The way Brenda Bracey tells the story, it's just short of a miracle.
"Twenty-three years," she says. "This is the first Thanksgiving in 23 years that I have not worked at least an eight-hour shift."
For almost a quarter-century, Bracey has been working at grocery stores in the town of Largo, on Florida's west coast. She's done all different jobs, she says, her voice bubbly over the phone line.
"Right now I'm in the deli, because I'm at the bottom of the totem pole," she says with a laugh. She recently changed stores — from supermarket chain Winn-Dixie to another called Publix — and has to once again work her way up.
So there she was about a month ago, working at the deli, when somebody said something about Publix being closed on Thanksgiving.
"And I stopped what I was doing," Bracey says. "And I said, 'Wait a minute, we're not open on Thanksgiving?' " She says her coworkers gave her a puzzled look. Then it hit her: "I said, 'Oh my god! I'm off on Thanksgiving!' And they all started laughing and said, 'That's it, we're going to Brenda's house for Thanksgiving.' "
For Bracey and the millions of other Americans who work in retail — about one in ten U.S. workers — the Thanksgiving weekend kicks off the most intense stretch of the year.
"It's like going down the rabbit hole," says Louise Treadway, who works at a jewelry store in a Portland mall. "It's the beginning of a very challenging, and sometimes stressful, and sometimes exciting part of the year. That's the start of the season — not that they aren't already playing Christmas music at the mall!"
For many retailers, Black Friday is the busiest shopping day. In recent years some stores have begun stretching the deals into Thanksgiving and even earlier in the week. The Thanksgiving openings have been somewhat controversial — a September survey by BestBlackFriday.com is the latest to find that a majority of Americans view Thanksgiving store openings negatively.
Hundreds of stores and malls, including the Mall of America, have decided to stay closed on Thanksgiving this year. For some smaller or specialty stores that don't offer door-buster sales, the math doesn't make Thanksgiving openings worth it. But many large retailers like Walmart, Target, Best Buy and Macy's are staying open.
"This is the first time I haven't actually celebrated Thanksgiving on the day itself," says Casey Hammond, who's working part time at an outdoor gear retailer in upstate New York.
Hammond is slated to work from 5 p.m. to midnight on Thursday, followed by another shift Friday morning. He says he appreciates that he gets extra pay for the work and still can celebrate on another day.
"I'm trying to be of that mindset," he says, "but it's still a little bit weird to me."
For grocery stores, Thanksgiving is the day of the big crowds, while Black Friday is for cleanup. So when I ask Bracey how she feels when she thinks about those two days, she lets out a sigh. You have to work faster and longer, she says.
"By the time the holiday gets here, you're just so tired, you don't care — 'we're eating cocoa-puffs,' " she says with a laugh. Thankfully, she gets Black Friday off this year as well.
Bracey's usual Thanksgiving routine has involved preparing dishes early and leaving sticky notes on them for her sons: "I go in the oven at 10:30."
But wouldn't it be nice to ... say that in person?
Bracey says she is grateful to have a job in the first place. "The good parts for me is I was able to support my family," she says. "You know, we're not rich, but it kept a roof over our home and food on the table."
But she's also realizing the cost of those 23 years of working on Thanksgiving: "I don't think I realized the significance of it, and I wish I could get that back. To me it wasn't a fair trade — not just for me but for the time that I had with those kids — for stupid things like going to buy the food together. You know, just time together ... that we didn't have."
She pauses, then adds: "But we're going to have it this year." And then: "I'm gonna drive 'em crazy!" And she breaks into a laugh.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
One in 10 workers in the United States works in retail, selling everything from clothing to groceries. For those millions of Americans, this week marks the beginning of a stressful stretch of the year - the holiday shopping season. Casey Hammond is feeling it. He works at a store selling outdoor gear in upstate New York.
CASEY HAMMOND: I'm working Thanksgiving night, so I'll be working, you know, 5 to midnight, and then I'll be working again Friday morning, so I'll come back in around 8 or 9.
INSKEEP: Hammond was one of several retail workers who shared their stories of working on Thanksgiving with NPR's Alina Selyukh.
ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: The way Brenda Bracey tells the story, it's just short of a miracle. For many years now, she's built a life working in retail in Florida.
BRENDA BRACEY: I have been working in grocery stores for 23 years, and I've done all different jobs.
SELYUKH: These days, she works at the deli. Last year, she switched companies, so she's starting from the bottom again.
BRACEY: It is the hardest job in the store. Physically, you're scrubbing a lot and lifting heavy stuff.
SELYUKH: Plus, you have to wait on customers, and shoppers can be grumpy. But Bracey says it's her favorite part.
BRACEY: They're just so funny to me. If you're getting a really hard-to-handle person, you know that later on that night this is going to be the guy that you're describing to your kids, you know, and making everybody laugh.
SELYUKH: And a thing to know about grocery stores around the holidays - Thanksgiving is extremely busy. It's usually all hands on deck. When I ask Bracey about Thanksgiving work, she lets out a sigh. She says, you have to work faster and longer.
BRACEY: By the time the holiday gets here, you're just so tired. You know, you don't care. We're eating Cocoa Puffs (laughter).
SELYUKH: Until last year, Bracey worked at a supermarket chain called Winn-Dixie. But remember, she has now switched jobs, so she works at a store called Publix. And there she was about a month ago working at that deli...
BRACEY: And somebody said something about, well, we're not even going to be open on Thanksgiving. And I stopped what I was doing and I said, wait a minute, we're not open on Thanksgiving? And everybody looked at me like I was an idiot (laughter). And then I said, oh, my God, I'm off on Thanksgiving (laughter).
SELYUKH: What you need to realize is that this has never happened to Bracey since she took that grocery job years ago.
BRACEY: Twenty-three years.
SELYUKH: Wait, seriously?
BRACEY: This is the first Thanksgiving in 23 years that I have not worked at least an eight-hour shift.
SELYUKH: And there's more.
Do you have to work on Black Friday?
BRACEY: No. I can't believe that. That's what I'm saying. I know I sound like a crazy person, but I can't wrap my mind around this.
SELYUKH: Typically, her Thanksgiving celebration involves a lot of remote management of her sons.
BRACEY: I'll cook part of the food, and then I'll stick a little sticky note saying I go in the oven at 10:30. You know what I mean?
SELYUKH: But wouldn't it be nice to say that in person? Bracey says she's grateful to have a job in the first place. It's put food on her table, but she's also realizing the cost of those 23 years of working on Thanksgiving.
BRACEY: I don't think I realized the significance of it, and I wish I could get that back. To me, it wasn't a fair trade, not just for me but for the time that I had with those kids for stupid things like going to buy the food together; you know, just time together that we didn't have.
SELYUKH: Time that they will have this year. Alina Selyukh, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MASHED POTATO TIME")
THE RONETTES: (Singing) Mashed potato, wait a minute, wait a minute, mashed potato, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.