As a single working woman in New York for many years — many years ago — one of my favorite lunch-hour pursuits was to browse those big, beautiful department stores, some of which no longer exist. Stores like B. Altman, Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s (the last two are still there) offered something that you don’t see very much these days — salespeople waiting behind glass counters or cases to help you with your purchases.
Not merely cashiers, these employees actually handed you the items you requested from inside the case (purses and scarves and gloves, oh my), offered their advice if asked (and sometimes even if not), and then rang up and wrapped your purchases beautifully (in store tissue paper and gorgeous shopping bags).
Ahh. Sorry, I needed a moment there.
Much has changed in the past 20+ years. Shopping online — with its progeny, the ever-growing demand for instant gratification — has been the loudest tolling bell for those once-great department stores. Buy-online pick-up areas have replaced flesh-and-blood salespeople in brick-and-mortar retailers. Something is lacking.
Fortunately, as in so many areas of our changing cultural landscape, we can find what we’re missing in the movies. Even department-store counters and the sales personnel who used to man them can be found — delightfully alive and well — on film. To wit:
Eugene Levy in Serendipity. Playing a hilarious, strictly-by-the-rules salesman at a counter in the men’s department at Bloomingdale’s, Levy’s character is key in the romance of Jonathan (John Cusack) and Sara (Kate Beckinsale), who meet cute at his counter. The two share nothing but first names, deciding to leave it up to kismet to bring them together again if they are meant to be. (While I personally like this sweet rom-com, I’ve got to admit that I think the premise presented this way is just crazy — I mean, who does that? Share your names and numbers already! Sheesh.) At any rate, Levy’s performance is brilliantly delivered and all-out funny. Sold.
Rowan Atkinson in Love Actually. This performance brings me to tears of laughter. Every time I see it. Atkinson plays a jewelry-counter salesperson, waiting on Alan Rickman’s character — a married man trying to purchase a Christmas present, for the secretary who lusts after him, while his wife is shopping in another part of the store. Speed is of the essence here, and Atkinson’s bumbling sales clerk in the midst of a ridiculously exorbitant gift-wrapping process — including adding candies, lavender, a cinnamon stick, and holly berries (after donning gloves to protect against the sharp-edged leaves) — is absolutely hysterical. Sold, actually.
John McGiver in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. McGiver plays a Tiffany & Co. salesman who waits on Paul Varjak (George Peppard) and Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn, of course). When it appears that Paul cannot afford to buy anything romantic for Holly at her favorite store, McGiver’s character agrees to have the store engrave the ring Paul found in a CrackerJack box. If you’re saying “awww” right now, you’re in very good company — all of us Huckleberry friends out here. Sold — in a little blue box.
Today’s culture argues that we make it quick, quick, quick; as these scenes remind us, though, there is much charm to be savored when we take it slow, slow, slow. Counter to texts, counter to insta, counter to the clock.
© 2019 Claudia Grossman