The most annoying items sold at the Mercantile were whistles.
The first season the store was open, we sold a plastic device consisting of a whistle, compass, thermometer, and fold-out magnifying glass. The whole deal was on a clip so it could be snapped onto a backpack or zipper pull. We displayed these items in a small basket on a low shelf. Sometimes little kids picked one up and blew into the whistle. Usually when this happened, the kids’ parents didn’t want to buy the whistle, and who could blame them? If I had a kid, I wouldn’t want it further annoying me by tweeting on a whistle for hours a day. If one of the other store clerks or I could intercept the blown whistle before it was tossed back into the basket, we’d squirt it with some Windex, wipe it with a paper towel, and call it clean enough to sell.
Late in the first season, the Mercantile received whistles carved to look like bears, owl, eagles, hummingbirds, and blue jays. Made in China, hung on long cords to be worn around the neck, and brightly painted, kids loved these. The problem was, if a kid blew a whistle and the parents wouldn’t buy it, it was difficult to clean. Can mouth germs on wood be killed without damaging the wood? We tried to solve the whistle problem in the Mercantile’s second season by hanging them out of the reach of little kids.
We thought we’d solved the problem. Turns out medium-size kids, big kids, and even adults like to blow whistles they have no intention of buying.
Personally, I would never go into a store and blow on a whistle because yuck! How many people before me had the same idea and already put their mouths on the whistle? Germy!
If the other clerks or I saw someone messing with the whistles, we told them if they blew a whistle, they would have to purchase it. Sometimes we even used cute little slogans we made up like You blow it, you buy it or You try it, you buy it. Some people got very defensive and told us they had no intention of blowing the whistle. You’d be surprised how many people do blow them, we told the defensive customers.
I was surprised by how many parents didn’t think it was gross to put back a whistle their kid had put in its mouth. One dad picked out whistles for his kids who were both under seven years old. He handed the whistles to the kids and let them blow on them for several minutes. Then the kids saw the other whistles and decided they’d rather have bears than eagles.
Can we switch these? the dad asked me.
I had to tell him no. Your kids already had their mouths on them, I explained while he looked perplexed. He just didn’t see the problem with selling something that had been in the mouth of his child to someone else. I’m not even a germophobe, but yuck!
Adults blew the whistles too, then didn’t want to buy them. At best, they just blew air through the whistle, then assured me they didn’t put their mouth on it when I called them on their action.
Hello, I wanted to say. You just blew your germs into that whistle!
They must be like my five year-old childhood neighbor who got downright pissed at the suggestion she had germs. I do NOT have germs! she howled before running home to her mother. I wasn’t taunting her, just telling her the facts.
Some adults full-on wrapped their lips around the whistles and blew. The other clerk had it out with a grown man one morning while working alone. He blew a whistle and she told him he had to buy it since she couldn’t sell it to anyone else. The guy moaned and groaned and complained about how he didn’t understand why he had to buy it. My coworker stood her ground despite her pounding heart. Even the guy’s friend told him he needed to buy the whistle. Finally the guy did pay for it, but left none too happy.
One Saturday afternoon in early August of my second season in the Mercantile, I almost lost my mind over whistles.
It started when three little boys came into the store unsupervised. The oldest was maybe ten, the middle kid eight or nine, and the littlest boy probably six. I was working the register, so I said to the other clerk, Unsupervised children.
I know, she said, but she didn’t walk over to keep an eye on them.
I saw the boys were near the whistles, but I was busy with a customer, so I didn’t say anything to the boys. Then I heard it: the unmistakable tweet! of a whistle being blown.
You’re going to have to buy that whistle now that you’ve blown it, I called out, and everyone in the store went silent.
When I looked over, the big boy and the little boy had stepped away, leaving the middle boy standing alone holding an eagle whistle. He’d gone pale beneath his freckles.
I can’t sell it now that you’ve had your mouth on it, I told the boy sternly.
Can’t you wash it? the big boy pleaded.
No, I said. It’s wood.
At that point the big and little boy left their friend behind and walked out the Mercantile’s door.
I don’t have any money, the whistleblower said, then I’m really sorry.
I figured getting his parents would be fruitless. Anyone who’d send three little boys into a store alone probably wasn’t going to pony up for a whistle the kid had blown. Besides, the kid’s apology had softened my heart. I think the kid really was sorry, at least that he’d been caught, at least that he was in trouble.
I held out my hand for the whistle, which the boy handed over. I accept your apology, I said, but next time you go into a store, you better think about where you put your mouth.
I thought surely I was done with the whistle drama for the day, but there was a little bit more right before I closed the store. The other clerk had gone home, so I had to deal with the drama alone.
The family came in about 15 minutes before closing time. Judging from the way the women were dress, I was confident they were Muslim. In addition to a mom and dad who were probably in their early 30s, a girl who was maybe nine, and a boy who was probably 12, the man pushed an old woman in a wheelchair.
The family stopped by the wooden whistles, and I thought I heard a tweet. I wasn’t sure, so I didn’t say anything. The family made their way slowly through the entire store before the man came up to the counter to make the purchase. He had a whistle in his small pile, so if someone in the party had blown it, at least he was buying it.
I thought the family would leave once the purchase was made, but no. All but the young boy went back to the whistle display. I couldn’t understand the language they were speaking to each other, so I figured they’d decided the family needed more whistles.
The younger woman took two whistles from their hooks, put her mouth on the business end of one, and blew. Tweet! She handed the whistle to her young daughter who followed her mother’s example. Tweet! The girl handed the whistle back to her mother who blew into the second whistle. Tweet! She handed the whistle to the girl who also blew it. Tweet!
The family was delighted by the mother/daughter whistle duo. I could see the delight on their faces. Mom was delighted. Daughter was delighted. Dad was delighted. Grandma sitting in her wheelchair was delighted. (The young boy was nowhere near the whistle fest, so I didn’t see his face, but maybe I would have seen embarrassment there instead of delight.)
I would have been delighted too, if they had brought the two whistles (each priced at $8.95) to the register for purchase. Instead any potential for delight I felt turned to chagrin when I saw Mom hand the whistles to Dad and Dad reach to rehang them on their hooks.
I’m sorry, I called out. I can’t sell those after you’ve had them in your mouths. I held out my hand so Dad could give them to me.
Every member of the family (except the boy, who I still couldn’t see) looked confused. Why can’t she sell the whistles now? their faces seemed to ask.
I just hoped they wouldn’t think I was being weird because they were Muslim. Of course, I would have reacted the same way if they were white or Latinx, African American or Asian, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, or Buddhist. The problem was not where they were from or the religion they practiced. The problem was that they were human, and humans got germs!
The next day, the other clerk and I decided the only solution was to put the whistles in the glass display gas with the knives, the hand sanitizer, and the Claritin. If even adults can’t resist blowing into a whistle they haven’t yet purchased, our only choice was to keep the enticing toys under lock and key.