If you pause to find it, there is a wonderful surprise waiting for you at Dan & Whit’s general store in Norwich. It is not listed in any product catalog and it doesn’t have a price tag. You will not find it on any shelf, yet it is everywhere in the store. From the moment you trigger the automatic door on your way in until you re-emerge into the parking lot, it surrounds you. It is, perhaps, the only thing the store has never run out of in its history.
Naturally, we are talking about sound, and Dan & Whit’s has it in abundance.
Start by the freezers. Ponder that this humming goes 24/7/365. Wonder how much gossip and how many secrets have been shared beyond an intended audience because the person talking had to raise his voice over the droning of the freezers. At the meat counter, a concierge bell tempts anyone tall enough to reach it. Who doesn’t want to slam their palm down to let the world know one has arrived? (Apparently, a lot of people, which is why the same bell is frequently hidden out of sight.) Even the lightest feet cause floorboards to creak like the door of a haunted house. When you stand on top of the giant vent in the hardware department when the fire is roaring, you can literally hear the heat coming up around you.
It is the auditory version of a baby being swaddled.
For professional listeners, there is a code nearly everywhere in the store. At Dan & Whit’s, customers arrive in unpredictable waves. Frequently, they can overwhelm the lone person manning the register. It happens several times a day, if not several times an hour.
Listen: there is no siren call for assistance over the PA system. Magically, instead, right at the moment when the line becomes just a little too long, backup appears. A second or third register opens. Did your ears catch what made it happen? In cashier lingo, it’s called “buzz one.” Don’t confuse it with buzz two, which means something totally different.
Of course, Dan & Whit’s has its own Voice of God, the sudden call over the loudspeaker. Many customers hear their initial questions quickly broadcast: “Hardware to the nail bench for a question about grinding wheels.” A certain resident, who had lost track of his spouse in the store, wondered whether his wife had already got an item on their list. So he casually helped himself to the PA: “Got that dog food yet, Doris?” [For privacy reasons, names have been changed.] An individual high up the Dan & Whit’s corporate ladder reports that the system has seen plenty of pranks, double entendres (a woman’s voice calling a man’s name, saying, “I’m ready for you in the office”), and other hijinks.
Sensitive ears will detect a distinctive cowbell in the beginning of “out back.” This is one great noise that customers are encouraged to make when they need assistance. Some ring it gingerly, some vigorously, but all want their five cents...and fast. That cowbell, rung to get assistance returning bottles and cans for deposits, is the prelude to money going into someone’s pocket. How many thousands of nickels have been transferred to citizens since the bottle bill went into effect? If you stacked them, would they be higher than the Congregational Church’s steeple? Maybe they would they reach the moon? An employee with deep roots confesses that there are no official records, so we use our imagination.
From the toy department to the office to the upstairs, there is also, of course, a lot of talk: verbal commands (the unofficial slogan of the store in 2018 is “wait for the green light”); linguistic shortcuts (“bacon” = “one McWhit with bacon, please”); terms of endearment to make children feel special (“look at the little darlin’s!”); greetings to make one feel at home (“hey, buddy”); and countless questions about how to make the merchandise meet a customer’s wishes (Customer, opening the top of a brown paper bag: “I wanna electrify this coil lamp.” Employee: “Follow me.”).
Nearly every visit to the store concludes with sounds that propel us all forward and give us hope for the future: Both customer and employee say “Thank you” to each other...and seem to mean it.
Note: This is the second in a series of stories about Dan & Whit’s in Norwich, VT. And no, they will not all be about the five senses. Previous stories can be found here.