My first job was at Burnette’s Thriftown grocery store, which was located on the outskirts of my hometown of Barnesville, Georgia, in a building that now houses a Dollar General. I worked there, sacking groceries and stocking shelves, from the time I turned fourteen in 1972 until I left for college in 1975. If you’re a little older than I am, and if you lived in Lamar County back then, I probably took your groceries to your car for you.
If you tipped me, thank you. If you didn’t, I forgive you. I’ll forgive you more if you make up for it by sending a check.
When things were slow at the store, one of the things we’d do was block the shelves. We’d pull cans, jars, and boxes to the front and arrange them so that it appeared that the section was fully stocked. It gave the aisles a neat and appealing appearance, no doubt enhancing our customers’ shopping experience.
(As an aside, I’d like to say you haven’t lived until you’ve blocked the shelves on the baby food aisle. All those little jars …)
My current job—and I hope my last one—is at Smyth & Helwys Publishing, where I work as an editor. Most days, I edit. That means I sit in front of a computer, reading and editing (and sometimes rewriting) what writers have submitted.
They do let me out a few times a year, though. We exhibit our products at various meetings, and someone has to be there to talk about and sell our books. Sometimes, I’m one of the ones that get to go.
When we have no customers, we straighten the book stacks. That’s right—forty years, three degrees, and tons of experience after I left Thriftown, and I’m blocking shelves again.
Do you know who messed up the products on our shelves? Do you know who messes up the books on our tables?
People, that’s who!
People came along and took cans, jars, boxes, and bags off the Thriftown shelves and fouled up our beautiful arrangements. People come along and take books off our Smyth & Helwys tables and misalign our carefully aligned stacks.
Don’t even get me started on the people who pick something up, decide not to buy it, and then put it back someplace other than where they found it.
Anyway, in life, as in shelves, everything is nice, orderly, and pretty—until people come along.
And, as the late, great Mr. C. E. Julian never tired of reminding us in our high school history classes, “It’s been that way ever since Adam and Eve came out of the garden.”
Actually, now that I think about it, those two messed the garden up while they were still in it.
When it comes to life, I’ve given up on keeping the shelves straight. I mean, I still try to keep things together and to do what I can to contribute to an orderly world, but I’ve accepted the fact that life is about being with, knowing, and loving people.
And people, God love ‘em, make messes. Sometimes they make big messes.
But you know, Thriftown’s purpose wasn’t to have pristine shelves; it was to sell groceries. And Smyth & Helwys’s purpose isn’t to have orderly stacks; it’s to sell books.
The goal wasn’t and isn’t to build a monument; it was and is to run a business. In a business, stuff comes and stuff goes. And without people—glorious, messy, confounding, irritating, marvelous, interesting people—nothing happens, and it all goes away.
So, whether it’s in our businesses, our faith communities, or our nation, if we value blocking shelves over serving people, we’re done for …