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Christmas Shopping At The St. Johnsbury Job Lot

A store aisle with a fake Christmas tree at the end
Erica Heilman
Independent producer Erica Heilman recently brought her recorder along on a Christmas shopping trip at Ocean State Job Lot in St. Johnsbury. In particular, she really wanted to find some lemons.

It’s a few days before Christmas, and independent producer Erica Heilman took her recorder along to Ocean State Job Lot in St. Johnsbury to record some last-minute shopping.

Ocean State Job Lot is my favorite store. It’s a place where you can get a snow scraper, a rug and some pickled beets all in one place. They have the best snacks in town, and they’re really cheap, like a bag of ginger snaps for a dollar. They don’t sell produce there, but I could swear that once, I saw a basket of three lemons in the cracker section.

Every year, the week before Christmas, I meet my friend Clare Dolan at Job Lot, and we Christmas shop.

More from VPR: A Late Night Visit To A NEK Grocery Store As Hoarding Takes Hold

Me: “Coming here, any time of year, you don’t know what’s going to happen when you come to Job Lot.”

Clare Dolan: “Right. Well one reason is, it’s that kind of store that gets in things from other stores that have either fallen off the truck, or been… the mystery of Job Lots is, ‘Where does this stuff come from? Did somebody make a deal with someone? Did they fall off the back of the truck, or they’re surplus…?’ We don’t know! But that’s part of the mystery of what makes Job Lots amazing and mysterious and alluring.

“For me it brings me a little bit back to like, the old department store excitement when I was a kid, and we’d go to downtown -- I lived outside Chicago, and we’d go to downtown Chicago to the giant department store. Now this was before malls. And everything was in a single store that had many different areas. So you’d be like, in the women’s clothes area, then you’d go to the kitchen appliance area and in the old sexist society days, Dad would be down in the automotives area. So it’s a little bit referencing that in my psyche.

A sign reading Indoor Pots on shelves with ceramic plant pots
Credit Erica Heilman / VPR
The price-less indoor plant pots at Ocean State Job Lot.

“Some of the stuff doesn’t … You have to look, like, what is the price? How much does this cost? You don’t know! Like over here, over around the corner, there’s a shelf that has these ceramic pots for plants, and it just says ‘Indoor Pots’ on the shelf, and there’s no price. There’s no stickers on the pots. There’s nothing. It’s just letting you know what that item is.”

Me: “Oh, look at this.”

Clare: “Oh, my God. OK. This is another reason why Job Lots is great. There’s a giant … Erica we have to describe this for your listening audience, it’s the Last Supper. It’s a giant, gilded framed sculpture encased in like, a frame of the Last Supper. And it’s gilded in some way that I can’t describe.”

Job Lot Radio: “Do you like ‘free?’ Most of us do!”

Me: “I have a memory of seeing a basket of lemons in the store. Have you seen that?”

Clare: “No.”

A frame around a gilded image of The Last Supper on a store shelf.
Credit Erica Heilman / VPR
The gilded and framed Last Supper.

Clare is a really slow shopper. So I left her at the Last Supper and I walked around to talk with some other people. I found a mother and daughter shopping in the Pop Tarts area. They didn’t want to be named.

Mother: “If I get the vaccine and I have a reaction, I’d rather be right where my doctor knows me.”

Me: “That’s totally sensible.”

Mother: “It’s scary. We do come up with something sensible.”

Daughter: “I think Gov. Scott was on top of it from the day one.”

Mother: “And we listened to what he had to say.”

Daughter: “Masks, social distancing and hand washing. Those three things have made a difference for Vermont. I’m not sure about the interstate signs coming into Vermont everywhere, ‘cause I think that was kind of expensive. But I think that Vermont has done it the right way.”

Mother: “I think they’re on top of it. I think people, when they listen to the governor, they took to heart what he said and tried to obey it.”

Me: “So, what are you sad about?”

Mother: “Actually we get out once in a while. But… I don’t like it, but it’s livable.”

Job Lot Radio: “We are now accepting donations for 3 Square Meals…”

The darkened outside of Ocean State Job Lot, with the store's name in red lit up letters and with wreaths in the windows
Credit Erica Heilman / VPR
Every year, Erica Heilman goes Christmas shopping at Ocean State Job Lot with her friend Clare Dolan.

This is Wanda from Derby.

Me: “What’s different for you?”

Wanda: “You know, eliminating your space to visit with family and friends. It’s definitely different. It definitely makes you feel isolated and secluded. My parents, for example, are older. They don’t want to see us really. And they’re not savvy with the internet, so we can’t even really Facetime. It makes it hard.

“I work at a liquor store and then I also cook, so I’m in public, working, and I’m exposed to so much that I could go home and expose it to my children, so on. And that again, that’s another issue my parents don’t want me around, because I’m exposed to so much, that I could turn around and expose them and make them fatally ill.”

Clare finished her shopping and left. I stayed a while longer. To be honest, people didn’t look very happy at Job Lot this year. And it wasn’t just the fluorescent lights. It’s been a terrible year.

But on my second pass through the cracker aisle, I saw it. On the lowest shelf, between the almond milk and a box of canned herring, there were lemons. Six lemons. Like a tiny Christmas miracle.

A box of lemons on a shelf next to Jif peanut butter
Credit Erica Heilman / VPR
At long last, the lemons.

It was getting dark when I went outside and it was starting to snow. There was a guy in a truck at the far corner of the parking lot doing donuts.

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Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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