Department Store Hell: A Firsthand Account


I never spent much time at those big, glistening department stores growing up. They were always a bit out of my family’s price range, in some upper echelon of consumerism that we could never quite reach. Even now, into my adulthood, I’ve managed to avoid spending more than a few minutes in one – because, really? $40 for a shirt? – and I’ve never felt myself lesser for it.

Today, however, my roommate came home with a well-fitting, reasonably priced sport coat from a particular department store — let’s call it a Mid-Level Department Store, or MLDS for short. Granted, my roommate is a normal-sized person, one for whom clothiers actually manufacture their goods (by the way, can us little guys get our own version of a “Big & Tall” section? “Tiny & Diminutive,” perhaps?). Nevertheless, my curiosity got the best of me: what if I had been missing out for all these years? What if MLDS was a big secret that I had never been let in on? What if everything there was cheap, and well made, and the hangers were made of candy, and they handed you a puppy on your way in?

And so, at my roommate’s behest, I decided to give it a shot. I checked my bank account, wept accordingly, and threw on my backpack before heading out the door. Because, you know, when you’re a baby-faced twenty-something, nothing says high fashion like wearing a go-ahead-security-I-dare-you-to-search-me backpack into an MLDS.

Unfortunately, when I got there, what I found was not the castle made of ice cream from my fantasies – rather, what I found was a bleak, desolate complex of American capitalism; a stoic testament to the crumbling financial state of the nation and the companies’ struggle to fight it all off. Rows and rows of fully stocked racks, as far as the eye could see, littered with brightly colored signs imploring me to figure out what $275 minus 35% is.

And just when you think it’s over, right when you’re thinking, “Well, I’ve seen all there is to see here,” you turn a corner, walk down some hallway-wormhole-portal, and find yourself in a completely new wing of the store whose existence, looking at the building from the outside, you’d swear is architecturally impossible. This happens three or four more times, and you begin to question whether this is all a dream, and somewhere out in the real world, your body is asleep between an M.C. Escher painting and a Ralph Lauren catalog. And that’s just for the boys. The men’s section of the store, mind you, occupies a floor and a half. This building has seven floors.

The labyrinth isn’t even inherently all that bad. I read Hansel & Gretel; I know how to walk backwards. No, the worst part is that the mythical Minotaur isn’t waiting for you in the heart of the maze. It’s occupying every inch of it, in the hopeless, glazed-over eyes of the store employees.

Sometimes you’ll find them in packs – standing by the shoes, talking about how well Michigan State is doing this year. Other times, they’ll be alone, banished to some obscure corner of the store, relegated to folding and re-folding pants or polishing off a shelf in anticipation of a crazy horde of shoppers that will never, ever come. But no matter where they are, they all have the same depressingly hopeful look in their eyes, like today’s gonna be the day they finally make that big sale.

So God forbid you happen upon eye contact with one of them – not so much for their sake as for yours. I don’t mind being asked if I need any help. I am a customer, after all. But please, please don’t give me those puppy dog eyes when I tell you that I’m just looking around. You make me feel like I’m breaking up with you. “But baby, I can change! We can get you measured if you’re not sure what size you need! You can’t leave, you complete me! Okay, but if you change your mind about needing anything, I’m Tim. That’s T-I-M. Like Jim, but with a T. Here’s my card. Call me!”

It’s not you, MLDS. It’s me. Maybe we’ll meet again in the future; I’ll be married, you’ll be financially restructured. We’ll both have relocated. And we’ll grab coffee, and laugh about the first time we met. It took me 40 minutes to find the v-neck sweaters, and when I got there, they were $80 outside of my budget.

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image – Victoria Pekham