Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Holiday Shopping

West Federal Street Thanksgiving Storm

West Federal Street during the 1950 Thanksgiving weekend storm (c) The Vindicator, scanned from “A Heritage to Share: The Bicentennial History of Youngstown and Mahoning County, Ohio”.

Christmas shopping season started the day after Thanksgiving when I was growing up in Youngstown. Stores gave their employees Thanksgiving off to rest up for the onslaught of the next month. Beginning with Thanksgiving though, The Vindicator provided a countdown of shopping days until Christmas.

In comments on previous posts people have shared about the arrival of Santa Claus at the Vienna airport, about the Christmas displays at McKelvey’s and Strouss’ and other downtown stores as well as Hills’ toyland. I have to say that I don’t have much memory of this as a child other than driving through downtown Youngstown at night and looking at the lights and display windows and the big Christmas tree at Central Square. We really couldn’t afford to shop at the downtown stores and, as I recall, most Christmas gifts probably came via the Sears catalog or a discount store. My only memory of “sitting on Santa’s lap” was at a Christmas party at our church. What I remember more from that party was the stocking each of us received full of candies and small toys. That was fun!

I do remember that as a paper boy, newspapers were much heavier during Christmas season with all the ads. The Thanksgiving paper was full of them and especially every Wednesday and Sunday. I often had to use a wagon for delivering papers on those days because they were too bulky and heavy to fit into my newspaper sack. I often wondered how the city could possibly buy all the stuff advertised!

McKelvey's logo

McKelvey’s logo

Later on, I worked as a stock-boy and then as a customer service rep at McKelvey’s (later Higbee’s). This gave me a chance to see Christmas from the inside of a department store. I worked in Layaway and this was the time of the year we’d get inundated. On the Friday after Thanksgiving we’d get inundated with packages that I had to store on a honeycomb of shelves. People would pay for these “on time” with a small layaway fee (I think the highest it was while I worked there was $1.50). This was a good alternative to credit for many who were still suspicious of credit cards but wanted to make sure they could get the item. We’d have a second busy wave the week before Christmas as people would come in to pay off their items. What was least fun about this job was “returns”, the items people failed to claim or got refunds on because the didn’t want them. Department clerks always hated seeing me bringing packages back to them because it meant a loss against their sales.

Our area of the store was also where clerks would turn in sales receipts and figures at the end of each day. Our supervisor was charged with compiling these and we could often tell by the expression on his face as to whether it had been a good day–and every day counted. Later, I got to work “out front” in customer service, which was not particularly enjoyable as we dealt with complaints about deliveries or had to deal with people who were over their credit lines. Mostly, you let people vent, did what you could, kept smiling and didn’t take their guff personally! What was fun was that a number of women who worked in the department loved to bake and more or less had a bake-off with each other–you know all those good Youngstown Christmas cookies. We had our own stash!

What I did learn through all of this was how hard, and at relatively low wages everyone worked. I was amazed at the artistry of some of our display people (some were art students at YSU). There were all the people working in the stockrooms to ticket and put out merchandise. There were all those clerks who spent hours on their feet assisting customers. And there was our store Santa, who you could tell was pretty tuckered out at the end of the day listening to all those squirming kids and “ho-ho-hoing!” and posing with hundreds of those kids for that snapshot that would make Christmas memories.

What all this gave me was an abiding appreciation for those who work in stores, and especially for those who serve with cheerfulness. It is not easy work, especially at Christmas. I don’t want to be one of those customers who is memorable for all the wrong reasons that people talk about in the employee cafeteria or the break room!

What are your Christmas shopping memories? Did you have any seasonal jobs at Christmas, and if so, what was memorable from those?


4 thoughts on “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Holiday Shopping

  1. I worked as an “extra” clerk at McKelvey’s during Christmas break in High School and College. Set aside something for my parents for Christmas,since we got a little discount for working at the store. Best presents they ever got from me because before that my gifts were purchased at the Five and Dime:)
    Loved when it snowed at Christmas time, but it made it difficult to catch a bus, and driving was an adventure.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks so much for your blog Bob. I left Youngstown in 1963 and while some of my growing up memories are difficult, your writing always seems to bring back the good ones. My family owned a costume and tuxedo rental and getting the “Santa Suits” ready for the Christmas season was a big time for us. I worked a Strouss’ for two Christmas seasons to save money for school. My first “real job”.

    Liked by 1 person

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