The Arrangement - Elaina Battista-Parsons
My aunt and uncle owned a popular gift shop in the train town of Cranford, New Jersey for twenty-two years. The Arrangement embodied my favorite design—family, Christmas, safety, and cookies all twisted up into the warmest pretzel of a home. It was my Aunt Connie, though, who curated the space and gave it what everyone craved--togetherness. I love my aunt fiercely.
The Arrangement was situated five minutes from the train station where commuters landed every morning—back and forth to New York City every day. The buildings that still line the streets off the main highway called North Avenue are brick, single-floored, and continuous, rarely an alley or open air between businesses. The town has Victorian roots and faded memories of being the “Venice of NJ”, as its riverbanks once housed wealthy people traveling to and from New York City in the late 1800s. The street where The Arrangement once stood remains a snow-globe landscape. If you’re picturing bakery and coffee shop love and neighboring businesses saying good morning to one another as they unlock their storefronts, you’re understanding.
If I close my eyes, I can still navigate The Arrangement’s contents from top to bottom, side to side, the same way I could at eight years old— cinnamon-soaked brooms, black iron hooks, silk flower bouquets with long dangling mauve ribbons. I can do the same for my aunt—her calloused fingertips and her petite stature. Her breath always had a dot of garlic or something else Italian like parsley. She only wore flats. Even now, in my adult years, if I squeeze into my daydreams tightly enough, I smell candles, silk, and the Greek restaurant that backed up to the store. And then there’s that feeling of together. Strangers who bonded over the experience of things. All very lovely to witness during my visits from my beach town an hour away, but it was only a matter of time before I needed them gone, so that I could have the store and my aunt all to myself. She listened better than most people, and when she listened to me talk about school or friends it made me feel complete. Maybe back at her home, she would be in the mood to slice some eggplant paper-thin and fry it up for when Uncle Bob closed up the store and made it home for a late dinner. I could help her coat the slices with flour and egg, maybe sprinkle some oregano and salt. My aunt made magical dinners, but this was a busy time of the year at the store, so the eggplant might have to wait until my July visits.
The Arrangement was merriment with a few teaspoons of lamp oil, sachets of bayberry, and bricks of rose-scented soap. It was my home in many ways—my heart as the foundation, my soul, the bones and stone. Sometimes when I’m on the verge of a panic attack from living the adult life, I imagine myself snuggled up in a plum sleeping bag on The Arrangement’s brown shaggy carpet with Johnny Mathis’s “A Christmas Song” playing softly near my head. His velvet voice as prayer, and the unlit red taper candles hanging by a string, as offerings. The first snow of the season falls outside the store window. No one is inside but me, but I know my aunt is reachable if I get scared. But I won’t because I’m home and it’s a place that keeps my breathing even.
The Arrangement brought my aunt and uncle many years of abundance for their hard work, as the time period was the 1980s and 1990s. Figurines, baubles, collectibles and clutter disguised as decor. They were my cousins and my keepers, like it was a game of fairytale and fantasy—earth palettes of reds, browns, and olive greens in the shape of an autumn meadow. Maybe from the paperweight collection called StonyBrook or Samantha Lane. Maybe I’d confide in the life-like cardinal figurines perched on white daisies in a meadow. Waiting for someone to buy it and put it on their mantle. There was no social media back then, but I am certain The Arrangements’ account would have had over ten-thousand followers and a check-mark. #home #hearth #cozy #supportsmallbusiness #downtowncranford
The clutter brought hundreds of loyal customers so much joy. In these objects for sale on wooden and glass shelves was a sense of belonging. Displaying them in our homes at various seasons became tradition. Shelves, hooks, crystal ornaments, porcelain, and tables full of painted ceramic and glass holiday royalty. It wasn’t kid-friendly, but I became the exception as the lone niece. I became the sweet little girl who my aunt adored and let help with customers once in a while. She’d provide me with dialogue, and I’d practice with courage.
“May I help you?”
"Fifty dollars for a replica of Scrooge’s dismal London residence? Give me three, please,” uttered the woman with the plaid scarf.
“Aunt Connie, she wants three scrooge houses,” I’d whisper to my aunt who dyed her hair the color of fall and said bottle, bah-el. A hard miss of the T, true to her Newark, New Jersey roots.
“Who wants three Scrooge houses?” She’d ask with a smile. I felt in-the-know, and what school kid doesn’t want that feeling?
“She did.” I’d point. “The lady holding the glass candle jar over there.” The woman held the jar close to her nose, sniffed, and placed it back on the table. She lifted another jar, sniffed and you could see her eyes react favorably to soft butterscotch rather than the overpowering lemon meringue. As much as I was fascinated by this woman’s overly rouged cheeks and ability to trust her nose, I wanted her and the rest of the customers to hurry up so that I could run next store for pizza slices and eat in peace with my aunt and uncle. They could ask me what I liked best about the day, or I could ask what house sold most. We’d sit on the stools in the backroom, and I’d never want the day to end.
I wanted to touch and sniff everything. I wanted to camp out under the center display table in the store, draped in a long red tablecloth that covered the boxes of extra inventory. I would’ve nestled in and called it a night. Under that table lived boring cardboard boxes of inventory. But as a child, I imagined the boxes contained a special kind of Christmas magic just waiting to be woken up, come November first when the Open House took place. The place would be a hum of holiday. One I could only love for an hour or two before my unnamed crowd-anxiety took over and I needed that cold winter air on my face.
Cranford residents and neighboring town patrons would live for the day when the newest installment of the Dickens Village arrived at The Arrangement. Remember—it was pre-internet, so store retail was where it was at. There were several styles of Christmas-inspired towns that were sold in the form of houses, figurines, ice rinks, taxis, movie theaters, apothecaries, apple vendors, libraries, and anything else you’d find in a town. There were four separate collections under Dept. 56: Christmas in The City, Snow Village, Dickens, and much later, Disney. If you liked a contemporary polish, you’d choose Snow Village. If you liked a literary novel aura under your tree, for sure you’d be a Dickens or Christmas in the City collector. It became a game everyone in town loved playing: Which home are you? Who do you belong to? #Dickens #SnowVillage #ChristmasintheCity
Each collection had a different sheen and color system on its ceramic surface—some shiny, some dulled, some modern, some old. I personally liked Dickens because as a kid I liked the sound of apothecary, not having much idea what an apothecary was, but knowing it evoked the same energy as Cranford, NJ.
For every collection, there was a set of individually named pieces, most of which The Arrangement had displayed on shelves in the store: Crosby House, Queen Anne Victorian, The Pied Bull Inn. Pick your neighborhood, pick your style. But then go home, so I can talk to my aunt in peace. Often, we would leave the store alone because my uncle remained a loyal employee to PSE&G the entire time. He’d take over the evening hours at The Arrangement, while my aunt managed the daytime shoppers.
Customers would hunker down and browse for hours, even though the store was no larger than your average downtown boutique. Every inch of the store was covered in holiday from the first weekend of November through the last of February when post-Christmas money was being spent on their beloved collection of choice. Oh my God, how long can it take to pick out a gift for your kid’s teacher. Just take the picture frame and go. I’m truly grateful for your patronage and loyalty to my aunt and uncle and that they bring you joy but go home now.
Open House at The Arrangement was traditionally every first weekend of November, not having a chance to mourn Halloween or even think about anything but a nesty, cozy home adorned in The Arrangement’s signature style. This was the weekend where I’d hug and kiss Italian aunts, uncles, and cousins from all over the tri-state area, jam-packed into one small Cranford store. Also, the dozens of close friends of my aunt and uncle who were year-round customers.
My Aunt Connie offered trays of bakery sprinkled cookies, a boom box of Johnny Mathis hidden under the tablecloth of the center table of the store, and yuletide sprouting in every direction, even from the ceiling: bells, angels, Santa, reindeer. I was mesmerized.
“Connie, where’s the post office for Christmas in the City?”
“Bob, I need two pine trees and an ice skater for Snow Village for Mrs. Ranelli and her mom.”
“Ed, have you seen The Diner and a taxi? I only see the Movie Theater here.”
“Barb. Grab me two drugstores and a Drive-In from the back room, please.”
Their store’s register area was small and tight. Yet, four people—my Aunt Connie, Uncle Bob, and their two best friends/co-owners rang up, wrapped, and mingled with their customers. Even my Grandma Jo volunteered her number skills for these months when business was extreme. Hidden among the junk of the tape, scissors, credit card machine and random notes about stock items was my uncle’s stash of Tic Tacs. My aunt would sneak my a few into my hand with every visit. Orange was my favorite.
I wanted to be in the thick of it every year. It was exciting to watch the bustle among the tune of “Sleigh Ride”, yet I know now as an adult how exhausted they must’ve been after all of this stimulus for a full Saturday and Sunday. Running a business is like running a second household. So once the thick of it wore off, my head would pound. I just wanted Johnny, some cookies, and my aunt’s undivided attention.
With each purchase came a careful inspection of the piece, for any dings, cracks, or scratches. It was detailed and time-consuming, but this is what made their business so reputable for decades. Once the sale was rung up, my aunt’s gift wrapping magic ensued. Nobody can wrap a gift as tightly and beautifully as my Aunt Connie. Even now. Gold medal Olympic status.
Open House was so thrilling for me as an eight-year-old. Until the hot and dizzy set in, and the let me have my aunt back crept up my spine. I remember watching my aunt, thinking—that’s how I want to be. Known and loved by people I connect with in some way. She offered gifts. (even if the customers were paying $45 for a pair of evergreen trees covered in chunky white painted snow chips).
My aunt and uncle’s faces often wavered between smile and focus. Who wants which piece? Is the piece in a box under a table somewhere or is it above in the walls of the backroom shelves? Did you remember to mark it off the inventory list in the backroom?
The shelves in the backroom made up the entire ceiling. From floor to ceiling and all around. Everything packed in tightly. Some shelves sagging from years of weight, but they made it work. They had to. Even the teeny tiny bathroom in the back room was a threat to the person on the toilet. Items were squeezed in to every crevice and corner, circling you, towering over you, defying physics, but they needed every inch of space for storage. Don’t make any sudden movements or you may be buried in music boxes and cardboard boxes before you get to wash your hands.
My aunt recently reminded me that she and my uncle would design custom, professionally printed invitations for the Open House every year. They wanted every customer to feel special and acknowledged for their loyalty and generosity year round. Often the customers would show up and present their invitation as a ticket to enter, and while it was an unnecessary gesture, my aunt and uncle would nod and thank them for their attendance.
Every special business in history boosts certain traditions and touches that make that business memorable. For The Arrangement’s holiday Open House, one of those signature touches was my Uncle Bob’s window display. He and their friend/co-owner, Ed, spent hours arranging fake snow, twinkle lights, and a select few Department 56 pieces. My aunt still refers to it as their winter wonderland in a window. If you were unwilling to plow through the crowds of New York City to go to Macys or Saks only thirty minutes away by train, you had this option of a small town marvel.
Most of the time I spent in The Arrangement was spent visualizing every patron leaving with their multiple bags, my aunt shutting the lights, locking the door, and letting me sleep inside with only the twinkle of the 1980s Christmas light strands to keep me company. The Arrangement brought me the same comfort that my actual home did. Mostly, it included my aunt, who to this day, remains home to me. Right around the time the store dissolved its business and my aunt and uncle called it quits, I met one of my dearest friends at college. It turns out The Arrangement was also a fixture in this life growing up. Places, like people, connect us. Our lives braiding together like a warm pretzel.
Elaina Battista-Parsons is a writer across genres. Elaina has an upcoming YA with Inked in Gray Press in Fall 2022 and a memoir collection called Italian Bones in the Snow with Vine Leaves Press scheduled for 2/22/22 release. She's had poems and prose published in The Spring City, Malarkey Books, Burnt Pine Magazine, Read Furiously, 3Moon Magazine, and Backlash Press. She lives on the Jersey Shore with her two daughters and her husband. Elaina loves ice cream, antiques, pop culture, and snow.