Three generations of us came to Cambria for a friend’s wedding and had the morning to spare.
Some of us headed out for coffee and a wander to see what we could see. I expected the usual tourist town T-shirts and key-chains and pelican-on-a pole art, sold by bored teens on summer break.
I was wrong. I found myself wandering into a maze of small, connected shops. The feel and nature of the items shifted and flowed. Everything was cozy and interesting and appealingly displayed. Lots to look at and think about. Almost like a faraway, exotic marketplace minus the aggressive merchants making desperate offers.
All the people working in the Cambria shops were grown-ups who seemed genuinely interested in their wares. The woman watering the succulents knew them well, the fellow who rang up my ceramic fish knew who sculpted it and where.
I’d become separated from my family, and continued exploring down a little side street. It’s easy to see that I’m no serious shopper. As a frumpy, unbejeweled, indifferently dressed woman who collects nothing but Social Security, I’m no shop owner or salesperson-on-commission’s dream customer. But I was warmly welcomed in every shop.
It made me realize how unpleasant most shopping is in my real life. I’m usually either accosted with faux enthusiasm, and overly helpful friendliness or I’m made to feel like an intrusion in the sales person’s day. My super market encourages self check-out as if being spared any human interaction is a plus. At my local salad place they follow a script. At the beginning of every transaction they ask if it’s my first time there and conclude by telling me napkins and forks are located to the left of the register. I’ve been there a hundred times but am clearly interchangeable with other invisible customers.
Moments ago, at my regular market, I heard someone behind me exclaim, “Oh, thank you guys so much! That was so sweet of you!” I figured an employee must have done something extra nice for a regular. I whirled around, expecting to see the two grinning at each other, but the customer was alone, gushing into her phone.
That sweet morning in Cambria ended with me weaving through a two-story catacomb of antiques and curiosities. I recognized room after room of memorabilia from my past. Human sales people recognizable as fellow time-travelers were scattered around, as needed. One woman my age pawed through a bin of $5 clip-on earrings with me, suggesting a fun vintage pair I would have ignored. With her encouragement I bought them and wore them to the rehearsal dinner that night.
Amy Goldman Koss is the author of “Side Effects” and other young adult novels, and is a contributing writer to the opinion section of the Los Angeles Times. She lives in Los Angeles.