I shopped Black Friday once. Twenty-five years ago, my soon to be sister-in-law’s BFF hosted a wedding shower the day after Thanksgiving. A traditional thing, they invited no men. Susan and I, along with my future in-laws descended on a densely populated town outside New York City. Because White Plaines is the only such town I can identify, I’ll call it White Plains. While the women drank mimosas, played games, and gave gifts, Susan’s father, brother, uncle and I went to a mall.
To be honest, I don’t think I knew the term Black Friday. Reading Wikipedia, I see that by the mid-eighties, the term’s use was regional, having originated in Philadelphia, and not widely known by retailers on the west coast. So in the grand scheme of things, Black Friday was still a relatively new concept. As an east coast guy, living in Washington, DC, I’m sure I had opportunity to hear about Black Friday by 1996, but since my Christmas shopping never got started before December twentieth, the excitement of late November sales was lost on me.
Christmas shopping: I typically strolled Arlington, Virginia’s Pentagon City mall during the final few hours of the final few days before Christmas. I started each evening with sushi and a beer in the food court and knocked around a mostly empty mall looking for gifts. In my mind, Christmas shopping ranked as one of the most relaxing activities of the year.
Driving to what might have been the Galleria at White Plains the day of the wedding shower, I remember feeling excited about the prospect of shopping early. Plus, I thought, nothing puts me in a happy, relaxed Christmassy mood more easily than browsing a mall during the holidays.
Earlier today I shopped. Susan’s brother, Al is visiting us now. Black Friday shopping is a tradition in his family. Eli wanted to experience it as well, he’s never Black Friday shopped before. Because we live in a small town, we don’t have a shopping mall, not a proper one. We drove twenty miles to Hanover, Pennsylvania and went to Rural King. Technically, Rural King is part of a mall. It’s in an old Sears store—the one that deserved to go out of business—but you enter the store directly from the parking lot, so it doesn’t seem like a mall. Plus most of the other stores in the place are vacant. The North Hanover Mall is shrouded in a dystopian vibe.
Have you been to Rural King? I’m not sure how prevalent the chain is. If you imagine Harbor Freight blended with Tractor Supply and then expanded by a thousand percent, you’d have Rural King. It’s laid out like a Walmart. Aisle after aisle of merchandise loosely organized into departments. Clothes up front, guns in the back. A huge selection of tools, kitchenware, packaged foods, Christmas blow ups, and almost anything else you can think of. The big draw for the kids, Al’s and mine, was the Carhartt clothing. The selection is huge. I assumed Carhartt was only popular with teens from rural towns like mine, but my in-laws are from Amherst, Massachusetts, and they all love Carhartt too.
Black Friday was tame. No crowds packed Rural King. No one scuffled over the last medium hoodie. No one got maced by the air compressors. Staff members passed out free popcorn at the door. Checkout took about four minutes. It bore no semblance to the images of Black Friday shopping painted year after year by the media.
In White Plains twenty-five years ago, the Galleria easily met today’s Black Friday nightmare expectations. People shuffled slowly through the hallways, a plodding pace set by the wall-to-wall crowd. The only variation available when veering off course into an equally packed store. Too crowded to shop, we camped out at the top of a balcony to watch the flow of people below. From our vigil, we heard and then saw a shoplifter caroming through the crowd, shoving people out of the way with security guards in close pursuit.
This is my forever image of Black Friday. Other than grocery shopping, I haven’t entered a store on the day after Thanksgiving since… until today. And really, I had a pretty good time. We accomplished no Christmas shopping, but Sophie pointed out some things she liked. Eli did too, but then he bought them himself. My notion of Black Friday is breaking down. Two experiences, one bad and one good. Maybe I should shop a Black Friday sale next year as a tie breaker. In the meantime, I’ll try to be less disdainful of the President’s Day sales coming in February.