When I was in high school I worked as a Christmas gift wrapper at the Chinook Bookshop in Colorado Springs. I can remember everything about the job except how I got it. I don’t remember an interview or even an application. All I remember is that every girl—and it was only girls—who wrapped books at the Chinook simply knew she was the sort of girl who wrapped books at the Chinook, and I was one of those girls. So on a weekday afternoon in early November of my junior year, I walked from William J. Palmer High School across Acacia Park to the Chinook, opened its heavy wooden door, and presented myself in the way that, just a few miles away at the Broadmoor hotel, a different sort of girl of the same age in the same season would present herself as a debutante in a white dress and a jeweled tiara. (At the Chinook I presented myself in a messy ponytail and button-fly Levis and a down jacket.)
The gift wrappers at the Chinook were North End girls, the North End being the old downtown section of a newly sprawling western city, a downtown of treed boulevards and clapboard houses so separate from the city swelling around it that only in college did I learn that the rest of the country saw Colorado Springs as something of a joke: militarized, fundamentalist, ignorant. What I saw instead was Pikes Peak from every street corner, towering and maternal and vigilant. I saw the loud and gentle Vietnam vets who lived in the Albany Apartments and panhandled out front on Tejon Street, the stucco churches with their statues of a brown Jesus, the shallow creek near the highway where in spring we waded in water the color of rust. I saw the Chinook.
And the Chinook saw me. I was there nearly every Saturday, buying a Tony Hillerman mystery for my mom’s birthday or a hardback copy of The Bean Trees with my saved babysitting wages. And when I didn’t have enough to buy a new book, which was the case more often than not, I sat on one of the kick stools meant for shelving books and read one straight through, sucking on sugar cubes I’d pinched from the bowl next to the free coffee in the back of the store. I thought no one noticed me, but of course they did. They noticed and they made an allowance, and because they did the store became my church.
And when I was 16 and they hired me to be a gift wrapper, the store became my heaven. In the weeks before Christmas the Chinook was loud and warm and full. Toddlers threw stuffed monkeys from the two-story playhouse in the children’s book section; men in hiking boots and dirty ski jackets bent over topographical maps they’d pulled from tall oak chests containing all the landscapes of the West: every vein, every slope, from the prairie to the Pacific. Shoppers balanced tall stacks of books in their arms, left stacks of books on the wide black counter while they went back for more.
By early afternoon the store had the feeling of a house party: forgotten scarves hanging from shelving ladders, sunglasses and coffee cups left on book display tables. Protesting children lying in the aisles. And boys. Boys looking for their sisters, boys looking for their fathers, sometimes even boys looking for a book. It was easy to talk with boys at the Chinook, despite the silly apron, despite the glossy wrapped packages in my arms. It’s easier to stand solid and brave on your little spot of earth when you have a job. (I would remember this 20 years later when my job was taking care of my young children, a job that the world is very quick to tell you is not actually a job at all. I would think how strange it was that at 16 years old, wearing an apron and gift-wrapping books, I felt more solidly planted on the earth than I did when I was a 35-year old married mother of two children with an advanced degree.)
When a customer wanted her books wrapped, a bookseller—at the Chinook they were booksellers, never sales clerks—would call out for one of us. “Wrap, please!” he’d say, turning from the counter to the cluttered warren where we worked, a narrow space behind the sales counter that was as dark and cramped as a ship’s kitchen. One of us would pop out and stand smiling at his side, ready to receive. We were taught to study the customer quickly and carefully, and to identify three physical characteristics that would distinguish her from the multitudes. We weren’t given the customers’ names, or even a copy of their sales slips. Only their books, which we were to return to them, wrapped, in as little time as possible. When the sales transaction was complete we scooped the books off the counter and took them back to our narrow worktop where we wrapped shoulder-to-shoulder, sharing two tape dispensers and four commercial-size rolls of wrapping paper mounted just above our heads.
When we emerged with the wrapped books and approached the waiting customer we weren’t allowed to ask, “Are these your books?” We were to say, “Here are your books. Merry Christmas.” We were to surprise them with our speed and confidence and our knowing. That was our job. On weekday evenings this wasn’t hard. But on Saturdays, when the swarm of customers waiting for their wrapped books would be five deep, 20 or 30 people waiting for their books, it was very hard. But we still did it, and we didn’t make mistakes. We were the sort of girls who paid attention.
On my lunch break I would walk to the cheese shop for a sandwich and I’d see kids from school, and I would say hello to boys and girls I wouldn’t say hello to in the halls. I suppose I said hello because it was Christmas and there was a little snow falling, and because of that solid feeling. I didn’t wear a coat because I’d been inside for hours and I wanted to feel the cold air on my skin. And I was young, and this was the West so the cold was dry and clear and you knew it wasn’t going to last.
The Chinook wasn’t going to last either. I didn’t know it in my wrapping days, but I would know it soon after. Soon there would be the Internet, and the big box stores, 9/11 and the recession that followed. In 2004, the Chinook closed its heavy wooden doors, 45 years to the day from its opening. There are other bookstores in downtown Colorado Springs now, but they rely—as most independent bookstores do—on Internet sales of new and used books, often through Amazon. They don’t employ a staff of 26 or gross $2.5 million a year, as the Chinook once did.
And surely there are still girls like me at William J. Palmer High School, although they no longer walk across the park to present themselves at the Chinook. I often wonder what it is they do instead, where they go to be known and needed. I wonder where they get that solid feeling.
Christmas Eve was the gift wrappers’ last day. The store opened at nine and closed at noon and for those three hours we never stopped wrapping. On Christmas Eve all our customers were men. We wrapped Word-A-Day calendars and enamel bookmarks and books that came with puzzles and finger puppets, books that were just barely books. Our feet ached and so did our fingers. And when, at five minutes past 12, the last customer was escorted out and the door locked behind him, everyone would give an exhausted cheer and Dick Noyes, the spry and white-haired owner of the Chinook who wore wide striped ties and crepe-soled Wallabees and called all the wrappers “babe,” and “doll,” would open a bottle of scotch and hand out Christmas bonuses. And us gift wrappers, who were too young to drink scotch and too shy to stand around without books to wrap, slowly hung up our aprons and collected our things, the last of the books we had bought with our just-expired employee discount, the Nalgene water bottles we kept on the shelf above the wrapping paper, our extra sweaters. We tucked our bonus envelopes into our backpacks, said our goodbyes, and left through the shipping room’s back door, out into the alley where our older brothers were waiting in cars, ready to drive us home to Christmas.
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