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Saturday
Aug102019

Farewell 2959

Back in 2001, I was low on cash during a semester of planned unemployment. I'd gotten a speeding ticket on the way to my girlfriend's house and that had taken a chunk out of my reserves. So I applied for a job at the Barnes & Noble store in Crystal Lake for some part-time income.

Little did I know when I turned in that application that I was making a decision that would shape the very fabric of who I am as a person.

In the years that followed that decision, I went from part-time seasonal to full-time, and from full-time to receiving manager, a position that I held for about nine years. I married the woman I'd been dating whose home I received the speeding ticket on the way to, and I made the acquaintance of the single best group of coworkers I have ever had.

There was something special about that store in Crystal Lake, and I don't mean the building. The culture of the store was warm, supportive, quirky, and hardworking, and it stayed that way through ups and downs, good times and bad.

I was at that store for fourteen and a half years, and being immersed in that culture, in that second family, altered me in profound ways.

I often say that everyone should work retail so they know what it's like on the other side of the counter, but that means more than knowing just what it's like to deal with the general public, harrowing as that can be. There is a certain special kind of camaraderie that is found among service industry employees in general and booksellers in particular. You work incredibly hard, pushing yourself through difficulties, setbacks, and ever-shrinking payroll not because you want to make your sales numbers (that has very little effect on your day-to-day reality) but because you want to help your fellow workers.

But even that doesn't fully do justice to my experience. When I started at Barnes & Noble, most of my experience in school and the workplace was that of an outsider - someone who did not fit in or fit the mold. And with B&N, before Fear the Boot or Saving the Game, I finally experienced what it was to *belong*. For the first time in my life, I found my tribe. And for over a decade, I was happy. I also got exposed to a lot of people who were very different from me, but that I still had common cause and shared experiences with. My perspectives shifted. My heart first softened, and then grew.

I took classes and planned to leave, I even complained about being stuck, but most of my problem with B&N was related to low retail wages. If I'd been making an additional $5/hr, I'd have happily done the job I was in until I retired. Because while basically no retail anywhere pays very well, B&N at least offered good benefits, and as I've previously indicated, the culture was phenomenal.

I left in 2016 because I could see the writing on the wall, and it grieves me deeply how right that was. A year and a half after I left, corporate laid off 1800 employees in a single day, all but eliminating the Receiving Manager position that I had done for so long, but the rest of the remaining crew pulled together and kept things running.

B&N corporate has been struggling for many years. The recent purchase by the parent company of Waterstones is probably a good thing - it will allow B&N stores to carry on. It will give the last remaining retail book store chain another chance. Sadly, Crystal Lake will not get to enjoy that resurgence.

When I got the news that the store was closing for good, I was heartbroken. When I started at B&N, Crystal Lake had three large chain bookstores, and Barnes & Noble was the new kid on the block. Crown closed relatively early and everyone basically shrugged. Years later Borders closed and that stung. They were the competition, but NOT the enemy, and we were able to hire a bunch of good talent from their former staff. Now the last holdout is gone, replaced by yet another place to buy liquor.

I am furious and disgusted that landlord and the city would make such a terrible decision, but sadly, here we are. Bookstores are a net positive for society, and taking one away strikes a blow against literacy, education, and civility at a time when such things are sorely needed.

But even so, I am still profoundly grateful that I had the time I did there. To my beloved coworkers from 2959: I am profoundly grateful to have worked with you. My experiences at Barnes & Noble made me smarter, kinder, wiser, more patent, gentler, and more generous. Those 14+ years made me a better person. I can only hope that I was able to return the favor in some capacity.