The Reluctant Shopper©
Averyell A. Kessler
My grandfather WG hated shopping. To him, it was an unnecessary bore and waste of time. I don’t know how he managed to keep groceries in his diminutive kitchen, or refresh his supply of Dr. Tichenor’s, Pepsodent or Palmolive soap. He’d retained the same pair of work boots until dampness oozed through the soles. He wore socks dotted with more holes than a slice of Swiss cheese and kept tattered grey underwear that could have embarrassed the word dingy. His had no interest in his appearance and often resembled a freight train hobo or a shabby pan handler on Capital Street. Sometimes, he smelled like one. My mother was not amused.
“At least buy a new sport coat,” she said. “Your old green one is threadbare.”
“Henry Ford never got rid of anything,” WG explained. “He darned his own socks and kept his shoes until they fell apart. Same goes for me!”
“How do you know that?” Mama asked.
“I walked into his office one day,” WG answered. “Saw him holding a darning needle and a brown sock. It was so thin; I saw straight through it.”
WG’s green tweed jacket remained in his wardrobe for years. When it began to fall apart, he conceded. Mama and I accompanied him to Chicago for a shopping trip to Marshall Fields.
On a freezing January morning, the three of us stepped off an elevator into the Men’s Department of Marshall Fields. It occupied an entire floor. For a moment, we were lost in a of mercantile jungle of confusion. Finally, Mama saw racks of sportscoats in the distance and led the way through a maze of glass topped counters overflowing with ties, cufflinks, alligator belts, and glamourous fedoras in a rainbow of colors. WG followed with an Eeyore face. He was cornered, trapped in a box cage like Pearl River possum. There was no retreat. “Let’s make this good,” WG said. “I’m not going shopping again for ten years – at least.” I was accustomed to wonderful shopping trips to Kennington’s or The Emporium when Mama put on a hat and tucked gloves into her purse. This was different; WG squirmed[ak1] as Mama force-marched him forward.
We approached long racks displaying hundreds of sportscoats, dress pants, and a diverse selection of suits. The entire area was set apart by soft beige carpeting and luxurious armchairs indicating traditional masculinity and upscale clothing. In the middle of it all, a group of salesmen idled around a mahogany sales desk, waiting for customers to drift in. Suddenly, WG stopped dragging his feet and became WG again. His approached a senior salesman and announced, “I’m here to buy a sportscoat.” The man raised his nose as he inspected WG’s beloved green jacket and shoestring tie.
“I’m the manager, sir,” he replied. “I’m only available by appointment. Wait here and I’ll send someone to help you.” He whirled away as if escaping a bad smell. We’d been weighed in the balance and found wanting. Ten lonely minutes passed until a young man burst from the dressing rooms, shook WG’s hand, and said. “I’ll be happy to help you sir. What size do you wear?” he asked.
“Forty-four, long,” WG answered.
“We have a nice selection of affordable jackets in your size. This way.”
“I don’t want an affordable jacket,” WG said. “Gimme the best you got!”
In an instant, we were off to the races. Mama and I settled onto a comfy sofa and watched the show. WG sorted through the racks and selected five sportscoats. The young man paired them with slacks and called a tailor to a fitting room. Suits were next on the agenda. He chose two, one in black “in case I gotta go to a funeral,” the other in a navy “in case I gotta go to a wedding.” He also purchased a dozen white dress shirts and a handful of belts. No ties because shoestrings were his trademark. The exclusive appointments only manager stared bullets as our young salesman darted in and out of the dressing room and WG’s orders piled up. He finished the shopping spree with a camel’s hair topcoat for his trips to Detroit and a fedora in chocolate felt. Finally, he picked a few plaid sports shirts just for the heck of it. Then, it was over. WG paid the bill in cash and asked that his order be mailed to his office in Jackson.
“You working on commission?” he asked our fledgling salesman.
“Yes sir,” I’m a temporary for six months. If I do well, they’ll put me on salary. “You sure helped me a lot.”
“Good,” WG answered. “Keep at it. You’ll be running the show before you’re finished.”
As we were leaving, the manager rushed to shake WG’s hand. “Let me know the next time you’re here,” he said. “I’ll be happy to help you.”
“No thanks,” WG replied. “I’ll stick with the young fella.” When we stepped on the elevator, my grandfather was still wearing his green sportscoat and shoestring tie. No one said a word.
The young man sent WG a Christmas card for many years. He never ran the show at Marshall Fields. Instead, he opened his own shop on Chicago’s north shore and did a booming business selling clothing to students at Northwestern University. I’m certain he kept a green tweed sportscoat in stock just in case.