Sometimes Things Happen

January 28, 2014 at 7:18 pm (General) (, , , )

I’ve been a bit squirrely for the past few months, and there were Reasons, but while I was in the midst of dealing with them on a daily basis, I found I couldn’t come home and explain it online, couldn’t talk about it more, but now I think it’s time for some explanations, largely because it’s also a form of goodbye. Not to you- I’m not leaving- but to my home for the past six years, and a large part of my life for twenty.

On 31st December, my Barnes and Noble closed its doors for the last time. This wasn’t an indication of how the company as a whole is doing, it wasn’t an indication of our store faltering or our local market not supporting us. Boiled down to its bones, our landlord didn’t renew our lease. There were details, of course, but to be honest, things got pretty messy after the announcements and it became a Big Thing, and in the interest of it not becoming a Legal Thing, I’m going to leave it at the lease.

Employees learned about it in September. Our District Manager was up (not unheard of) and she’d spent the day holed up in the office (not uncommon; even on store visits she still gets stuck on conference calls). What made it weird was the sudden appearance of our assistant store manager, who was supposed to be off that day and had been called in. Then the arrival of one of our merchandise managers, who was on vacation (but still in town). Eventually the other merch manager was called in, and then it was my turn, and by this point we were all wondering just what the hell what was going on. And the news was, we’d be closing at the end of the year.

When you hear something like that, there are any number of questions that bubble into your mind all at once, but damned if you can pull yourself together enough to ask them with any degree of intelligence. You want to ask about transfers, about severance, about eligibility for rehire, about insurance. But mostly HOW. Mostly WHY.

And once you get safely home and break down in private: What do I do now?

It was another month before we started telling customers, and even then we eased into a bit. There were a few of our regulars, people who are so much more to us than customers, that we told a few days early, but for the most part, we waited until the first clearance signs went up. We needed time to get used to it ourselves, we needed time to find out what we were allowed to say, how we were supposed to answer questions.

On October 27th, the first of the clearance sales went up. At that point, we had about 125,000 books and product in the store, and about a quarter of it went to clearance, all things that were unable to be returned to vendors. Unlike all of our previous clearance sales (because they happen about every two to three months), the dots marking the products were white, instead of red, and at every sale we had to warn people that these items could NOT be returned. I was actually somewhat shocked at how many people were utterly incurious as to why. But for most, this was where the questions began. The initial reactions were mostly shock and dismay. We were in our location for twenty and a half years, and a fair number of our customers have actually been with us the entire time. We used to have a hugely active preschool and elementary school community that partnered with us for events, and a lot of those kids who grew up in our store had started bringing their own kids in.

I never did the storytimes or the activities, but I was one of the kids who grew up in the store. I was there opening week with my mother, and it was the first time I’d ever told anyone that I wanted to published someday. I spent my allowance in this store, my birthday/Christmas/babysitting money. All of my original books were ruined in a house fire when I was 12, but three years later, I got to drop a couple hundred dollars in our Barnes and Noble (and trust me, I’d EARNED that babysitting money!) and finally got to buy my favorite books, the ones I’d checked out so often from the library that I could almost quote them. I still have almost all of those (some of the paperbacks have passed to friends as I’ve broken down and replaced them in hardcover), and sometimes it’s weird to look at the backs of the books and realize this was when mass markets were rarely higher than $4.99. Money wasn’t something we had a lot of, but when I had it, it tended to find its way to bookstore far more often than not. This store was a home for me, and as a child, I was awestruck by the idea that so much knowledge, so much wonder and imagination, could be contained within a single building.

There were tears from some of our customers, fury from others. There was a rather depressing indifference from some. But then, there were some reactions that utterly baffled us.

Like the man who said he wasn’t surprised we were closing, because we’d politely refused to place an order on Amazon for him because he didn’t want to bother with his computer.

Like the woman who sniffed and said it was about time, because we’d been unable to send someone to her home to diagnose her router issues.

Like the ones who said no one read anyway, or that books were dying, or that Amazon was a better place anyway. (And do you have any idea how difficult it is not to snap back that Amazon isn’t a place at all?)

But no matter how the conversation went, the fact was, the conversation happened. Again and again and again and again. So. Many. Times. A. Day. And it was exhausting. Because sometimes the conversation twisted around to “What are you going to do now?” and we didn’t know (many of us still don’t know) and it was terrifying and we really didn’t want to talk about the uncertainty of our future inability to pay our bills. And sometimes the conversation turned to “What am I going to do now?” and it was both strange and discomfiting that some people could be so incredibly selfish, when there are SO MANY avenues by which to acquire books. We’d have to explain that no, we weren’t simply moving locations, because those things take time and we didn’t have any. We’d explain again and again until finally we just wanted to hide in the breakroom and talk about ANYTHING ELSE because we could actually FEEL our brain cells dying. We’d get home and I know for myself, I could do nothing more than drop onto the couch and stare mindlessly at the TV. I couldn’t write, I couldn’t read, I couldn’t do anything that required actual thought, because I was just so mentally exhausted.

The news had come so out of the blue that most of our holiday orders were already locked in, so it took a while for our shelves to start to feel empty. But, slowly, the shipments slowed down. Gradually, our ability to restock the shelves was cut off, vendor by vendor, warehouse by warehouse. Eventually, our ability to order books for customers transitioned to only direct-ship. We had to shift constantly to condense those empty shelves, and as weeks passed, entire sections of the store were just bare shelves.

And as we got into December, the desperation ratcheted up. Our customers were desperate to believe that there was some kind of reprieve in store, that if they just wrote enough angry letters or made enough angry phone calls to our landlord, somehow everything would be okay. As employees, we were torn between wanting to believe that and wanting everyone else to stop believing it.

But, we found ways to entertain ourselves, in a thoroughly giddy, borderline-hysterical kind of way.

Thanksgiving weekend, our assistant store manager decided to gift-wrap the breakroom door. I helped, and then took it further, until all the interior doors save the bathrooms were bright and sparkly (but without glitter, because one of our merch managers freaks out at glitter).

Outside of the Office Door

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We even found the polar bears because they make our store manager happy.

I have to admit, I kind of turned into a demented Christmas fairy, because it kept me busy. I made ornaments for everyone on staff. I made a wreath for our inner office. It kept me busy and kept me, a little bit, from fretting.

One night, one of my rare closing shifts, a couple of our cashiers decided to put out scrap pads (recycled page a day calendars) and asked customers to draw what they thought a whalien would look like. Sometimes they’d add a little explanation, but most of the time, they just would just say to draw what they thought it sounded like. I was astonished by how many ACTUALLY DID. We made a quilt of them. (I accidentally deleted that picture, but it was pretty awesome) It hung out at the cashwrap for that final week of business, and then the next couple of weeks of actually closing everything out, then moved to the fridge when we had to take those bays out.

For our final two days of business, our glitterphobe made us a playlist that included titles like “Final Countdown”, “Closing Time”, “End of the World (As We Know It)”, and other thematically appropriate (or inappropriate, all things considered) titles. The final day he included “Dance Magic” from Labyrinth, and “The Time Warp”, and we actually did dance the Time Warp in the cashwrap line. By the last day, we’d reached the point where we had to laugh like idiots because we just didn’t know what else to do and still function. (I’m told there’s video of that somewhere, but I haven’t seen it, so I’m pretending it doesn’t exist).

We closed on New Years Eve at 4 pm, because there really wasn’t much point in drawing it out, and we all trooped out across the parking lot to Ale House and started drinking. (Responsibly, but still, it was a drinking sort of evening).

For most of our staff, that was the end of it. As a store, we had over time transitioned into a staff made of disparate personalities that worked together really well. We didn’t have the big dramas that we’d had in some other incarnations of the staff, we didn’t have the fights. Were there issues? Sure. But we were also a staff that could talk through those problems, or take them to a manager for mediation without it being a tattle-tale situation. As a staff, we’d become very close-knit, family and friends. Saying goodbye that night was like a physical blow.

And yet, if I’m honest, I might be a little jealous of the people who go to leave when the store was about half full, because the actual process of closing out the store, seeing it disappear little by not so little every day, was heart-breaking. (And back-breaking) Day by day, we watched the store dwindle into nothingness.

We had to return all of the books that were left, which tallied up to about 65,000 units once the doors closed. We had to sort them by vendor, scan them, box them, try to get the box packed as efficiently as possible with a 50lbs weight limit in mind, label, them, and stack them. Then, either the guys in the evening, or I the next morning, would move them into the back room and stack them onto palettes. Over time, that equaled over 36,000 lbs. That’s right, over 18 TONS of books. One of those days included me packing up all of our copies of A Wounded Name. In a way, I was lucky- my book was in my store. My dream of seeing my book on the shelf of THIS Barnes & Noble, THIS store that I grew up in, came true, and I got to have my signing. But returning those books was shattering. We got an insane amount done each day, but…

..some days you just had to take a break…

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…and if you sat too long in the wrong spot, you took the risk of becoming part of the furniture.

We had to figure out what was going to other stores, and how we could pack them, and tear down sections to load into the truck, and the information kept changing, constantly, so we never really had a full idea of what was going on. We had to figure out what we could donate to different organizations, what we were allowed to sell to other organizations. One of our poor guys spent about three days doing nothing but shredding, sitting huddled in our cold back room as it emptied around him, because the cold kept the silly machine from overheating quite as often.

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When the demolition crew came in, I think what hit me hardest was the destruction of the theme wall and children’s octagon. Before moving to receiving, I was the Kids’ Lead, and I loved it. Kids books, from board book through YA, are my heart, and watching it get literally torn to pieces was devastating. The sequence was just..GAH.

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This was before, and then there was this:

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(Okay, yes, we sent our manager’s grandson down the wall mounting. Okay, FINE, I went down a few times too)

But even when we had moments to rest or laugh-

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-things just kept going away.

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Over the course of seventeen days, we saw a healthy store diminish into an empty space that suddenly, shockingly, seemed as tiny as we’d always sort of known it was. It’s only 12,000 square feet. In terms of bookstore space, that’s minimal. And yet, with the shelves and the books, with the vitality, it seemed so much bigger.

Friday was our very last day. We cleaned, we waited for our equipment to pick up, and then it was time to say goodbye. I worked at that store for six years, but it was a part of my life for more than twenty. And the truth is, I don’t know what I’m doing from here. I had some applications out, one of which got me very excited about taking new paths, but they didn’t pan out. There will be many more applications in the next few weeks. Hopefully something will work out, hopefully it will turn out to be a great thing, a good opportunity in something new, something exciting. But for right now, I don’t know.

It’s hard to go into the plaza and see that empty space. It’s hard to go to bed whenever and get up whenever, because I don’t have any particular place I have to be. My apartment is in the middle of getting cleaner and more organized than it has ever been (or might ever be again), and it’s kind of creeping me out, because I don’t stress clean. It’s also not done yet, but it’ll get there, and I have this awful feeling that I’ll get everything put perfectly in a place and I’ll still be unemployed. It’s hard to walk out of the grocery store and see nothing but this:

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Things end, and sometimes it sucks, and sucks royally, and I’ll be honest, I’m not yet at the point where I can nod and accept that things might yet turn out for the better. I’m not at a point where I can be philosophical or hopeful about it. But, I think I might finally be at a point when I can ask a favor of all of you.

If you have a favorite bookstore, whether it’s chain or indie, let the employees know how much you love the store, how much you appreciate them. Make the decision that the buck or two extra, or the day or two extra, is worth shopping there to support them, rather than Amazon. Write, call, or e-mail the landlords to tell them how much you value the store. Support your local stores, and help them stay where they are, because seriously, while the internet is a wonderful community (most of the time) there’s just nothing that beats having a bookstore as a part of your experience. As much as it hurts now that my store is closed, I wouldn’t trade those years growing up in the store for anything. Bookstores and libraries were- and remain- my favorite places, and I know a lot of you are the same way.

So talk about your bookstores.
Tell the employees.
Tell other customers.
Tell the landlords.
Tell anyone you can think of that might listen.

Things are hard for bookstores right now, because online is so convenient, and usually cheaper, and sometimes faster. That isn’t what happened to us, but it could have been. A bookstore closing- for any reason- is never less than a tragedy.

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4 Comments

  1. Chelsea Pitcher (@Chelsea_Pitcher) said,

    Oh Dot, this is such a sad story!! So many hugs to you!! <3 <3 <3

    • Dot Hutchison said,

      *hugs* Thanks, Chelsea. It was definitely not something I could really talk about until it was fully done.

  2. gina said,

    This is a beautiful tribute, I cried!
    Many hugs to you,
    Glitterphobe’s Mom

  3. Nick said,

    You likely do not remember me, but I worked at the store for a year in 2009-2010, i just stumbled upon this post in google images of all places looking for pictures of different ways to place tables in B&N. I still work for the company, running the B&N side of the UCF Bookstore.
    I had heard the store had closed, awhile back and had often wondered how all of you were doing. Thanks for the words, I cant imagine how hard it was. It was difficult even reading this, thinking of the time spent there, and of all of you.
    Hope all is well.

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