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Treasures galore for only $1

| Saturday, July 10, 2004

Like most mothers, I think the days directly preceding and following a vacation are the worst, like jagged branches around a patch of sweet berries. But there's one part of the pre-vacation drill that I actually enjoy: the annual trip to the dollar store. Sometime in the run-up to departure I take my kids on a shopping trip. I spend only a little money and emerge with a load of plastic junk and smiles all around.

I love dollar stores. They're popping up all over the place now, moving their everything's-a-dollar goodies into retail spaces where a dollar used to buy you nothing at all. The dollar stores are the perfect place to take kids, who can exercise their immature whims for extraneous and ill-advised objects without getting into real money. Every time I take my kids they think I've snapped my cap. What• You mean we can get whatever we want here• And more than one thing?

You have to choose the right dollar store. Some call themselves dollar, but sell many items that cost more than that. This is not the sort of place to take children who, like mine, have not yet learned to subtract in their heads. Better to take children to a true dollar store, where every last thing can, in fact, be had for a buck.

My heart beats just thinking about the exquisite possibility of this.

The summer I was 8, the mother of my best friend took a whole carload of us to the Ben Franklin five-and-dime. Outside on the hot sidewalk she handed each of us a nickel and then held open the door as we entered the wonderland of possibilities. Inside, it was cool and dark and tantalizing; one whole aisle was nothing but penny candy, tray after tray of tart and chewy and fruity and sticky. I browsed the display luxuriating in the endless possibilities of the colorful rows as my coin grew warm and moist in my fist. I chose a wrapped piece of red licorice, a trio of little wax bottles filled with juice, a square of caramel, a purple Tootsie-Roll Pop and, for a long-lasting finish, a piece of pink bubble gum. My older sister spent her whole nickel on a candy bar she gobbled before we even got back to the car, but the rest of us munched happily all the way home. I'm guessing that mother was happy, satisfied that for a 30-cent investment she had secured an interlude of peace and quiet.

That's the way I feel driving home from the dollar store -- like I'd just bought myself a great bargain. Considering inflation, I hand out a couple of five-dollar bills, but the thrill of the hunt is just the same.

I'm predicting that on our next trip my daughter will go straight to the jewelry section, where she will buy a package of adhesive, press-on earrings, the closest she will come to the real thing until she is 13. Next she will wander over to the hair department where she will buy a strip of ponytail holders. Although I will nudge her toward the coloring books and crayons (badly drawn pages and pale, waxy crayons, but still), she will snub them and go for the Barbies. These will be cheap, hollow cousins of the real Barbie, but there will be a lot of them. My little girl will spend a buck on "Cheerleader Maddie" and a costume.

My son will go straight for the sporting goods aisle (how can there be a sporting goods aisle at these prices?) where he will select a small foam football, a plastic sports watch, and a sweat band. He'll take his last two dollars over to the office supplies department where he will buy a daily diary and a fat pen that writes in 15 colors.

While my children shop I will browse some, too, marveling that at these prices it would be possible to put together a not-half-bad set of dinner china for about $8. If I was the sort who looked good in hard plastic footwear, I could get be shod for a buck. If I had a friend who favored ceramic bulldogs, I would be set for the next 20 Christmases.

Aren't these places the greatest• My kids have the thrill of paying for their own goodies, and they each walk away with a big crinkly bag full of treasures.

Which they aren't permitted to open until we're in the car, headed for vacation. They'll dive into their bags, and just when we need it most, we'll have peace.

Price tag: just a few bucks.

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