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Shop Till You Drop

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Karen Smith has been on both sides of the cash register at the Super Kmart in Aliso Viejo. She used to work the graveyard shift at the store, but on a recent Thursday at 1:30 a.m. she was there as a customer.

“We came in to get boxes because we’re moving,” said Smith, 26, who lives nearby in Laguna Niguel. Besides, she said, her 2-year-old daughter, Amanda, was wide awake: “She had tummy trouble, gas. She couldn’t sleep.”

Midnight is a great time to collect empty boxes, Smith said, because that’s when the shelves get stocked. And as long as she was there, she decided she would buy Amanda a bathing suit.

Holding several tiny suits against her daughter’s body, Smith asked, “Are you sure you like these? I don’t know, honey. Let’s see if we can find a smaller one for you.”

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The child, peering with large brown eyes from beneath a fringe of blond hair, just nodded.

As mother and daughter shopped, Smith recalled some of the characters who brightened her nights when she worked at the huge store. One was the man who used to visit several times a week to buy women’s underwear. Smith said a janitor found him in a restroom once trying on a lime-green bra.

The man was a regular, Smith said, and “he would follow you around once he got to know you.”

Evelyn Royalty-Wagner, 51, a store supervisor and Smith’s mother, also knows the man.

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“He’s supposedly a multiple personality, and one of them is a woman,” she confided.

Royalty-Wagner said another man, apparently an avid hunter, comes in dressed in camouflage. On each visit, she said, he brings a pile of camouflage clothes to the register to learn their prices--but he never buys them.

Such characters just add to the appeal of the night shift for her, she said. Her husband also works nights, she said, and “I don’t like being home alone. I like meeting weird people.”

Spotting any people at all is hard in the eerie serenity that pervades the Super Kmart at times during the night. Amid its 197,000 square feet of clothes, electrical equipment, toys, tools, plants and groceries, its night crew of 15 to 20 employees often outnumbers the customers.

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With room to roam, customers occasionally cruise the store in the electric carts that are more difficult to navigate when the store is crowded. They maneuver through the labyrinth of shelves, taking care not to hit merchandise set out for stocking--like a pile of Godzilla toys waiting on the floor.

The carts are a draw after midnight for the younger crowd, as is the arcade. Mike Lowry, 18, said he sleeps in the mornings, works in the afternoons and plays video games at night. When he goes to Super Kmart, he typically spends a couple of hours and about $5.

“It’s just something to do. It’s better than sitting home and watching TV,” said Lowry, who lives in Mission Viejo. “More stuff should be open 24 hours. It kind of sucks.”

But when teens stop by, they get rowdy sometimes, said Brian Fry, a 19-year-old merchandise stocker, and that makes his job harder.

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Some boisterous customers broke a TV set recently, he complained:"They knocked it over with an electric cart and bolted out of the store.”

Serious shoppers are scarce after 2 a.m., said Lou Ferrari, the night manager.

“There are people in the store all night, but you can’t see them because the store sucks them up,” she said. “But they’re wandering out there.”

Though she has worked at the Super Kmart since it opened in 1995, its vastness still amazes her. “People ask, ‘Where’s the auto department?’ and I say, ‘About 100 miles that away,’ ” she quipped.

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Ferrari is also perplexed by the things people buy in the middle of the night: fishing licenses, beach chairs, TV sets.

“Why are they buying a VCR at 4 in the morning?” she asked. “And do they have to have that blouse tonight? I’d be sleeping.”

Maybe, she said, they “don’t like to fight crowds. They like to have the store to themselves.”

Jill Cory of Aliso Viejo certainly had the bread aisle all to herself as she pushed her grocery cart, which was empty except for a packet of sliced roast beef. That was an impulse buy--she came in to get cigarettes for her husband.

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“I’m a night-owl kind of person,” she said, “a vampire. . . . I like doing stuff when nobody else does it. I don’t like to wait in lines.”

She said the offbeat clientele and the almost-empty aisles don’t bother her.

“I’ve never had a problem. People say, ‘Aren’t you scared?’ I say, ‘It’s Aliso Viejo,’ ” said Cory, 40. “Once you’re in here, you don’t know if it’s night or day.”

Business picks up as dawn approaches. Among these shoppers are parents who have been up all night with sick children and are stopping by for over-the-counter medicines. Others are day-shift workers stopping by for coffee and doughnuts on their way to their jobs.

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At 6 a.m., people begin trickling in after working out at a nearby gym. One of them is Kelly Blackburn of Laguna Hills, who came to pick up photos of her 5-year-old triplets.

Blackburn, 29, said she likes being an early bird because “it doesn’t take time away from my family. I can shop and still get everything done I need to get done.”

For store manager Ferrari, though, it was quitting time. She admitted that it’s a bit strange to be getting off of work just as most people are getting up.

“It seems the world is just starting for them,” she said. “But I’m . . . going home to sleep.”

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