Thursday, June 21, 2012

What Price Convenience?

Ironically enough, it’s the only place in my neighborhood left where there’s still a lineup. Which, from outside, would surprise passersby very much.

It looks like very little, after all. The storefront’s unadorned, without even a sign proclaiming the shop’s name to tell you you’re at the right place, just a small “Now Open” card placed in its window. And once you’re inside things are little better.

There isn’t a décor as such, nor are there shelves displaying products for purchase the way you’d expect from any place of business. None of the trappings of a suburban mart can be found, in fact, the place is simply a waiting area where a lineup stretches, wall to wall, separated into sections by a velvet dividing cord as it winds back and forth like the body of some great snake. Weekends, the lineup stretches past the store’s front door and into the street, but if you come on a Wednesday, in the afternoon, as I have, you shouldn’t have to wait more than an hour or two.

You can, in theory, pay to not have to wait in the line, but purchasing that privilege would, obviously, involve waiting in the line, and not many people visit the store more than a few times, so not many people think it’s worth the extra expense.

I know I don’t. I’ve only been here twice since the place opened six months ago, and both times on days off where I have nothing else planned. I have my headphones in, an audio-book playing, and nowhere to be for the rest of my day. Under circumstances like that, I don’t mind waiting at all.

It’s under all other circumstances where waiting starts to bug me.

The audio-book comes to the end of its chapter as I approach the front of the line, and I absent-mindedly wonder if it’s part of the service or merely a coincidence as I take the earbuds out, roll them around the body of my iPod, and stuff both back into my bag. For the first time I can hear the people around me, the shuffling of feet, muttered conversations and occasional laughter that punctuate the line as it slowly winds its way forward.

I’ve been waiting more than two hours now. I won’t wait much longer. Two more people, then me.

The woman at the front of the line pays for her purchase and, grinning, makes her way out of the store and back into the street. It’s the gentleman in front of me next, and then my turn.

“Hi,” the gentleman says to the white haired, bearded man sitting behind the cash register at a desk at the head of the line, “um…. I’m a new customer, I’m not sure how this works. Should I just…”

“It’s really easy,” the man behind the desk tells him, smiling, “just tell me what you need to make your life a little easier, and I’ll quote you an estimate. No obligation, you can decide once you know what it’ll cost if it’s worth the price or not.”

“Great! Well, it’s like this. My wife is pregnant. Erm… very pregnant. I want to be there with her for the birth, but my work is sending me out of town for two weeks and there’s no way I can get out of it. I was wondering if there were some way for you people to make sure she doesn’t go into labor until I get back?”

The older, seated man thinks for a moment, then pulls out a pad of paper, scrawls something on its top sheet, folds it over and hands it to his customer.

The cost.

The man ahead of me lets out a little cough as he reads what’s printed on the paper, then looks up from it to the cashier, who’s still just smiling serenely back at him.

“Wow, that’s a lot.”

“Yes,” the older man replies, “But it’s a big job, and our rates are non-negotiable. If you don’t want to pay…”

“No, no, of course I’ll pay, I just hadn’t expected…”

“You’ll pay? Well excellent! Then I’ll get things working for you immediately, sir, and enjoy your trip.”

The older man’s still smiling, but it’s clear the conversation is over between the two of them. I’m sure he doesn’t mean to be rude, but he’s right, the lineup’s very long and he has little time for non-business-related chatter. As the next person in line I appreciate this, even if the younger man does not. His shoulders slump at the thought of whatever it is he’s going to lose for this favor, and he shuffles, sadness in his step, out of the store.

Which brings me to the front of the line. I’ve done this before, fortunately, and am better prepared.

“Hello,” I tell the older man, “I want to not miss trains anymore. I’d like for them to arrive at the station the same time I do, regardless of when I get there, so I never have to watch them pulling away and I never have to wait for them to arrive. I’d like for this to be a trait of mine, starting now, and continuing for the rest of my life. What would something like that that cost me?”

The older man smiles, relieved that I’d ask for something so comparatively simple, then takes his pad, writes his note, and hands it to me.

“Your ability to drive a car” it reads.

“Erm… I already can’t drive. I never thought to learn how, I’ve lived in cities with train systems my whole life. Does that change anything?”

“Oh?” he tells me, music in his voice, “Well then it will be an easy price for you to pay, since that doesn’t affect a thing. Though I will warn you, if you agree to this you will never be able to learn how to drive. However hard you try, you’ll never quite get the hang of it. But if you never plan on learning…”

“I don’t,” I cut him off, unable to suppress my grin, “I never plan on learning, so you’re right, this is an easy one. Make it happen, I’ll pay for it gladly.”

“Glad to hear it. Now, if you’ll excuse me….” he motions to the lineup behind me.

“Oh, of course, I apologize…” I’m already making my way out of the store as I say it. The people behind me, after all, deserve the same consideration from me that I’d expected from the people in front of me.

Outside, in front of the store, my mood turns giddy, I’ve shaved fifteen to twenty minutes off my work day, which over the course of my life will add up to hundreds of hours worth of extra free time that I can enjoy in whatever way I please, and I’ve done it at the expence of an ability I’d never done anything with anyway. My trip had been a resounding success, and I’m in an amazing mood, whistling a jaunty tune as I make my way down the street.

A few blocks away, I see the guy who’d been ahead of me in line, sitting on the curb, head in his hands. Buyer’s remorse?

Perhaps. But he made his choice, and my good mood is impenetrable. I fairly skip the rest of the way back to my apartment.

And as I arrive home, I stop to reflect on just how successful the place had gotten in so short a time, even with no advertising other than word of mouth. It seemed natural as it was happening, but perhaps I should have been more surprised.

After all, I’m given to understand the economy these days isn’t in the best shape. It’s not exactly the perfect atmosphere in which to launch a new small business, five hundred year old sorcerer or not.

This has not, however, stopped the newly opened Convenience Store from enjoying massive success…


  1. Money, money, money makes the world goes by sadly, great story

  2. I liked this a lot. Was wondering where the whole - get whatever you want thing was going. ( Smirk)

    I just have one query for you - your sentence reads Two more people than me - should it not be two more people then me ?

    Keep going strong.

  3. This was excellent. I didn't know where it was going until it got there. Great concept!