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She listens and then she wraps

A volunteer bookstore gift wrapper gives lessons in gift wrapping and grace.

Patricia Russell (center), a blind gift wrapper at Barnes & Noble, wraps a gift. (Helen Ubinas / Daily News Staff)
Patricia Russell (center), a blind gift wrapper at Barnes & Noble, wraps a gift. (Helen Ubinas / Daily News Staff)Read more

IT'S ALL in the presentation, Patricia Russell says as I try to properly wrap a gift at the Rittenhouse Barnes & Noble.

First, she says, ask customers which wrapping paper they'd like. Everyone has a favorite, unless they want to mess with you, like Elwood Wallace, a jokester who says he isn't picky. He bought the book for his son-in-law.

"I usually give money so what do I care?" he says.

Next, measure the gift against the paper so you're not cutting away tree-fuls of excess paper, Russell continues. And don't commit the classic rookie mistake and forget to put the book upside down so that the recipient opens it face up.

Another pro tip: Always remove the price, Russell, 65, says. Generosity doesn't come with a price tag. "Unless it'll make me look good," Wallace chuckles.

I then move to the dreaded corners.

"It's all right, girl," she says when she hears me groan. "I'll walk you through it."

She adjusts her dark sunglasses and leans in: "Don't get nervous," she whispers, "no matter how impatient a customer seems."

Too late. Wallace is a really good sport, but as I fumble with the book-to-paper ratio, I sense he'd rather have Russell wrap his gift. And who could blame him? Russell's good. She barely wastes an inch of paper or tape. Her corners . . . perfection. Her execution, all smiles, is amazing. Even more amazing since she lost her eyesight 10 years ago.

Russell admits to moments of despair and fear when she went blind from complications from diabetes. She worried most for her husband of nearly 25 years. They had so many plans, she says. New adventures. A new business. She had to teach herself to navigate her Germantown house again, and the chaotic Center City streets.

But losing her sight also forced Russell, an ordained minister, to slow down in a way she was never able to when she could see.

"I'm forced to listen, to truly listen and take in all that's around me," she says. And looking around the bookstore at all the harried customers, that's something most of us don't seem to do enough of - especially around the holidays.

Russell volunteers to wrap gifts at Barnes & Noble to raise money for charitable organizations. The money from customers goes to the groups.

Last week, more customers seemed to notice that Russell was wrapping on behalf of a religious group than noticed she was blind.

"Are you trying to save me or something?" Wallace joked.

She was, but only from my pitiful wrapping skills.

Russell says that customers who do notice she's blind usually want to help, or give pointers. "I'm fine. I'm fine," she says, graciously. "Just pick out your paper and I'll take it from there."

Only one thing gets to Russell: low expectations.

"The other day I was wrapping something and I wasn't completely happy with it, but the woman said, 'Oh, don't worry about it, it's just for a 2-year-old.' " Russell says. "I told her, 'Oh, no, ma'am, that just will not do.' "

She started over.

"I've come to learn that people will receive me the way I present myself," Russell says. "And I choose to present myself as a positive, confident and blessed person."

It's just as she said at the start of our lesson. It's all in the presentation, whether you're talking about people or presents.

"I like that crease, girl," she says as she reviews my work. "It feels good to me. Real good."

Update: Chase's heroes

You guys sure know how to put the happy in holidays.

Last week, I told you about some Good Samaritans whose cars were damaged when they saved a Philadelphia cop's baby. Erica Forston's 11-month-old son, Chase, was strapped in the backseat when a thief took off with her car.

Even before Forston held a fundraiser for the men this past weekend, readers wanted to reward the men for their courage. One woman said she had received a recent windfall and wanted to pay it forward with Target gift cards. Many more of you said things were tight in your own households, but you wanted to send whatever you could spare.

American Heritage Federal Credit Union, where Forston opened an account for the men, is also donating $700. Donations can be sent to American Heritage, for Chase's Heroes, 2060 Red Lion Road, Philadelphia, Pa., 19115.

Happy holidays, everyone.

Phone: 215-854-5943

On Twitter: @NotesFromHel