I was essentially raised in a grocery store. Ever since I can remember, Dad either worked at one, managed one, or, finally, owned one. He came out of the deep south to buy North Hill Foods in Minot, North Dakota back in 1977. I was nine. My brother, Troy, was eleven. Trey, the oldest, was sixteen. In addition to putting together a crew, figuring out the supply chain in the region, and running every department, Dad took time training all of us to work at the store.
I clearly remember being trained in on a cash register after I first figured out bagging and stocking. Everyone did double duty: all the stockers, managers, and baggers had to be able to run a till in a pinch, and Dad made no exception with his own children. I had to stand on a milk crate to reach the keys. He explained how to first enter the price, then the department, and, after all the items were rung up, how to do a sub-total, enter the amount tendered, and make change.
He started me out at the candy counter, which was its own section of the store and had a big old register with a bell and heavy keys that clicked loudly when pressed. The candy section was so big, it would have made Willy Wonka jealous. There were two long counters set at right angles to each other, making an L with the till in the corner. The counters were glassed-in affairs with shelves well stocked with candy in neat little boxes, slots, and compartments. The customers, usually kids my own age or younger, had to point out the candy they wanted to buy and I’d get it for them. More candy was arranged across the top of the counters; trees of lollipops, bins of Tootsie Rolls, and hooks laden with baseball cards. I’d ring it all up, take the money, and pass the change – and the candy – over the counter to beckoning little hands. My favorite candies were the Red Hots and the Atomic Fire Balls, and I had much more than my fair share of product sampling while working there.
Dad moved me to the “Quick Check Counter” once I learned how to keep track of money and could prove it with a cash count that was usually right. This was an early version of the fast lane in today’s supermarkets. I would be checking out regular customers rather than children, using an electronic till with beeps and chirps, rather than the old one with clicks and bells.
I loved every minute of it, especially the process of running a till; sorting the groceries, entering the prices by hand on the keypad, bagging like-items in big paper sacks, taking the money and finishing with “have a nice day” and a smile. I can only imagine what the customers, the good people of Minot, thought: here was a redheaded little boy of a cashier, standing on a box at the check stand saying with a strong southern drawl “y’all hayve a nahs daee!” right in the heart of the Midwest where the population was predominantly of German and Norwegian descent.
To me, everything about the store was exciting and electric, but closing the store at the end of the day was by far the most striking activity. At closing time, we locked the two front doors: entrance and exit (inside a little vestibule), and then locked the little side door, which opened to the drive-up lane. These doors had key-operated deadbolt locks so nobody could lock your doors without your permission. It also meant that, once locked, there was no getting in or out without a key. I remember being shown how to give the doors a little push or tug to ensure they were indeed locked.
We’d wait for the last of the shoppers to check out, and let them out the side door, wishing them a good night while locking the door behind them. We would then walk the aisles making sure the store was indeed empty. We’d check the bathrooms, which were in the farthest recesses of the back room, the meat department, and the walk-in coolers; we didn’t want to accidentally lock someone inside the store after we left. It was also a sort of security sweep, occasionally conducted by a child, namely me.
Next, we’d pull the till. By the time we got to closing up the store, there was usually only a single one still active; we’d keep it operating for the last customers to check out and then pull it. This involved another key to put the cash register into report mode. It would chatter out a long ribbon of paper, detailing the transactions of the day. It would also open up the drawer, so we could extract the tray holding the money.
The first time Dad showed me how to take the cash tray out, I remember how I closed the empty drawer with a flourish, savoring the odd sound it made when it clicked shut while empty of money. “Don’t close it,” he said, just as it banged hollowly shut. I was startled a bit. Part of cashier training was to make sure the drawer was always closed; it was never to be kept open longer than it took to take payment and to make change. “The money is to be protected at all times,” dad had said during the earlier training. “Never turn your back on an open drawer. Never walk away from one either.” It was part of the first lesson in cashiering. This abrupt departure from that training was a surprise.
“Why,” I asked, confused.
“So people can see there’s no money in it” he said. “If somebody comes in at night to rob the place, you don’t want them to break the till looking for money that isn’t there.”
The next step in closing duties was to turn off the parking lot lights. These lights were controlled by a switch located high on the back-room wall. I remember having to stack and climb up boxes, bags of groceries, or bales of flour to reach it. It made a small, anticlimactic click when flipped, but with that single switch, light coming in from the front windows went out and darkness crowded closer to the store.
The interior lights were next. They were controlled from a huge bank of circuit breakers located deep in the back room. This surprised me. I couldn’t understand why the store didn’t have ordinary light switches. I remember two columns of breakers in that box. There was a mark – a black line – part way down the first column and another mark near the top of the second column; every switch in between those marks controlled a corresponding bank of lights in the store. All of them had to be turned off.
There must have been at least dozen breakers, and as each one was flipped, another large area of the store went dark. I clearly remember the sound they made as they were turned off one by one. I could hear it from just about any part of the store. If I were in the main part of the store, while someone else turned off the lights, I could even watch as darkness marched across the place: from above the cash registers, thunk, to the produce aisle, thunk, to the aisles and aisles of groceries, thunk, thunk, thunk.
When finished, aside from one or two pilot lights, everything was dark. Not even the dim light coming from the freezers could provide much illumination, and the neon light quivering from within the pop cooler never looked more pathetic. The back room was now the darkest part of the store. I always hurried to the swinging doors to at least get into the not-as-dark frozen food aisle, but shadows crept out from deep inside the shelves all along the aisles.
Coming out of the back room after turning off the lights, I was always struck by the change it had on the character of the store. That bright and shiny place of food and drink was now dark and mysterious, and far from silent. Dark, and empty of people, every sound was magnified; compressors gave off a giant low hum, fans rattled noisily from deep inside coolers in one aisle, freezers in the next, and the few fluorescents still on buzzed noisily. Every step I took on the long walk from the back of the store echoed in the next aisle, as if I were being paced by someone I missed in the security sweep; someone locked in the store with me, someone I might not want to meet at the front of the aisles.
I remember waiting at the side door – the drive-up door – as Dad finished locking up the money in the safe. When he was ready to go, we reversed the first steps in the closing duties; we unlocked the side door, stepped outside into even deeper darkness, and locked the door behind us, not forgetting to give it a little pull at the end to be sure it was locked. We went home.
End, June, 2018