You will pay – in the gift shop – for this experience

It was a lovely day spent at a miniature railway village and museum with my children and parents during their annual summer visit. The weather was perfect, and the location offered something for everyone.

Dad enjoyed a classic cars display and historical train facts. Mom browsed antiques. The kids saw a model train being built, the skeleton of its tracks and plaster mountains still unpainted and fully exposed as if through X-ray. We even took a train ride, where a cool breeze blew our hair back and especially delighted Lindell, 2.

On the way out of the railway village, however, we met a familiar foe: the gift store. Dustin’s philosophy is that families go into gift stores feeling jubilant and expectant, but leave in tears and with empty pockets. For him, gift stores are not happy places. Everything is overpriced, and the shelves are stocked with things our kids normally would not care about, but now, just because the pencil or backpack bears the name of the place we’ve just visited, they act as if leaving empty-handed will be as painful as chewing off their left arm. Even the name — gift shop — is deceiving. It implies that someone will give you a complimentary gift for having visited their park.

Ordinarily, to avoid this misery, Dustin and I bypass gift stores. But businesses have wised up to this largely universal tactic, and now many of them force you through the gift store in order to exit the park. I wouldn’t put it past Dustin to live at the National Zoo indefinitely rather than go through the exit that is only accessible via the gift shop. When he finally is forced into a gift shop, Dustin’s look of horror suggests that he doesn’t see rows upon rows of stuffed bears and pencils with feathers stuck on the end, but instead, angry merchandise that sneers and spits at him as he passes.

It’s as if all the knickknacks are saying, “And you thought admission was expensive; wait until you see how much it’s gonna cost you to get out of this place.”

On this occasion, however, while visiting the railway museum with my parents, Dustin and I reluctantly agreed to take our begging children into the gift shop, but only because Grandma was paying. As much as I tease, I have to hand it to Dustin; it did seem like there was a fun vacuum on either side of the entrance that sucked away all of our good humor and our children’s common sense. This being a railway village, the store was filled with Thomas the Tank Engine paraphernalia. Our oldest boys — Ford, 8, and Owen, 6 — haven’t played with Thomas in years. Now they thought their hearts would break if they didn’t have an engine named James.

“You guys don’t even play with trains anymore,” I said.

“But we will. We promise. Please, pretty please.”

The woman behind the counter witnessed my boys’ meltdown with sympathy all over her face. With her lips, she mouthed “I’m sorry” to me. If I hadn’t looked away, I think she might have gone on to say, “I just work here part time. Don’t blame me. Look I’m a mom, too. If it were up to me, there would be no gift shops any-where. Not ever.”

Now Owen was crying as if his pet just died, and Ford had resorted to his default: accusing us of favoring Lindell “just because he’s the baby.”

How did a happy family outing suddenly turn into an angry, dysfunctional therapy session in the middle of a store? Dustin had had enough. He walked out the front door and onto the store’s porch, where he found my dad, hands in pockets, whistling up at the sky. Dad didn’t want to know how much money Mom was spending. He didn’t want to know if the kids were behaving. It seemed that he wanted to pretend none of it was happening at all, and he wished only that everyone made it out alive.

More than $50 later, Mom and I came out of the store with the boys following at our heels. They were still sniffling and wiping away tears, even as they each held a sack with a new toy inside.

Lindell was so excited to see the car waiting to take him home, he dropped his new train on the ground like a rag and hopped into his car seat.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Dustin said. “We’re never going into another gift shop. They’re nothing but one big money pit, and look, the boys don’t even care about what they get there.” He pointed at the train on the ground.

Dustin was being nice. Because I was thinking, at that very moment, that gift shops are more along the lines of the eighth circle of hell.

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