand Sanitizer Gel with Essential Oils, 12 fl oz Pump Bottle (Pack of 2) - 9629-06-EC
When the store cleared out, the manager took a step toward the Purell display and reached down. The hand that came back up was holding a pump bottle with the pump in a fully upright position. Someone had twisted the top so sanitizer could be pumped out of the bottle.

The manager said she smelled the sanitizer when the woman helped herself to a squirt. I hadn’t smelled anything, but said I’d seen the woman rubbing her hands.

Is it possible the woman had brought her own sanitizer into the mercantile and a squirt of her own sanitizer is what the manager smelled and I saw her rubbing on her skin? Sure, that’s possible, but the time frame is mighty suspicious.

Is it possible someone else turned the spout so sanitizer could be pumped out and the woman only helped herself to a product that was already open? Yes, that scenario is also a possibility, but using something open but not marked “tester” is still wrong. Nothing about the setup of the hand sanitizer made it seem free and available for public consumption. The woman had to know the Purell was for sale and she was using it without paying.

The manager hid all but three bottles of sanitizer. The three on display were placed close to the register, on top of the glass display case where we were able to keep an eye on them.

Before this event, I’d never imagined sanitizer theft could be an issue.

Do You Know the Way to San José?

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The tourist asked the manager of the mercantile how to get to San Jose. The manager explained the directions to him in great detail—twice. The tourist and the young woman accompanying him seemed satisfied after the second time. They walked out of the store but were back in a few minutes. He requested the manager tell them again how to get to San Jose. They wanted to write down the directions.

Maybe there was a language barrier. The man spoke with a pronounced Spanish accent, so maybe he was unsure of what the manager told him. I grabbed a map so we could show as well as tell.

Take a left out of the parking lot, I said. Go to the stop sign, I told him, and make a right.

His fingers skimmed across the screen of his phone. Apparently he was taking notes.

At the second stop sign, make another right, I said.

Will there be a sign there?  he asked me.

Yes, I said, a stop sign. Make another right.

So there will be only the stop sign I see? he asked me.

Yes, I told him, fighting the urge to beat my head on the counter. At the first stop sign you see, make a right. At the second stop sign you see, make another right. When you get to the town with the stoplight, your GPS should work.

It looks like I can keep going straight, he said, pointing at the map.

I’m not sure, I told him. I don’t know how to get to San Jose, I said. When you get to the town with the stoplight, your GPS should work, I repeated. Or you can buy this map, I continued, tapping on the map spread out in front of us.

What highway is this? he asked, pointing to a roadway shown on the map.

If he had looked closely, he could have found the number for himself, but I did it for him. I looked at the map closely, found the highway number, and read it to him. He continued to study his possible routes.

I think we can go straight right here, he said again, pointing, and I agreed, Yep, that’s what it looks like.

They didn’t want to buy the map, but they did thank us for our help.

When they left, the manager and I shook our heads at each other.

I don’t know how to get to San Jose,  I told her. He wanted me to tell him exactly how to get there, but I don’t know!

Well, I do know, and I did tell him, but he wouldn’t listen to what I had to say, she complained.

I’ve noticed people—particularly city people—expect to find an interstate or a direct route to an interstate up on the mountain. I hate to be the one who has to break it to them, but it’s just not happening. It takes two curvy mountain roads to get to a state highway to get to another state highway to get to an interstate to get to San Jose. I could see how all that could discourage even Dionne Warwick.

Candy Man

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When I returned from my ten-minute break, there were more people in the mercantile than I’d seen in the yurt all morning.

The store manager was trying to give directions to a young couple looking for the nearby Boy Scout camp, but she didn’t really know the area. She looked at me for help, so I pulled out a map and showed them two routes that would get them to their destination. Their thank yous said, they left, and I remained behind the counter.

A tiny child holding a red box of peanut butter M&Ms stepped up to the counter and looked at me slyly.

M & M's Chocolate Candies, Peanut Butter, 1.63 oz, 24-Count (Pack of 2)
He placed the box on the counter and continued to look at me with big brown eyes.

I looked around the store. While there were adults browsing, it wasn’t clear what family the kid might belong to. There were certainly no adults in his immediate vicinity.

That will cost $2.50, I said—not unkindly—to the boy. Do you have any money?

The kid never said a word, just took the box of candy from the counter and headed for the door. When he had one foot on the deck and the other still in the mercantile, I called out to him—again, not unkindly—Hey! Please don’t take that outside without paying for it.

This got his family’s attention. An older woman (Mom? Grandma?) and a younger woman (Mom? Sister?) both started hollering at the kid from across the store where they were looking at t-shirts.

George! Get back in here!

George! Put that back!

George turned around, returned the box of M&Ms to its place among the other candy boxes, then went over to stand with the women.

Sorry about that! one of the women called across the store.

No problem, I said. I handled the situation.

 

Placemat Evangelist

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Do you have placemats?  the woman enthusiastically asked the mercantile manager.

Placemats? I thought. Do people still use placemats?

I kept my mouth shut.

No, the manager said, we don’t.

I’m sure they’d really sell here, the woman said. You should get some.

The woman and her kids walked around the store a bit longer, then took their items for purchase up to the register.

We were in the John Muir Woods last year, and we bought placemats, the tourist woman told The Man.

Placemats? he asked, obviously perplexed.

Yeah, placemats, she said. You know, you go into any store, any grocery store, and they sell placemats, she said.

I tried to remember the last time I’d seen placemats for sale in a store. Maybe Wal-Mart? Maybe a small-town thrift store, way in a back corner? I certainly didn’t recall seeing placemats in a grocery store any time since we moved into a new century.

The Man must have still looked confused, because the tourist lady clarified by saying, Plastic placemats.

Oh, those things, I thought. There was a brief time of tackiness in the late 70s or maybe the early 80s when my family used plastic placemats, but they were long gone before the 90s rolled in. I was surprised to hear someone was still using plastic placemats.

They’re great souvenirs, the tourist woman was telling The Man. They’re inexpensive and easy to pack. They have really pretty photos on both sides, she went on. Now whenever we eat dinner, we can remember our trip. You should get some, she said. They’d be really easy to make. You just need photos to put between the plastic. I bet you would sell out of them in two weeks.

I bet we wouldn’t sell out of plastic placemats in two weeks since this woman was the only person in almost two months who’d ever mentioned such a thing. But I kept my mouth shut.

At the end of the transaction, The Man handed the receipt to the tourist woman.

Is there a phone number on here?  she asked while waving the receipt.

The Man retrieved the receipt from the woman’s hand and looked it over to find a phone number. Once found, he pointed it out to her.

Oh good! She said. When I get back home, I’ll look on the placemats and see if there’s an 800 number for the company that makes them. If there’s a phone number, I’ll call and give it to you. I know they would sell really well out here. Is there someone particular I should ask for?

We all named the manager who was standing right there and had not said a single encouraging thing about selling plastic souvenir placemats.

The tourist woman and her kids left the store.

She really likes placemats, I observed. All of my coworkers agreed, that woman really likes placemats.

She’s a placemat evangelist, I told them.

A few days later while I was alone in the mercantile, the phone rang. I answered it, and the woman on the other end of the line asked for the manager. I told her the manager would be in on Friday. I asked the caller if she wanted to leave a message. She did.

She gave me her name and number, and when I asked her what I should tell the manager the call was about, she said, Regarding placemats.

It was her! It was the placemat evangelist! She really had called about the placemats!

When The Man came back into the store, I said with a grin, Guess who called.

He couldn’t guess, so I said, The placemat evangelist!

Well, he said, when she says she’s going to do something, I guess she really means it.

 

Mamma’s Got Her Hands Full

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It was Saturday afternoon, and in about an hour, The Man and I would close the mercantile for the day.

Members of an extended family came in together. Three or four young kids were running around, and two women of the age to be their mothers were looking at magnets.  An older woman—probably the grandma—was looking at other items for sale. The men of the family were in and out of the yurt—off to the restroom, taking turns supervising the dog on the porch, offering the ladies souvenir suggestions.

The two smallest kids seemed to be the offspring of one of the women looking at magnets. The girl was maybe three, with long, dark hair that fell past her shoulders. The boy was five or six, wearing one of those floppy cloth hats popular with people going fishing.

The woman and her son had some sort of disagreement in front of the shelves of snacks. The disagreement seemed to be about the theater style boxes of candy. The woman dragged the boy over in front of the register while lecturing him on sharing and who knows what else. Anger was all over the boy’s face, and I could tell he was trying not to cry. The woman was not whispering, and everyone in the store witnessed the lecture. The main body of the lecture was in English, then the woman asked loudly, Capiche? When the boy didn’t respond, the woman demanded, Entiendes? (Do you understand?) The boy gave an indication that he did, indeed, understand. It was maybe the only parental lecture I’ve ever witnessed spanning three languages.

I’m all for parents disciplining kids, setting limits and sticking to them. I see too many kids who seem to be running their families, and I was glad to see this lady taking a stand. However, her little speech seemed all too public. It sure made me uncomfortable, and I could see how the kid might feel humiliated. I would have taken my (theoretical) kid outside or to a quiet area of the store and spoken in a low voice, but I don’t know how this family’s day had gone. Maybe the mom was at the end of her rope.

The conflict was over Whoppers, the delightful malted milk balls I myself do love so much. The boy wanted a box of his own. The mom wanted him to share with his sister.

Once the woman released the boy’s arm and returned to perusing magnets, he and his sister converged on the candy boxes. They each took a box of Whoppers from the shelf and placed them on the counter near the cash register among the bottles of water another family member planned to buy.

When the mother had chosen her magnet, she brought it up to the counter and placed it next to a box of Whoppers. I’ll take the magnet, she said to me, and one of these, indicating the Whoppers. The children began squalling about wanting a box of his/her own. The woman held her ground. They could share, she told her children, or they’d have no candy.

The woman said she didn’t need a bag, so once I rang up the box of Whoppers, I handed it directly to her. The still whining children followed the box with their eyes, and the boy tried to intercept the box as it passed into the woman’s hands.

This is my candy, the woman told him. He wasn’t getting any until he was willing to share.

The woman paid with a credit card. When it came time for her to sign the store copy of the credit card ticket, she only had a free hand to hold the pen.

Let me help you with that, I said as I pinned down the ticket so it wouldn’t slide around the counter while she signed. You have your hands full.

She looked me right in the eye and said seriously, I sure do!

As they walked toward the door, the children agreed to share, and their mom told them how she would divvy up the candy so they’d each have their own portion.

I also have a story where it’s the child who has his hands full.

 

Meltdown

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While the boys were obsessing over pocket knives, Little Sister was trying to pick out a souvenir of her own.

Pinecone earrings and bracelets sold in the mercantile.

To her credit, Bun Mom walked around the store with the girl and made suggestions. How about this cute pinecone necklace? How about the pinecone earrings or bracelet?

The girl picked up a $35 bobcat hand puppet. How about this? she asked her mother.

Bun Mom reminded Little Sister how they’d already discussed this souvenir shopping trip and how she’d explained each kid could pick out something small. The bobcat puppet, Bun Mom told Little Sister was not in her budget.

How about these dragonfly earrings? Bun Mom asked Little Sister. At $10.95, they were in the budget, and Little Sister could get her birthstone.

The mercantile sells these dragonfly earrings.

Little Sister spent a long time looking at the dragonfly earrings and the other items on the jewelry carousel, but did not reach a decision.

At one point, the girl was picking up and putting down and picking up again bear and bobcat bobble heads. These are only $6! These are only $6! she exclaimed over the $5.95 items.

You could get one of those, her mother told her, but the girl still hadn’t decided.

As the other family completed their transaction, Bun Mom told Little Sister to make her decision because she was about to pay. Little Sister ran around the store growing increasingly distressed.

I rang up Bun Mom’s t-shirt and Brother’s whistle and the Christmas tree ornament Little Sister had helped pick out for the family tree.

Anything else? I asked Bun Mom.

I’m paying, she called out to her daughter. Pick something.

By this point Little Sister was howling and whining and crying and stomping her feet. She didn’t seem to want something her mother said she couldn’t have. Her frustration seemed to be coming from not being able to make a decision.

She ran out onto the porch and her mother said she’d choose something for her.

I’m getting the pinecone bracelet, Bun Mom told her through the thin walls of the yurt.

No!  Little Sister howled. Not that, she wailed. Anything but that!

She came back into the store, and ended up picking out a pinecone necklace. I don’t know why she liked the pinecone on the necklace but hated it on the bracelet.

She continued to cry and ran back out onto the porch.

Bun Mom told me the girl had trouble making decisions and was overwhelmed by all the choices in the store. I would call “overwhelmed” an understatement. I think the girl was having a full blown meltdown.

We closed the store soon after Little Sister and her family and friends left.

The Man went outside to close the yurt’s window. When he came back in, he said, That little girl is still crying. He’d seen her run up to the store, look at the sign saying “Sorry, we’re closed,” and take off running while sobbing. She had probably wanted to exchange her pinecone necklace for something she’d decided was better.

I don’t think she’s enjoying her human experience, The Man said, and I had to agree with him there.

I took the photos in this post.