Of course, Gretchen had another plan. Mike had trained her, and all his old assistants the same way. He made them to be managers from the very start, and encouraged them to do the same thing. By early 1994, Gretchen was offered a better store, her work at Springfield done. See, Mike and Phyllis had this idea that certain managers were trained to fix bad stores, and if they proved their worth, they would promote them to a really great store. Makes sense. But Gretchen said she was not leaving Springfield unless I was to be promoted to manager (she was cool like that). Phyllis was skeptical, but agreed, and by March of 1994, I was manager of Springfield Mall Cargo. My heyday in retail came of age. I went to manager private parties, the annual meetings, an the whole fun.
The Best Laid Plans...
It started off well. My store was doing well, and I got myself my first assistant, a guy named Chris. He was a an ex-punk, skateboard park loving guy. Real sharp, real nice, and a lot like me. But Chris was a bit... too good. Chris was a little bit too dedicated, and one day, he did something that meant well, but is now the reason I will always tell my employees "never lie for me." See, Gretchen had called on a day he was working alone. She asked if I was working, and for some weird reason, he thought I *should* have been working, but was lying about my 48/6 hours for some reason. I wasn't, and he was trying to "cover up" for me, and did such a botched up job, Gretchen became suspicious, and then told Mike.
The first I heard about this was the next week when Gretchen was angry and didn't want to speak to me, but said I had to work Sunday and my store was going to be audited. Mike also said he was doing the audit, and was not allowed to speak to me until that Sunday, but I'd better be able to explain myself. I asked Chris what the hell they might have been talking about, and he suddenly blurted out he had opened late a few weeks earlier, and didn't tell me. Of course, had the mall noticed, I would have been informed within hours, but they didn't catch him apparently. So I postulated the mall called the home office, and that's why I was being audited.
So I worried for the next few days, and since I always kept my paperwork in order, I made sure everything was ready for the audit, and there was little I could do. Mike had once made the comment, "I can fire anyone I want to, because no manager is 100% clean." Mike was not a district manager, but used to be, and still, for some reason, had some of those powers.
Sunday was a bad day. The started by asking me if there was anything I would like to confess. I told them Chris said I opened late, and they didn't know that, and grilled me. Then after that was done, they went over my hours, and found I was telling the truth about when I worked. They went over every. damn. item. on my inventory. I had nothing to hide, I showed them everything. Down to the cent. Deposits, refunds, everything. They were convinced I was hiding something, and asked me over and over again about the hours I worked. They said they had a spy on the store, and when I asked what the spy said, they backed off. At the end for the gruelling 5 hours, Mike said, "I've got nothing. This was a... uh, mandatory audit for all new managers and you... uh, passed." He smiled.
Gretchen didn't speak to me for months.
I made friends with other managers. I felt pretty cut off, but Gretchen was also going through some personal problems I found out later. She was leaving her husband (a bland man who was so unlike her type, it was inevitable). Then she and Mike had an affair, which I also didn't know at the time, made Phyllis mad. See, apparently, Mike and Phyllis had an affair years earlier. Gretchen finally quit. The affair with Mike ended, and then Mike was in a funk for a long time. Phyllis and Mike started to get worse and worse towards each other. Then, they announced they were pulling out of Springfield Mall in January of 1995 when their contract ran out.
This at first ticked me off, because I had made the store profitable by this point. It used to lose $20-30,000 a year, and now it was making a profit of $8000 - 9000, and was looking for a very big surge in sales due to my aggressive marketing and callback. They told me I was going to get Tyson's Galleria, back to where I interviewed. This was both good news and bad news. Good because it was close, in my old hometown of McLean. Bad because it was a "penalty store." No one, and I mean no manager, had ever made that store profitable. It was considered a total loss, and everyone had given up on it. I was determined to do my very best, because I had helped turn Springfield around. I secretly started making plans.
During the year of 1994, I saw many managers come and go. Many of them young people. Many of them had different stories. Some were like so many retail managers, a combination of bad life decisions and poor circumstance. I knew college dropouts and a few ex-millionaires. Some were people who just drifted about life, bumping into companies and jobs. Few were "career managers," which led me to the statement I still make to this day: "Retail is not a career as much as it is something that happens to you; like a tragic accident." I really started to rethink my own life at this point, and being manager of a furniture store in a mall, I had a lot of empty free time to contemplate this. There were times when other managers would call just to chat. Our stores were often empty wastelands with bright colors, but dim amusement. There are only so many times you can crease the bed sheets, fluff the sofa cushions, and rearrange the octopus on the daybed. I spent a lot of my time hand-writing postcards to previous customers, telling them to come get the new catalog or "You got an end table, we now have new lamps, come see!"
I also went through a plethora of assistants. Chris quit to start his own skateboard park. I had a guy named Phillip who was a liar and a thief, and I had to fire him eventually. Then I had Mark, who left to become a firefighter. Then I had Anne, who was a total flake (was trying to get social security benefits for her ADHD), and quit under fear of being fired after not showing up for days for no reason other than she had just moved and her alarm clock didn't work. Then I got this wonderful girl, Ellen, who was a lesson in burning bridges.
I try not to burn bridges. Remember Serena, the only manager Laura let me contact? I stayed friends with her. She was fired, and went to work for the competition, a place call "Kid's Room" or something. In my mall. I didn't make her an enemy, and we had a strange alliance against the "evil" store, "The Pine Factory," which went out of business that year, and then we got a "This End Up," yet another store that sold crate-like furniture. It seems so comical now, the little wars and alliances we made with each other. One day, Serena calls me, and says, "I have the perfect assistant for you. I don't need one, but this girl is great!"
Ellen was. I hired her right away, and while she did leave to pursue a acting career in New York City, her sunny personality was a needed pick-me-up. She acted very much like Marlo Thomas in "That Girl." Yeah, that sunny. She stayed with me until the store closed. Best damn assistant I ever had.
It wasn't all boring wasteland. Sometimes the Company sent us places. First, there was the annual sales conferences, like I got to go to Forth Worth (pronounced "foat wuth") Texas, Las Vegas Nevada, and a dude ranch in Bandera near San Antonio. "Foat Wuth" was a dull meeting in a hotel near a steak house. Most of the managers drank. Las Vegas was very exciting, and we stayed at the Tropicana. I was originally going to hate it, but a friend of mine convinced me that I should take it on my own terms. I did, and had a good time. Most of the managers drank. Then we went to a that isolated Dude Ranch in Bandera, where they tried to get managers not to drink, but one night, one of them got a truck, and drove to the nearest bar where they drank with to locals until they almost got arrested. Something about an electronic dart board.
Anyway, you see the theme. I did well as a manager and won store quota contests quite frequently, and while I never got huge bonuses, I got a lot of freebies, and got to take my wife to Cancun twice on the company dollar.
Last Stop: Tysons Galleria!
When I made the transition from Springfield to Tysons Galleria, it was like night and day. The store was half the size, and very thin. It was about the size of a large RV camper, and with all that furniture, it was very crowded. I had a TON of stuff to fix. This store, when I looked at the scant accounting and made some of my own math magic, was losing $150,000 a year! Holy shit! Most of that was due to horrible rent, but our location was terrible, and the mall was appallingly abandoned. I was on the top (third) floor, way out of the way, and several store spaces on both sides of me were empty and had never been rented since the mall opened seven years ago. Everyone in that mall was losing money. It was a ghost mall. Literally, not exaggerating in the slightest, days could go by before anyone actually came in my store. Days.Days! I went from a store that did $40,000 - 80,000 a month to less than $5000.
Another problem was not only did I have trouble finding customers, but employees. There was a period of two months where I had no staff. I pulled 80 hour weeks. Salaried. No overtime. No days off. I had a lot of time to think, and that store was a sucking wasteland that could tear the bones from your back. Halfway into this, I thought, "This store is affecting my mental health, and I started to look for work elsewhere. This budded my seeds for the technical industry in 1995. On my days off when I did have an assistant (a redneck employee Phyllis hated and later forced me to fire), I applied for tech jobs. Finally, in 1996, I got one, and became a third shoe.
I say "third shoe" because for some reason, managers always quit/got fired in sets of three in a month. I am not sure why, but, the first shoe was Phyllis fired Mike. That was a mortal blow to company morale from New York to Texas. Then the manager in one of our New Jersey stores quit. I had to call Phyllis days after she scrambled to find a sub for that store, because when the manager quit, her assistant also quit, leaving only one part timer.
Phyllis sighed a very heavy sigh, and said she'd leave New Jersey to talk to me on the next plane out. She promoted an assistant from another Jersey store right then and there, and flew out to see me. She didn't come to talk me out of it, but did hint she suspected I'd quit after Mike was fired, if anything, to prove her wrong when she had made the statement, "Managers say they'll quit when I fired Mike, and that's all talk. No one cares that much about him and his Manassas Mafia." She discussed the transition of the store to a new assistant manager from Laurel, a peppy short guy with bad teeth. I had to train him to be a manager in my last two weeks. I have forgotten his name, but that store eventually ate him alive. He was fired when he was caught asleep in the store. I stayed on as a part timer to help out with paperwork for a few months, but eventually quit because I started to freelance web work, and at $500 for a few hours work, it was much more conducive to do that than work for $6/hr for 10 hours a week.
Cargo then became a memory. They eventually bought themselves out, became employee-owned, and then did even worse than Tandycrafts did. The stores changed their name to "Cargo Kids," got bought out by Pier One Imports, and are closing all over. This year, Tandycrafts filed bankruptcy.
Mike is now working corporate assurance for a company called Mattress Discounters, and Gretchen is manager of a Best Buy close by. Her and Mike and living together again, and I don't know under what circumstances. I recently refound them when I found Gretchen at Best Buy. Lascetta quit to be a full-time Mom, and does not race in crash derbies anymore.
This entry was originally posted at http://www.punkwalrus.com/blog/archives/00000094.html