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By Elizabeth A. Gudrais and David C. Newman, Crimson Staff Writerss

Huck Keys anxiously surveys the floor of the Harvard Square HMV Records, looking for customers who may need assistance and for managers who may be scrutinizing his performance.

It's a Friday night, exactly two weeks before Christmas Eve, and Keys, a 27-year-old Somerville resident in Pumas and slim gray cords, hasn't been working at HMV a week.

The same weekend, across the river at Boston's Prudential Center, Ed Savage lets forth a hearty chuckle as he sits easily on top of his sleigh, decked out a furry red and white Santa Claus costume. A tot riding by in a stroller waves and laughs when Santa waves back.

The solidly built Savage, 54, is clearly enjoying the respite from his day job as a postal worker in his seventh year as the Prudential Center Santa.

With his Santa-like physique and festive clothing, Savage in his sleigh seems worlds apart from the nervous Keys, but they're filling similar slots this holiday season.

With a public intent on efficient holiday shopping, the demand for short-term holiday workers like these two is particularly high this year.

As the Dow continues to rise and unemployment figures fall to record lows, a tight labor market challenges retail store managers who need extra staff to maximize profits from holiday shoppers.

"It's extremely difficult to find help [right now]," says Gerald Olbach, the president of the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce.

When Olbach worked in the temporary employment business in the late eighties, there were "more jobs than workers," he says. But that's no longer the case.

So thanks to the holiday rush, a young man fresh from the ranks of the unemployed has a new--albeit tenuous--start in a new job, and a middle-aged government employee has weekend fun and some extra money.

They're part of the seasonal work force that jumps into jobs, for spending money or for holiday spirit, even though termination is imminent.

In Limbo

A look of deep disappointment flashes across Huck Keys's face as a young couple comes to the cash register with a Stevie Wonder CD.

He looks flustered as he rings up their purchase.

"I thought you were going to go with the Fugazi," he says to the couple.

The couple has declined, against Keys's advice, to purchase a CD by one of his favorite bands.

Keys sadly watches the couple retreat as, arms locked together, they head into the drizzling night for some more shopping.

"The ear is in the eye of the beholder," another employee tells Keys by way of consolation.

Though it's still his first week at HMV, Keys already seems at home recommending music.

He accepted HMV's job offer only a few days before. He went into the store looking for a job, and received an interested phone call the very next day.

The terms of employment: 38 hours a week, $7 an hour, until the holiday season is over.

After that, Keys has no idea what will happen.

What he wants to avoid is a return to the way he lived as recently as November. After Keys lost his job at a Davis Square bakery, he says he "flipped out" and fell into an old pattern of heavy drinking, too depressed to look for a new job.

Eventually, Keys says, he "realized that's a loser way to live," so he went into Cambridge to look for a job.

Keys has been working at HMV for five days, and he says he doesn't want to leave when the Christmas rush is over, though he has lined up a part-time job at the Harvard Faculty Club.

"I love the discounts," says Keys, a self-proclaimed music enthusiast. "And I was sick of having to serve somebody a croissant or a cup of coffee and have them give me attitude."

Keys' passion certainly seems to lie in music instead of bakery items. He is outspoken about the subject, offering opinions on everything from a Violent Femmes song piped into the store ("they suck") to a Fiona Apple poster ("she's pretty hot").

But Keys is paying more attention to his job performance. As long as he gets good reviews, there's a good chance he'll be asked to stay on.

"If we get a good worker, we'll be flexible about when they work," said Mike Clifford, an HMV buyer.

Christopher Gibbs, a supervisor, said that some Christmas workers try to stay on full-time after the holiday and that the decision on whether to keep each one is made on a case-by-case basis.

If they'll have him, Keys would like to stay put past the frantic December rush.

"I like it here," he says.

Square Shortages

Harvard Square, known year-round as a shoppers' haven, becomes even more commercial during the holiday season, when the streets are packed with would-be buyers.

Stores try to swell their ranks with seasonal employees to keep up, but for stores that require technical expertise from employees, that isn't always achieved.

At Ferranti-Dege, the Mass. Ave. camera store, employee training is so lengthy and detailed that it's just not worth it to invest in employees who aren't going to utilize it for more than a couple of months, says Manager Tina Tietz.

In contrast to the three days it takes to produce a fully functional HMV sales associate, Ferranti-Dege needs two or three months to train an employee due to the technical nature of the store's product. So the store bites the bullet during the holiday season.

"We'd rather be a little bit short and a little crazy," Tietz says, "because afterward, it's dead."

Retail stores tend to adjust a little better to the holiday season.

The women's clothing store Express hired 15 new temporary employees, mostly high school students, to work from the end of October through the second week of January.

As an incentive to take the job despite its clear endpoint, Express employees are given a significant discount on store merchandise. It's always an attractive benefit, but even more so with the prospect of Christmas shopping looming.

The Gap, on the other hand, didn't need to lift a finger in order to implement a holiday hiring policy--it was already in place. The store hires all its workers on a short-term basis, according to Tania Fernandez, a manager at the Brattle Street location.

If employees enjoys their initial 90-day stint at the Harvard Square store, they have the option to stay on, contingent upon a good work record. Though it steps up the pace when the holiday shopping season begins, The Gap recruits all year.

The Harvard Coop also prefers that its employees be permanent, according to General Manager David Sullivan, although the store attempts to "build up for the Christmas season."

"[The number of employees needed] varies from day to day," says Sullivan, emphasizing the store's great flexibility in working with employees' schedules.

But with the hot economy of the past few years, Sullivan says, such flexibility on the part of retailers is mandatory.

Especially since, at some Square stores, it has been much more difficult to find workers this holiday season than in previous ones.

That's the case at HMV, according to Dermot Smyth, the rock manager at HMV for the last five years.

Fun with Reindeer

The labor market's fluctuations also have little effect on Prudential Santa Ed Savage, whose holiday post is in demand whether or not stores are strapped.

Savage, of Quincy, Mass., is a man who has known his calling for 15 years, ostensibly before he grew his long white beard and before his stomach had expanded to appropriately jolly proportions.

Savage admits that the beard is about four years old, but he denies that the paunch is that young.

"I've had this belly for 250 years," he merrily jokes, laughing normally at first, then shifting into the "Ho ho ho!" that has become second nature.

Last Sunday, lines stayed disappointingly short for Santa's booth at the Prudential, a mall without many stores geared toward children.

Santa and the elves see that as a good thing, though--it gives Savage more time with each child.

"We're quality, not quantity," says elf Steve Heffernan, who runs a team building company by day. Heffernan says the mall job helps him "get my dose of kids."

Jennifer Goodfellow, another elf, counts the money generated by the afternoon's photo session--Santa charges $6 per picture. All profits go to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Goodfellow, a restaurant administrator and freelance make-up artist, says that she could be spending her weekends differently but feels good about working for charity.

Savage says he took the Prudential Santa job seven years ago when the previous Santa's fear of large crowds prevented him from lighting the enormous Christmas tree across from Walgreens in downtown Boston.

To avoid disappointing the crowd that turns out each year to witness the lighting--spectators usually stretch from Mass Ave. to Copley Square--Savage stepped in.

Well, to be precise, his wife volunteered him for the job without telling him.

Nonetheless, Savage accepted it, and has held it every year since.

The Savage family enjoys "Santa-ing," as Savage calls it, so much that they started their own business. They now perform as Santa and as clowns at corporate events and birthday parties.

The elves have nothing but praise for Savage's work.

"Kids think that he's the real Santa!" one proclaims, and the others chime in to agree. "He's great," they say, as Savage buttons up his own, equally Christmasy outfit of a green cardigan sweater over a red shirt.

The only question left is whether Savage's own children believe it as well.

No, he says. Jonathan, 7, believes in Santa, but his dad has told him that he's just an assistant.

"Just like the Pope has priests," elf Kelly Kirby points out with a smile.

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