From The Millions:
When I was in high school I worked as a Christmas gift wrapper at the Chinook Bookshop in Colorado Springs. I can remember everything about the job except how I got it. I don’t remember an interview or even an application. All I remember is that every girl—and it was only girls—who wrapped books at the Chinook simply knew she was the sort of girl who wrapped books at the Chinook, and I was one of those girls. So on a weekday afternoon in early November of my junior year, I walked from William J. Palmer High School across Acacia Park to the Chinook, opened its heavy wooden door, and presented myself in the way that, just a few miles away at the Broadmoor hotel, a different sort of girl of the same age in the same season would present herself as a debutante in a white dress and a jeweled tiara. (At the Chinook I presented myself in a messy ponytail and button-fly Levis and a down jacket.)
The gift wrappers at the Chinook were North End girls, the North End being the old downtown section of a newly sprawling western city, a downtown of treed boulevards and clapboard houses so separate from the city swelling around it that only in college did I learn that the rest of the country saw Colorado Springs as something of a joke: militarized, fundamentalist, ignorant.
. . . .
I was there nearly every Saturday, buying a Tony Hillerman mystery for my mom’s birthday or a hardback copy of The Bean Trees with my saved babysitting wages. And when I didn’t have enough to buy a new book, which was the case more often than not, I sat on one of the kick stools meant for shelving books and read one straight through, sucking on sugar cubes I’d pinched from the bowl next to the free coffee in the back of the store. I thought no one noticed me, but of course they did. They noticed and they made an allowance, and because they did the store became my church.
And when I was 16 and they hired me to be a gift wrapper, the store became my heaven. In the weeks before Christmas the Chinook was loud and warm and full. Toddlers threw stuffed monkeys from the two-story playhouse in the children’s book section; men in hiking boots and dirty ski jackets bent over topographical maps they’d pulled from tall oak chests containing all the landscapes of the West: every vein, every slope, from the prairie to the Pacific. Shoppers balanced tall stacks of books in their arms, left stacks of books on the wide black counter while they went back for more.
. . .
When a customer wanted her books wrapped, a bookseller—at the Chinook they were booksellers, never sales clerks—would call out for one of us. “Wrap, please!” he’d say, turning from the counter to the cluttered warren where we worked, a narrow space behind the sales counter that was as dark and cramped as a ship’s kitchen. One of us would pop out and stand smiling at his side, ready to receive. We were taught to study the customer quickly and carefully, and to identify three physical characteristics that would distinguish her from the multitudes. We weren’t given the customers’ names, or even a copy of their sales slips. Only their books, which we were to return to them, wrapped, in as little time as possible. When the sales transaction was complete we scooped the books off the counter and took them back to our narrow worktop where we wrapped shoulder-to-shoulder, sharing two tape dispensers and four commercial-size rolls of wrapping paper mounted just above our heads.
When we emerged with the wrapped books and approached the waiting customer we weren’t allowed to ask, “Are these your books?” We were to say, “Here are your books. Merry Christmas.” We were to surprise them with our speed and confidence and our knowing. That was our job.
Link to the rest at The Millions