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If you head over to the Marshalls website right now, you’ll see a slogan that couldn’t be more dead-on: “Your surprise is waiting.”
Given that shopping at Marshalls involves sorting through what seems like endless racks of clothing in all different sizes, colors, and materials, every item you pick up is likely to be a surprise. The marketing team knew exactly what it was doing with that one.
Marshalls has been around for 61 years now, but it’s only been a semiconsistent part of my life for the past six or seven. And in my experience, the biggest surprise isn’t what I take home; it’s the fact that shopping at Marshalls has helped me navigate a complicated relationship with my mom. Considering that so much of the tension between us in the past has been about weight and health and things that involve her opinion about my body, “surprise” might be too conservative of a world. “Miracle” might be better.
No trip is exactly the same, but most follow the same script. We walk into the too-brightly lit store and immediately veer right to check out the shoes. My mom will gravitate toward what I can only generously describe as the most stylish clog in her size while I hover around whatever shoe reassures me that I’m too cool for my small town.
Although we’ve only been in the store for a few minutes at this point, it’s likely that we’ve already run into someone we know. There aren’t many places you can go to kill time in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and Marshalls is the only one where you can find a Calvin Klein shift dress and lavender sachets for your drawers.
We head to the women’s clothing section, and although I have great taste and would gladly give my opinion, my mom usually splits off and goes about carefully considering the items on the racks in front of her. I, on the other hand, pick up anything that catches my eye: that faux-leather jacket, the black dress that looks like every other black dress I own, the workout top I may or may not actually wear to the gym. I’m the queen of the north and the south and the west and the east of my Marshalls. The mother of deals, if you will.
After we exhaust our options (and ourselves), we meet up in front of the changing rooms to take stock of our hauls. Marshalls will only allow you to bring in 10 items to the dressing room at one time. I know this. And yet, almost always, I’ve managed to surpass that while my mom remains, thankfully, under the limit. I hand off my extra items to her, and we walk in together, arms full.
Anyone with a body and a mother can imagine what else we’re walking into those rooms with: the tension, the words said years ago but not forgotten, the arguments over who gets to say what about whose body. That this is the most stressful part of the shopping experience is not unique to our situation. I expect hell is filled with aggressively lit changing rooms.
But this is where I think the magic of Marshalls comes into play.
Unlike Dillard’s, which is the more expensive option in our town and thus has higher stakes from the go, Marshalls doesn’t expect anything of you. You picked up 10 things and didn’t like a single one? No sweat. You picked up 10 things and you liked every single one? Congratulations. At least two of those things cost $12.99 or less.
Marshalls invites the better versions of my mom and myself to the store. By the time we make it to the changing rooms, we’re not adversaries. We both disrobe and disarm and let ourselves be surprised: by the deals, by the difference in our styles, by the ease with which we can talk about clothes on our body without talking about our bodies in our clothes.
Because when you walk into a store with another person with the same goal — to exchange your hard-earned money for new, shiny things — it doesn’t matter what happened before you got there. All that matters is this moment, this chance to stand alongside each other in pursuit of a shared goal.
By the time we walk out of the changing rooms, we’re on slightly more stable ground than we were before entering the store. It’s at this point in the trip when my mom will watch me hesitate over the money I’m about to spend (the discounts are great, but I am a writer). She’ll take one or two items — usually the ones she picked out — and offer to pay for them. After an inevitably long stint in the checkout line, we walk out together with plastic bags stuffed full of our new favorite things, and another trip is in the books.
The store isn’t perfect. It would benefit from a serious makeover. I want to see different floors and hear a better playlist and not lose what feels like days looking for the perfect black dress. And did I mention the goddamn lighting?
But Marshalls is that rare space where my mom and I can go to find common ground and, more often than not, really, really great shoes. And I’ll keep going as long as they keep those fluorescent lights on.