The bookstore I worked at in Rivertown had a large, roomy children's book department. Well-to-do people would drop their children off in this big-box store and go to the mall or to the grocery store, blocks and many minutes of traffic away. A store is not a day-care center. It's not a babysitting service. It's also not enclosed.
Where the Wild Things Are
One time we called the police for a man who took off all his clothes in the children's department. He was full grown and prancing around while he finally picked out Goodbye, Moon to read. I kid you not.
Another time in the one ladies bathroom, we had a couple getting their game on in one of the stalls. This is not the kind of thing that distresses me. Much. So much normal stuff goes on, the abnormal is just a chance to strut your stuff. I went in on the report, saying loudly, "Now this I've got to see!!" Coitus got interruptus. I didn't see a thing. But it was close. And I'm not a little girl who's in a bathroom unprotected.
We had a homeless woman come in and scream at everyone about how hungry she was while she sucked mayonnaise out of the little packets at the food bar. It was very difficult to get rid of her. If the unattended kid went over for the water fountain or a cookie, there she would be. A crazy, mean woman, hungry and I thought dangerous. Then the dolts--the three elderly strange men whom I wouldn't trust with a kid for five minutes. They didn't know what toilet paper was for. They were there for every open hour, wandering around and looking at people. It took awhile for us to notice them properly, and then to document enough to throw them out. In the meantime, they were there.
We had stalkers, shoplifters, people that left gang sign in the elevator, a kleptomaniac. And in the employees, we had one congenital liar and thief, a couple drug addicts, and a gambling addict, and a way-repressed guy who someday will go postal. They were weeded out, of course, but not immediately. Before they were completely desperate.
Cars and Trucks and Things That Go!
We had two staircases that led outside for fire escapes, accessible from upstairs and downstairs. They have the flange arms that punch an alarm when you leave, so people don't have to wait for someone with a key. We also had a back door with the same flange arm, right in the children's department, leading directly to the parking lot. Good, the kids won't burn. But if somebody grabbed a kid and went out, chances are he or she could get that child in a car faster than milk steams at a coffee bar.
We are trying to get customers in. They can look through books, read to each other, have a family experience. We make money that way, in a civilized fashion that gives something first. But all the children's department personnel and managers were briefed on noticing when they had unexpected babysitting detail. We had the code figured out for lost or abducted kids. The managers had the parental advisory memorized for when babysitting duty was over. Invariably we were considered rude and baseless.
None of our precautions would have saved a kid if we were turned the wrong way. Or had lunch hour, or a rush at the cash register. Or had to watch a shoplifter. I don't know what these parents were thinking.
Hansel and Gretel
In the children's department, we have books that re-write the old fairy tales. Everyone is kind now in the stories, and the illustrations are beautiful. But in the old tales, such as Grimm's, you find things more like the real world. Hansel and Gretel were left in the woods to starve. They saved themselves by making a path of pebbles back home. Each time, their parents took them back to the woods to die. The third time, they could not go home. They were finally Lost.
They ended up in a candy house. Gretel was a slave and Hansel was a fatted calf. The witch planned to roast him and eat him for dinner, only Gretel murdered her instead.
That's what you call a happy ending: making the best of crappy events. Overcoming evil with guile and force.
If parents are not going to teach their children to be careful of witches and forests, to use trickery and force together, then they cannot turn their back, not even for a moment. They certainly cannot leave for four or five hours to get their shopping done or their golf game on. But I think whole parts of the upper middle class think they live in a candy house, instead of the jungle that the world really is. With no lessons and no experience, a small body and smaller muscles, these pampered children don't have a chance in hell against the Monsters, the Witches, and the misleading Candy House/Trap in the Forest.
We gave these parents a wake-up call. They got mad, and they got even. Some of them stopped shopping here forever. Some of them left their kid again. After a few months of this, we started calling the police for that too. The parents were charged with child abandonment. I wonder if they learned anything.
Illustrations by three great Book Artists: Maurice Sendak, Richard Scarry, and Arthur Rackham.