From working at The Toy Soldier for over four years, I have learned that you always need a variety of skills and attributes in your pocket. Patience. Good listening skills. The ability to negotiate with children and people of all ages. You never know when you need to use these, but they are there, always, for those certain days when you need them most.
Friday was one of those days. Busy. Crowded with visitors from New York and Massachusetts, as well as Connecticut. And then, there was the grandmother. The grandmother sent on a mission with her two young grandsons. One looked about the age of three, while the older boy–I later learned–was almost seven years old.
The mission: each boy was to buy a gift for their newborn sister to bring to the hospital.
I had approached them to offer assistance, as the grandmother wore a look of exhaustion, after being in the store for only ten minutes. She thanked me and said they were doing fine.
Shoppers came and went. I sold one of my favorite dolls to a sweet couple, who have been buying from us for years. We helped two five-year-old twin girls try on Dorothy dresses. Once they put them on, they didn’t come off. After paying, the girls held hands and marched out the door. For a moment, I turned to watch them from the window, relishing in the image of the sisters wearing the blue and white checked dresses. Smiling. Laughing.
Pop guns popped. Cameras snapped. People posed with the giant bear on our bench outside. The bear replaced Norman after Norman decided to retire. Children cried as they left the store, not wanting to leave. Ever. Gifts were wrapped in bags with colorful tissue. I discussed two of my favorite books published by Candlewick. We were sold out, but the customer listened as I recited much of the text from heart, and told her how much they moved me. She preordered six copies of each, without actually seeing the books. Children hugged toys to their chest, begging to take them home. Parents declined. Children negotiated. Parents relented. The register hummed.
An hour passed. The grandmother circled the store again and again. The younger boy carried a board book in his hand and a small doll for his baby sister. The older boy held his ten-dollar bill tightly in his hands. Nothing else.
“Are you sure I can’t help,” I said, “You’ve been here for quite a while. Perhaps there is something I can do.”
The grandmother tells me the story. The stories are what I love most about working at the toy store. The older boy, Matthew, can’t make up his mind. And they can’t go to the hospital without gifts for the sister. Their mother had given them each ten dollars to pick out gifts.
I know there is more to this story. I can see it in Matthew’s eyes. In the way he clutches the money. I will need to pull my skills from my pocket. Listening skills. Negotiation skills. Patience. All of which are coated with compassion.
“Let me get you a something to sit on,” I tell the grandmother. “I will see what I can do with Matthew so you can get out of here.” I hand her a stool and a book to share with the younger boy. Matthew stares at me. He grips his money. “My name is Betsy,” I tell him. “Now, lets see if I can’t help you find a gift for your sister. Your grandma is very tired and I know you want to go meet your new sister.”
“No, I don’t,” he tells me, giving me the first clue to his story.
I show Matthew a variety of baby gifts, all within his budget of ten dollars. He seems uninterested. The grandmother smiles at me from her stool and waves.
“Let’s look at the stuffed animals,” I tell him. “What do you want to give your sister?”
“Well . . . I see.”
I add the clues together in my head. I glance at the barely recognizable, now crumpled money bill in his hand. I take a risk.
“What do you want, then?” I ask, though I have a feeling I know the answer already.
“I want to buy myself this shark.” He points to a $15 stuffed shark in the stuffed animal room. He picks it out of the pile and looks up at me. “Do I have enough money for this?” he asks me.
This will require super-negotiation skills. I glance at the shark. I look into Matthew’s eyes. I squat down to his level and smile. “Look, here’s the plan. You have to get a gift for your sister, but let me talk to your grandmother, and maybe with that ten dollars you could afford a little something for yourself. Sound good?”
Nearly two hours have passed since the grandmother and the boys entered our store. Matthew and I approach her. I fill her in.
“I thought that was the problem,” she said. Then she looks at Matthew. “You have ten minutes to choose a gift and if there is some money left over for you, that’s fine. But after ten minutes, I take the money back.”
Grandma has spoken.
“Do you understand, Matthew?” I ask.
“Yes. So I can buy the shark?”
“No,” I say, grabbing a basket. “First we will find something nice for your sister. We’ll put all your possible choices in this basket and then you can choose one. Quickly.” We head back to the stuffed animal room. Matthew helps me check prices on smaller items, which would be suitable as a baby gift. We put them in the basket. We add a few books and toys.
“Now, can you find something you might like for under five dollars?” I ask Matthew. He quickly picks up three stuffed animals, all in the range of fifteen dollars. I check the time. We have four minutes remaining before the deadline is up.
“These cost too much, but . . . we may have a selection in the sale area.” We head to the back of the store. Bingo! Matthew finds a rattle with a pink lamb marked down to four dollars. “I think my sister will like this.” He hands me the rattle.
“Good choice,” I tell him. Then he sees a stuffed beaver marked down to five dollars. “Do I have enough for this?”
We head to the register where I hand him a pencil and a piece of paper. I help him add the two together. We discuss tax. One minute remains. The grandmother gets off the stool and walks towards us. I ring up the purchases. Matthew hands me the wadded ten-dollar bill. It will clearly require ironing. Lots of ironing.
I wrap up his purchases and hand him his change.
“Thank you, lady,” says Matthew, heading out the door.
“Thank you, so much,”adds the grandmother, suddenly looking less tired now that her shopping expedition has come to an end.
“You’re very welcome. It’s my pleasure.” I wave a good-bye and smile to myself, thinking how lucky I am to work at The Toy Soldier.