Was Black Friday always like this?
I can’t answer my friend’s question. I remember the masses of sales flyers, my mother sitting in her fireside chair, the mass of them rustling like newsprint chickens as she folded and marked and put piles to build her route. My mother rose before ten on a day off only for the gravest emergencies, so 5am shopping sprees would not be in my young memories. High school and college I can remember the crush of people, the Macy’s New York parade on the walls of televisions, little kids holding their parents’ hands while dazzled as much by the press of commercial Christmas splendor as harried adults threatening to crush them as they flailed through it.
Christmas has always been a wondrous thing to watch and look at, but the buying has always been a gamble and a tease. The retail prices nobody pays even in the best of times are knocked down from the start to give the unsophisticated faith in the good deal. I was on to them. Once my mother was done with the Sunday sales inserts I would seek out the best deals on VHS tape, oil filters, floppy disks. I was impressing no one but myself, since I knew I was waiting until after Santa had left the building.
1980-83 were bad enough years they remain clear to my inner ten- to thirteen-year-old. Stores glistened but everyone sour-faced in front of them. I remember Hulen Mall full of shuffling people, in their puffy 80s down coats bought the year before, the music churning as the store help stood in front looking bored. The line for Santa seemed shorter, given that it would be cruel to hype kids on things they would not get, or perhaps longer, since this taste of material magic is all the kids would get. 1981 was the year my father survived a downsizing that cleaned out every executive but him (says my mom). It’s the year some men my dad hired to build a storage shed took their time and did a good job, since they had nothing else after our little job.
After-Christmas sales were new then. Not what we know now, where cheap bastards like me root through the great consumerist party leftovers for good bits among the smashed boxes and torn wrapping, but the palpable relief of being able to get things the family really needed, and a few extras, with money left over. Kids at school didn’t have Christmas until the 28th, or New Year’s Eve. The week was one of trooping through stores for clothes, furniture, food, maybe a TV or Atari or, for those parents most keen on making their children geniuses or hoping the thing would keep them out of their hair, a “home computer”. I remember seeing them in Kmart or Sears, all of us doing the math on how much percent off, and the extra recession discount, and the coupon, would bring the final price to.
Popular opinion–at least out of the TV–seemed to feel this was desperate and sad. How much more fun could a kid have? My elementary school had a lot of hardscrabble church families, and the ability to go into a well-lit, first-run store and let everyone fill their arms moderately full was an experience many of my classmates had never had. When we were all back in school’s fluorescent light, they were able to talk with everyone else about what they got for Christmas. Santa was elided in the bright excitement.
Ten years later in the early 90s doldrums I could revisit that time, though now from a cheap college kid’s perspective. I don’t remember much of that time, other than Target was far earthier.
Each Boxing Day and days after I wander stores, if I have time. Mostly I buy candy, but sometimes look through other things discounted to clear. But globalization and the ascendance of the beancounter is complete. Big discounts are gone, the shelves bare after 9:30. At Target I pick up some candy without bothering to look, assuming the traditional half off. The register does not comply, but the line is long and I get the stuff anyway. In the parking lot the discount is about 15%.
What cheap bastards. The after Christmas Christmas isn’t there, kept in the warehouse or never ordered. The people going over the leftovers are people like me who just want to score a deal. Where are those that really need that discount? At the dollar store, or home.
The early Eighties were a time of stone faced adults, drawling racists and unimaginable heat for me. Christmas was a huge artificial tree the cat stole ornaments from, and I would sit under and look up into it, fascinated by the intricate branches, how the lights hung, the bits of moss and lichen. Even though the world was lean kids went around with big eyes, delighted and amazed and sometimes a little sad, even if they didn’t know why.
The after sales let far more people in on the party. The wall went down and everyone that could walk could go in. What’d you get? every kid asked the first day back, and every kid could answer.