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Muted bells? Stuff the kettles

December 04, 2008

We've all noticed, you can't help but notice, the cheerful ringing of The Salvation Army bells during the Christmas season. But now, those bells have been muted inside Valley Mall after several retail stores complained about the racket.

I am stunned. You mean to tell me there are still some retail stores out there that haven't gone out of business? Anymore, you take your eye off a retail store around here for 10 seconds and the next thing you know it's holding a liquidation sale.

Be that as it may, the clappers in the mall bells have been replaced by paper clips to mute the volume. Paper clips. What, they were out of cotton balls?

The story, of course, made national news. I saw it on the Washington station -- it's those eight words I've come to dread, which are always accompanied by the requisite smirk: "And finally in the news tonight, in Hagerstown ..."

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I hear those words, I dive behind the couch. It's never good.

The Salvation Army has no complaints about the mall, so if it doesn't care, I don't see why anyone in Washington should. But you see the potential for controversy. Scroogesque stores are striking out against charity and the merry sounds of the Christmas season, fearing it will bother the customers and eat into their profits.

To analyze this further, it seems to me there are three perspectives that matter: the shoppers, the retail clerks and the bell ringers themselves.

As a shopper who is exposed to the bells in short bursts, I can't say they have ever bothered me. In fact, I rather like them. Of course like everyone else, I've found myself without any coins in my pocket, and then you have to avert your eyes and do the wide walk around the bell ringer and enter the door from the other side, so you don't look like a hard-hearted cheapskate. But other than that I'm fine with it; I even appreciate the chance to dispose of unwanted change.

A number of years ago, I even rang one of the bells in the mall, and came to the conclusion it is an exercise everyone should experience once, not oftener. I admire the people who ring the bells season after season, because they put the needs of their poorer brethren above their own comfort. Speaking from experience, I can tell you that I was hearing that bell for about five days after I stopped ringing it.

This is likely the way the store clerks feel, especially inside the mall as opposed to outside on the sidewalk. Retail worker thinks it's nice and cheery and Christmasy for the first hour, but by the fifth she's about ready to pull off her own head.

Maybe we can settle this kettlegate issue by a vote that will ultimately benefit The Salvation Army. If you do not like the bells, put one dollar in the pot. If you do like the bells, put two dollars in the pot. Then we'll count up the dollars and see which side wins.

Hmm. Somehow, now that I have put it in writing, I see a potential flaw in my methodology.

Well, no matter. I think we should use this piddling controversy and publicity to our advantage and wipe the smirks off the broadcasters' faces in the process.

A lot of people are hurting this Christmas, so let's stuff the kettles as full as can be. Instead of tossing some coins in the pot as an afterthought, perhaps we can, with forethought, set aside a couple of bucks and then aggressively seek the bell/paper clip ringers out. Yes, it might scare them at first. But if you believe there are people out there who are worse off than you, you know what to do. Who knows, maybe we can ride the paper clips all the way to a record amount of donations this season.

Let's see if the national news will report that.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or by e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com. You can listen to his podcast, The Rowland Rant, on www.antpod.com.

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