Big K

Authors Note: Big K is my personal non-fiction essay of growing up alongside the rise and fall of a local department store; remembering its affluence.

Big K

Picture of my Kmart published in local paper.

Picture of my Kmart published in local paper.

It’s a strange thing to have so vivid a place fixed in the space betwixt your ears, and to realize its real-life counterpart is no more. Having seceded to economic reality and a lack of consumer confidence, the department store chain “Kmart” is all but forgotten nowadays in my home town. Oh, but to the children of its time, the Kmart was the place to kill all manner of time for those who lived upon the 58 Hwy stretch.

I, as a 58’er from age 6 to 21, can remember each aisle and the contents they held in. Now, it’s an empty building, the aisles striped bare, and cold save the debris of what was left when the Kmart went out of business two years ago. And Alive, the Kmart held no magic exceptional except what a child’s eyes might preserve.

The Kmart had three long long aisles FULL of toys. These aisles were in the back corner of the store, far into the heart of the Kmart, and here the lights were dimmer. Everything else so bright. There was an aisle for girl toys AND an aisle for boy toys and still a BONUS aisle for miscellaneous toys like coloring books and board games…things parents might consider toys while we children knew better.

The girls toy aisle was superior. Obviously. The boys had to share their shelf space with the baby toys (soft dolls, bright keyed pianos), but we girls, we had an aisle unto ourselves. Who knew they made so many different Barbies before Kmart showed me the possibilities?

Strategy had to be devised to try and rescue these bright faced dolls from their home among the others and to my own home. I would casually show the newest one of the week to my mother, insinuating in the show that I was merely educating her on the doll selection. I’d wait for her side-eye glance of acknowledgement as she tried valiantly to shop with us three young terrors she called progeny taking turns running the length of the store, swinging on her shopping  cart, and presenting our problems of starvation and defecation needs to her every half hour. If her response to my new Barbie 101 presentation was cool and distant, I knew I’d face the long walk from the grocery aisle back to the toy haven, but if she gave me more (a word or even a lapse in judgement to hold the bright plastic doll box herself) I knew my walk of shame would not be for today and the doll had a chance of slipping into the basket. I would hold my breath for the Judge’s decision and if the box tipped into our buggy, still I would follow the cart the rest of the shopping trip, carefully resting my hand along the metal bars and starting and the wide-eyed doll eyes within. In this gaze, I willed Barbie to be silent and remain in the cart until we could insure her freedom beyond the register.

There was more to Kmart than the toys (and the toy vending machines beyond the register); much more. Each aisle had something to entertain. There was always something begging me to stop and consider. There were rows and rows of glistening strands of “diamond” jewelry; bath mats with smiling frogs upon them; sneakers with glitter built into their sides; bags upon bags of novelty candy; a Tetris maze of tennis rackets, baseball bats, and balls; and the very latest selection of Lisa Frank folders with Dalmatians and Polar Bears upon them. The store had everything you wanted.

Kmart was there in every season. There were purchase opportunities at my every growth milestone. Back to school in September and there would be a selection of backpacks in teal, pink, army camo, and more to choose from. We were children of the upper middle class. We did not carry the same backpack for multiple school years. Completing a year of school guaranteed us new school supplies in August. Our parents knew the contract.

Soon after school started, the garden center area vanished overnight and in its place were rows of costumery, rubber spiders and rats, and the candy we waited all year for. We would buy face paint and props from these aisles, but never costumes. We had pride. We would spin our own identity from gold string out of Mother’s sewing kit and aluminium foil shaped into swords and crowns.

We plucked valentine card boxes for classmates from these self same seasonal aisles. We bought at least four backyard pools from these aisles. But there were all just warm-up acts to the show the Kmart put on for Christmas.

The whole store was transformed. Christmas gold and shiny red and green foil covered everything. Trees were for sale, blow-up Snoopy riding his doghouse, and ornaments, of course. The things of fantasy and dreams were all on sale at Kmart. Everyone’s presents came from Kmart. Our Christmas might as well have been sponsored by the Big K.

One year, we shopped on Christmas eve as the store was overrun. I found a plastic squeeze ball with no price and chipped paint. The cashier told me just to take it home. I didn’t understand that frantic look in her eyes until my own retail years.

As we grew up, Kmart shifted its weight. The pizza parlour where my brother tried to swing upon their line bar and lost two baby teeth in the process, disappeared one day and was replaced with plus size wear. The lingerie department where I bought my first bra in the 5th grade (a B cup overnight, thanks genetics) all but ceased to be under the weight of a strong push of pajamas and sleepwear. The toy aisles grew darker and more populated with red-stickered discounted toys as the call of the CD, DVD and electronics department across the way beckoned.

The magic of finding something new, unthought of, and unknown until then, faded as well. One day I looked up and found myself in the deodorant aisle with only time, money and interest enough to ward off BO; no time to explore the mystery I’d found in those aisles once before. The frequency of this occurrence increased until I found myself hitting Kmart only in desperate need. Wal-Mart had more selection, after all, and a string of unrequited high school crushes ate up all my attentions.

I could see the glow of the big “K” from my job at the grocery store across the street. We wasted time after work by tipping grocery carts and throwing hand baskets on the roof of our workplace, and the gentle influence of Kmart watching our actions grew quiet and dim. I had a license now, and the 58 Hwy could no contain me or my purchasing needs.

The Christmas Parade started at the K Mart parking lot and went the length of 58 until breaking up at the former $1 cinema. The parade disappeared one year and no one really noticed until January. K Mart shut its doors only a few years later. They sold everything at 70% off in the last week. The shelves had been cleared in hungry animalistic ways by deal predators. I didn’t remember any of this until this year I gazed into the red, green, orange, blue, pink lights of my lit Christmas tree, and found a quarter of the lights unlit because of one dud bulb.

-Anna RK

I Cannot Brain Today

It’s true. As the Internet cats would say: I cannot brain today, I has the dumb. (Oh my glob, how much I love Internet cats) After 9.5 hours in a retail setting, (a shopping mall, no less) I am truly astonished at the functionality I am mimicking right now. I’d like to thank coffee and my co-worker’s small and agile hands for keeping me upright right now. And yes, that’s a terribly mysterious segway into my blog. I was a journalist at one point, people. I do know how to write a lead to keep you reading. (Please keep reading)

I was informed late yesterday that the woman in charge of all the cafes in my region is coming for a visit next week. She only visits once a year and so this is a big deal. Not only this, but the district manager is going to come *sometime* that week as well. And she’s probably going to have more fun tips for making my Christmas season hellacious…more than likely something even more asinine than making me color a table with a Sharpie. At least, I reflect, both of my superiors are female and are strong, driven women in a competitive corporate system. Good for them. Unfortunately, that doesn’t help me be any more prepared for their critique of my management of the cafe. Even worse, I’ve been on vacation for a week and so the cafe is in a deplorable state. My assistant didn’t just drop the ball, she lost it somewhere in the good intentions and desire to be well-liked and respected by the other servers. The only saving grace here is some really bright shining stars that are these other servers. When I was pulling my hair out as a bus of 40ish high-schoolers pulled up and entered the cafe for a frappe-a-looza, my co-worker was calm and helpful. She even massaged a tight stress-filled kink out of my back after the students got their drinks and left. That’s going above and beyond folks. 

So, no matter how bad things spin this Holidon’t Season (see what I did there?) I can at least be greatful that I’ve got a support system of employees who work FOR me and WITH me to keep the coffee brewing. So, perhaps, as a customer of cafes or a shopper this season, you are wondering what you can do to ease the pain of those in retail who are haggard, underappreciated, but tirelessly working to get you in and out of the throng of glitter and wrapping paper? Even if you aren’t, here’s some tips to recieve better service and make yourself seem like a much better human than you probably are. 

1: Yes, you are going to have to stand in line. Coffee, books and toys are a popular thing during the gift-giving time and if you want to please little Sally with her favorite Shakespearian play, you are going to have to interface with humans. We don’t really enjoy it any more than you do, but the difference is, if we don’t pretend to be ecstatic about your purchase, then we may have a less firm footing on job security. The solution is to either to shop online for everything and enjoy the mixed bag of shipping costs and returns OR be patient and enjoy the weirdness that is people being people during the holidays. Grab some popcorn and watch the masses attempt their quest for the perfect feeling to convey they appreciate the other mammals in their life. It’s excellent writing material. 

2: We are exhausted, so if we make a mistake, please be forgiving. Today, I truly understood the hyperbole of being so tired that you “fall into a chair.” It was no hyperbole today. I started working before the sun woke up, and I finished when the sun was calling it quits. Lanks said it was the equivalent of being “so tired you be tripping.” (Isn’t he just swell? I cannot brain today and so I just replied “Fo Real.” Geez) Point is: a little bit of kindness to a barista that hasn’t had a lunch or bathroom break all day, and forgets you wanted whipped cream, can make everyone’s tender little emotions last a little longer. Because, honestly, I used to get really psyched about Christmas and was the girl planning the white elephant parties for the whole office. But, then retail impatience, corporate greed, and mean mean people squashed my little heart so hard that it turned straight-up Grinchly. Be the difference this Holidon’t and inspire good feelings and junk, because that’s what it’s supposed to be about right?

3: Try to remember that Santa is a metaphor. I hope I’m not shaking the foundations of anyone’s universe when I clue you in to the fact that the robust man in the center of the shopping mall is not a diety and is not an actual gift giver to small children. (Even though I enjoy the sentiment, he’s not a drug-addled bear either, Night Vale) Santa is a guy (who probably went to college) who is donning a costume to inspire our hearts to an idea that is larger and most unworthy of us. The idea behind Santa as the figurehead for Christmas, and all the other holidays that parade after him, is that it’s better to give than to recieve. It’s a harder concept than you imagine. When’s the last time you truly gave and expected absolutely nothing? Studies say that even when we hold the door for another person, we are expecting a thank-you or an acknowledgement of our goodness. If we don’t get that affirmation, then we feel slighted. My tip is to break this cycle of dependant emotions, and do something truly selfless. Love someone who (appears ) to not deserve your love and attention. Buy a gift for someone you’ll never see or talk to. True charity, without the swelled chest. It’s a hard one, and I don’t mean to say I’ve got this one down just yet. But I think if more people subscribed to being a yearround Santa when the opportunities present themself, then the world might be a kinder and sunnier place. Even as misguided and sometimes dorky I imagine my father to be, he truly gives to people who need help when he knows his help is what they need. He will pull over on the roadside and offer help to the scraggliest, scariest looking guy in town, and that’s pretty admirable.

Take these musings for what they are worth. National Novel Writing Month is in full swing, and I’m blogging every day to try and do my part to the literary world. And hey, at least I’m not gabbing about babies and my love life today, right? Right. Next entry: Dating someone 10 years before even considering marraige? Is that a thing? And what’s up with the Dutch these days?


-Anna R. Kotopple