We knew the doors were about to open when “Ride of the Valkyries” began to boom over the public-address system. By 4 a.m. on Black Friday in Athens, Georgia, several hundred people had lined up outside Best Buy in the predawn chill, supervised by police straddling motorcycles and ambassadors from a local Chick-fil-A handing out free breakfast biscuits wrapped in foil. Our most dedicated patrons had been sitting outside in folding chairs since the day before.
At the front of the line, some people clutched sheets of paper handed out by managers guaranteeing a deeply discounted laptop or camera. (Best Buy devised this ticketing system during my tenure as a salesperson in the mid-2000s to avoid the sort of stampede that makes the news every year.) But many more people had come out in the middle of the night, not to buy a particular product, but to bear witness to the bacchanal of extreme shopping itself and maybe pick up a $5 DVD. I’m still not sure whether, in the Apocalypse Now scene that “Ride of the Valkyries” was intended to evoke, the store’s employees were supposed to be the soldiers in helicopters or the Vietnamese villagers below.
There were no near-death experiences during the three years that I helped open Best Buy on Black Friday, even if the occasional shopper was overcome with holiday spirit and tackled a palletful of discounted Blu-ray players. The mornings were busy, but they crackled with a mildly perverse consumerist conviviality. For most of the people who thronged the store, the wee-hours shopping trip was as much a part of their Thanksgiving tradition as turkey. Store employees feasted, too—it was the one day of the year when my Best Buy location acknowledged how backbreaking retail work is, stocking our break room with a free lunch of fried chicken and macaroni and cheese. My co-workers and I jockeyed for those opening shifts because the eight hours always flew by—a wild reprieve from the everyday monotony for employees and even shoppers. It was a frankenholiday, pieced together from leftover parts of Thanksgiving and Christmas, but with a life of its own.