So I’m in line at Boot’s (a national UK chain of pharmacies) in the Cambridge marketplace and I’m not in a particularly good mood because besides all of my worries about the kids’ visas, I am not a shopper.  I see shopping as a necessary evil, something that must be done so as not to starve to death or walk around naked, but nothing that could possibly be considered enjoyable unless it’s a bookstore or a hardware store.

Then I hear a voice trilling from behind the till.  “Can I help?”

The cashier makes it sound as if I’m her best friend who just dropped by unexpectedly and there’s nothing she would enjoy more than a chat and a cup of tea.

I feel my mood lifting.

I’m still not used to all the cheerfulness that I encounter in some of the stores here–Waitrose (groceries), M & S (which sells everything including, it is said, underpants to the Queen–and when did it stop being known as Mark’s and Spark’s, or even just Mark’s and Spencer?), Tesco (groceries), John Lewis (clothes, furniture, electronics, and sundries), and others too numerous to mention.

The cheerfulness and helpfulness at many of the stores here in Cambridge can come as quite a shock to someone who’s used to the dismissiveness that occasionally veers into surliness of the cashiers at Stop ‘n’ Shop in our town near Boston (and not to single out Shop ‘n’ Drop, as I call it, but also Star Market (pronounced locally Stah Mahket), Grand Union, Walgreen’s, and CVS), and hundreds of stores in Manhattan (and yes I mean you, Duane Reade, where the cashiers rarely break from their private conversations in Urdu to serve customers, and you, Bloomingdale’s, where my wallet was stolen and the security person refused my request for the several dollars I needed to get home on the subway).  In the fifteen years I lived in New York, I rarely received a cheerful greeting such as I regularly get here.

Maybe I’ve just lived in or visited cranky, high-pressure places, but it seems to me that the US just doesn’t do good retail.

That’s not to say that every shop in Cambridge is a bundle of cheeriness, but it happens enough that it’s worth noting.

The cashier at Waitrose not only chatted nicely, but gave me step-by-step directions on how to cook a turkey for Thanksgiving (necessary as I’m a vegetarian and never had to do this particular act of cooking).

The cashier at M & S helped me pick white cat hairs off a pair of black pants that I was returning, chatting all the while about her own cat and asking me about mine.

The man at the Apple Store told me not to buy from them as I could do better by buying an Apple laptop in America and having it shipped to me.  Another man at the Apple Store sent me to a phone store because he said it would be cheaper for me to buy an iPhone 4S and a contract from the other store rather than from Apple.  The guy at the phone store sent me to another phone store because they could give me a shorter contract.  The guy at . . . well, you get the picture.  They’re being so incredibly helpful it’s as if all they want to do in life is save me money.

And they will actually help you find things.  In America I’m used to hearing, “If it’s not on the shelves we don’t have it,” or being waved towards an aisle and told, “It’s in aisle 7,” when I’ve been up and down aisle 7 for the past 20 minutes. Here, I’ve had experiences where they actually stop stacking the shelves and then accompanied me to the far side of the store to locate the exact item–balsamic vinaigrette, pesto, burritos–that I needed.

Maybe these people go home after work and kick the dog, but oh my God, when they’re at the till, they can be such a delight.