Hello, there. My name is Comfort Ann Joy. I'll wait while that one sinks in… (whistling noise). Oh, you get it? Sigh. My mother, under the influence of painkillers after my birth, let her kooky sister hijack the name-giving part of the process and didn't realize until days later the perky name I'd been saddled with. Along the way it was shortened to Comfy—like a worn out chair or an old pair of shoes. Much later, in design school, I was grudgingly glad for my unique name even as I rebelled against the implication that the only clothes a person named Comfy Joy could design were ugly Christmas sweaters.
I was famous for five minutes when I competed on a design competition TV show, but ultimately walked away with second place and a reprimand from the judges for not leaning into my "birthright" to design holiday-inspired clothing. (As if.) For the last two years I've apprenticed under a NYC luxury designer while trying to figure out my next career move. Since luxury retail is on the outs with the American consumer, my days here are numbered.
Under the category of "piling on," I received a sad call from my mother that my eccentric aunt died suddenly, right in the middle of her Christmas Year Around shop in Somewhere, Georgia. The fact that she died in a memorable way didn't surprise me… but what happened next sure did.
She left me her Christmas shop! My life, such as it is, is in Manhattan. Plus I don't even like Christmas—the pressure, the expense, the stress…ugh! But since I was on a career break, I decided to make the trip to Georgia and get the kitschy shop ready to sell. I didn't expect to land in the middle of a murder mystery, with a cast of quirky suspects straight out of a board game. And to be pulled into the quagmire of Christmasness. And to learn that Southern men can ring a girl's, um, bells.
So for the time-being, I have a new mantra: Christmas… if you can't get out of it, get into it.
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“If the local movie theater had crowds like this,” Lonnie said, gesturing to the people gathered to watch Christmas Vacation in front of the large screen TV set up in the showroom, “it wouldn’t be closing its doors.”
“The theater is closing?” I asked.
“After the holidays,” Dafney confirmed. “It’s been going downhill for a while now. Government grants during the pandemic kept it going for a while, but that’s all gone now.”
My chest panged over the loss for the town, and I regretted not going to the theater while I was there. Then I checked my ego—I wasn’t a resident… my attendance wouldn’t have made a difference. The closing was a symptom of the problem that affected so many small towns—back-to-back recessions and the pandemic had mortally wounded brick-and-mortar stores. The local population could no longer support businesses, and without a reason for tourists to visit, owners had no choice but to close.
“But our business has never been better,” Dafney said.
“They’re all here for Justine,” I murmured, glancing over the faces of the customers waiting in line to get a cup of popcorn from the machine and laughing with each other—Renee, Mandy, Karen Cline, Troy Needham, David Bays, Nolan Wamper, and even Huey Simons were among the attendees.
“They’re all here for you,” Dafney corrected before darting away to greet Rema Racine.
I startled—were they? I wasn’t sure I believed her, but it was jarring to realize how quickly I’d become enmeshed in the lives of the townspeople. The fact that businesses were closing down felt like a personal injury. But it helped me to feel better about selling the building to an Atlanta businessman who intended to run the Christmas Year Round shop in the red as a tax write-off. At least Dafney and Lonnie would keep their jobs… and merchandise would be replenished, whether it sold or not. Even if the business model was unsustainable in the long-term, it would keep things going until the outlook for Somewhere’s economic future improved.
And by then, I’d be long gone. ~
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