Rita Howell’s Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 27, 2007

No long lines, early morning, but trip results in great gift

In my childhood we didn’t refer to the Friday after Thanksgiving as “Black Friday.” But is was traditional for my mother, my sister, my grandmother, my aunt and me to make an annual trek on that day to Southland Mall in Memphis.

It was the original mall in our area and it felt a little like going to Disneyland. All those stores under one roof, with a festive atmosphere at Christmastime. Mr. Elmer Smith of Batesville displayed his little white church there, giving it wider exposure than it had in its usual position in his front yard at the corner of Creek Drive and Bates Street. People from all over the Mid-South got to peer inside to see the tiny pews and admire the intricacy of his handiwork.

I remember helium balloons for sale along the mall. Often there would be dozens of balloons bobbing against the high skylights along the center of the mall, their strings having escaped the clutches of children who failed to hold them tightly. Once I read  in the Commercial Appeal about an enterprising boy who brought a roll of tape and a ball of string with him to the mall. For a small fee, he would affix a loop of tape onto his balloon, tie an extra long string onto it, and release it to rise next to the escapee, which would stick onto the boy’s balloon and be brought back down to its original owner.

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My family still adheres to the tradition of a holiday shopping trip, but it’s been years since we did it on the day after Thanksgiving. We did this year.

We were not among those who camped out on the sidewalk Thursday night to get the best buy. We didn’t line up at the department store’s door at 4 a.m. None of us wanted anything that badly.

But at a reasonable hour four of us–my mother, my sister, my niece and I–embarked on our mission.

We entered the first store to find people flocking in for bargains. Elizabeth, the family’s budding chef, had found in the store’s advertisement the electric mixer she wanted, and Santa Claus’s biggest helper, Elizabeth’s grandmother, was close on the trail of said mixer. Now the store had not just one mixer for sale, but lots of them…lots of colors, lots of features, lots of prices. Elizabeth, considerate of her grandmother’s pocketbook, had already opted for a less expensive model, a plain old white mixer. With the help of two store associates, we found Elizabeth’s mixer. There were only two left and it was only 10 a.m. on Black Friday.

The  early bird…you know.

I observed that my fellow shoppers were mostly women. We certainly didn’t have any of the male members of our family along on this trip, although my dad made many of these excursions in years past, keeping the mall bench warm and minding our packages and bags which we piled up beside him like we were homesteading.

Thomas, my son, has also served as chauffeur in recent years, taking advantage of the opportunity to pick out some new clothes for Mom to buy him.

But on this day the men I saw were just following orders. The women were clearly in charge, armed with advertisements from the newspapers, and definite game plans for the day.

It has occurred to me that Black Friday is not unlike opening day of deer season. For both events there is groundwork to be laid beforehand. The hunters plant food plots, clean guns, purchase ammo and erect their stands. They get up before the sun and put on their warm clothes and orange vest. To the woods they go to find the biggest buck.

Their counterparts in the shopping centers have, many of them, risen early and dressed appropriately. Black Friday is not the day to wear your high heals. During the days leading up to this, many have mapped out their strategy, challenged to find the best bargain for the items on their lists. They know where they are going and what they are looking for. The pressure mounts when they zero in on the targeted item, but have that nagging question in the back of their mind: “Can I get this cheaper at another store?”

Should she pull the trigger and nab that jacket for Mama, or wait for a bigger bargain?

Not that I went to that much trouble. I had Mama with me. The jacket fit so I snatched it up before our hunting party moved on. We moved to the check out counters with our quarry loaded in a shopping cart. All four of us had items in that basket, but it was easier to put it all on Daddy’s credit card and settle up later. We waited in line with a dozen other shoppers with similarly loaded carts, not unlike deer hunters who ride around with their bloody bucks strapped to the front of their pickups. The check-out warden kept us all in single file behind a line until one of the cash registers was free. The gray-haired associate, who’d apparently been there since 4 a.m., motioned when it was our turn. It was there I learned that I’d hit the shopping bull’s-eye: not only did I find a jacket that Mama liked, not only did it fit her, but it only cost $18.98.

How’s that for bragging rights?