The tale of the Circuit City pilgrims

By Scott Green

Around harvest season in the year 1621, after a rough year in which the funny-hat supplies ran devastatingly low, the Pilgrims took a break from their hard, Puritanical work schedule to celebrate a large feast with whichever of the local Indians they had not yet killed. And when it came time for the main course, they ate as quickly as possible, so as to be first in line at Ye Olde Walle-Marte to buy discount flat-panel HDTVs. It was the first post-Thanksgiving sale.

Even the men came shopping that year, as there were no football games on television. This was largely because the NFL had not yet been invented, though the Plymouth Rock-Gazette was already speculating about when Brett Favre was going to retire.

It was in the spirit of those simpler times that I headed to the Circuit City in Deer Park, Ill., about eight hours after Thanksgiving dinner last week, to get first crack at one of the many “Black Friday” sales.

The store was scheduled to open at 5 a.m., and I arrived around 3:45 a.m. having not slept in more than 20 hours. About 120 or 130 people were already lined up in a queue that stretched past the beauty supply store, the jewelry store and the women’s clothing boutique.

With me were my sister, Amy, and our friend Carrie. According to the radio, the wind chill made it 14 degrees Fahrenheit. Between the three of us, we had on 11 layers of pants. Amy, for some reason, was braving the elements to buy an $8 calculator. Carrie had come for a shot at more than 70 DVDs at $4 apiece. (Some of them, like “I, Robot,” were still overpriced.) I was there for a $30 radar detector, marked down from $60.

As more people lined up behind us, we started making line friends. Despite how amiable our new buddies were, there was a palpable tension in the air, because we knew that, should the situation turn dire, we were going to have to kill and eat each other. The topic of conversation was mostly our wonderment at the people at the front of the line; we were jealous they were going to be the only ones to snag the top deals, though this jealousy was offset by an equal amount of pity. Hey, we thought, at least WE weren’t dumb enough to endure bitter cold all night just for a couple of mail-in rebates on obsolete webcams.

Finally the curiosity got to me and I walked up toward the entrance to meet the first people in line, which earned me nasty glares from everyone I passed along the way, because they thought I was trying to cut. It was the majesty of the holiday spirit.

Five women were huddled together at the store’s front doors, trying to keep warm in the final stretch of the evening. They had eaten a hearty turkey lunch at noon, and were first in line when they arrived at 4:45 p.m. To kill time, they spent the night watching DVDs on a laptop they purchased on a previous Black Friday. Just like the Pilgrims.

The women were family, and spending Thanksgiving night in front of a store is just their tradition. This was the 10th straight year they’d done it; they tend to pick a different store every year, depending on where they find the best deals. They are surprisingly normal, though this Black Friday stuff is serious business to them. When I asked if they’ve ever sold any of their merchandise, they seemed shocked. “No, never!” said Debbie, the group’s apparent ringleader. But then she smiled and made a peace offering: a voucher for a $399 laptop she said she didn’t really want. It was as moving as the Indians offering an assortment of deer carcasses to the settlers at the first Thanksgiving. I would have cried if my tear ducts hadn’t frozen shut.

I went back to my spot in line with Amy and Carrie, and at exactly 5 a.m. we began the march into the store. When I got to the automotive section, they had not yet sold out of the radar detectors, much to my excitement. In fact, there were approximately 9,472 radar detectors, and exactly zero other patrons attempting to purchase them. I could have come in any time Black Friday to buy my $30 radar detector; I probably could have gone to the dumpster after Christmas and scored some of the overstock. Neither of those options would have required an all-nighter.

But the important thing is, I now know what it takes to wait in line on Black Friday for discounted merchandise. What it takes is: stupidity. Because as it turned out, the same radar detector was available online at midnight.

I bet the Pilgrims never made that mistake.