Wednesday, April 7, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 76

Cast of Characters:
Paul: age 36
Mal: my wife
My son, Adam, age 12
My daughter, Cassy, age 7


When I bought my second comic book and collectible store from Hank Stolz in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, I was afraid that his employees wouldn’t stay on board with me as their boss. Thankfully, this wasn’t the case. Chris enthusiastically embraced his opportunities with my company. He worked hard at developing relationships with our customers and had a great ability to match the right product with the waiting collector. Hank’s other former employee, Richard Ortwein, was finally given the responsibility of becoming the Fitchburg store manager. Richard worked hard to keep all of our customers happy and quickly learned how to order the new product for this store. The customers seemed to like Richard. The only problem was with me. I was not an easy guy to work for. I held the store manager responsible for the profitability of his store even if it was out of their control. I also tended to “micro-manage,” expecting the employees to think of ways to increase sales and feeling that I needed to be included in all of the planning and discussions for these decisions. I’m sure it wasn’t a pleasant environment in which to work. My poor management skills didn’t seem to bother Chris, but after about a year and a half of working full-time for me, Richard decided to devote his efforts to a more meaningful career. He went back to his previous vocation of helping disadvantaged children find foster families. I was sorry to see him leave but I couldn’t try to talk him out of such an important career choice because he really had a “heart” for helping children.

Before Richard left he recommended that we hire a customer named Bernie to take over for him. Bernie was very friendly and he loved comic books so we hired him as a full-time clerk and cash register guy. We’d need some time to evaluate him to see if he had the right skills to become the store manager. At this point, I had Chris working four days each week at the Worcester store and on Saturday at the Fitchburg store. This enabled us to move stock between the two stores with ease. David Hartwell and Jose Rivera were also working part-time in Worcester. Mark DuFresne ran the Fitchburg store on Sundays. I needed to find and train someone to help out during the week at the Fitchburg store. Luckily for me, Ken Carson became available.

Ken was a pleasant, regular customer, who had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of comic book history. He was quiet and soft-spoken but he had a unique, dry sense of humor that always “cracked me up.” I hired him to work thirty-two hours each week in Fitchburg and eight hours in Worcester. It didn’t take long for Ken to increase the sales in Fitchburg because he is a real “details” guy. He carefully and meticulously made sure that all customers were able to find the items they needed to fill-in their collections and he would recommend interesting new product that he knew they’d enjoy. Customers appreciated his attention to detail. So did I.

Ken also began to work on what would become the first “Employee Handbook” for That’s Entertainment. Although I was now paying my employees better, I was not excited about beginning to offer decent benefits. My policy was that there would be no paid sick days. If they were sick, I’d still pay them, but they’d have to make up the time on some other day that they didn’t normally work. When I worked a normal job I noticed that employees would consider sick days as extra vacation days and I didn’t want that to happen in my store. I offered no paid holidays. We were open every day of the year except Christmas and Thanksgiving and I needed every employee to work his shift as scheduled. I had no “extra” employees. Everyone was essential. Ken worked hard to convince me that I needed to treat the employees better and it was really just about the only disagreement we would have. Eventually he convinced me to start improving the benefits a little bit at a time. We began to give the employees paid sick time and increased the amount of paid vacation time. Most of my employees appreciated this and they didn’t abuse the new upgraded benefits.

At one employee meeting, one employee shocked me with his lack of understanding. Ken and I had just finished explaining that these new, paid sick days were not to be considered as “personal days” or extra vacation days, when one guy said, “I’m going to be moving next weekend and I was wondering if it would be okay if I took my sick days as personal days.” Arrrggg! That’s exactly why I didn’t want to offer these kinds of benefits! We explained the situation to this employee again and we’ve really had no problems since then. I must admit that most of the employees I’ve had have been dedicated “professionals.”

The year 1991 was a busy year for my family activities. During the winter Mal, Adam, and Cassy had convinced me to learn to snow ski. The kids had learned to ski with a group from the Imago School that they attended, and although I hated the cold, it would give me a chance to do something with them. I learned pretty quickly but Mal and I enjoyed nice, slow trails, while Adam and Cassy preferred the more difficult, fast trails. I did my best to keep up with Adam but he usually left me far behind. Speed seemed to be his favorite part of skiing while I tried for style over speed. Cassy was fun to watch as she skied. She was about four feet tall and she skied without ski poles. She was very graceful and always seemed in complete control. My favorite part of the whole ski experience was the time we all enjoyed on the ski lift as we rode to the mountain summit. We’d finally have uninterrupted time together as a family. No phone calls or television. One of our highlights each winter was our trip to my sister Sharon’s house in Laconia, New Hampshire. New Hampshire students had their school vacation the week after most Massachusetts schools did, so Adam and Cassy would frequently go to the private school in Laconia just to be with their “favorite” cousins. Then, on the weekend, Sharon’s family would come skiing with us at a nearby mountain called Gunstock and we’d usually end up spending close to a week with them. Our kids all got along great! But inevitably, no matter how long we stayed with them, when it was time to leave Mal and my kids would say, “But we hardly had time to play!” I’d end up being the “bad guy” because I knew we really had to get back home to get the kids ready for school the next week.

This was also the year I took Cassy to her first major league Red Sox game at Fenway Park in Boston. One of my customers gave me free tickets. I wanted this to be a special father-daughter day so I made a big deal about our big train and subway ride to the baseball park. Our seats weren’t very good. We were out in the direct sun and it was over ninety degrees that day. We spent most of the game eating like pigs! We ate lots of hot dogs, ice cream, and we each had multiple sodas. The sodas were a problem because Cassy was only seven years old at the time and each time she had to go to the bathroom I had to stand outside of the ladies room nervously waiting for her. I was certainly paranoid about someone harming my little baby girl! By the end of our day those free tickets ended up costing me $70.00 by the time you totaled up all of the expenses. But it was worth every penny. Cassy and I still laugh about all of that junk we ate.

During that summer, we all got together with my sister Sharon and her family at a multi-day Christian Festival called “Kingdom Bound” at Darien Park in Darien Lake, New York. Darien Park was a decent sized amusement park with some pretty exciting thrill rides including The Python Roller Coaster. Cassy was a daredevil and she really wasn’t afraid of anything. Adam was not too thrilled with heights and he had never been on a real roller coaster. Sometime during the three days we were there, my brother-in-law Greg and his son Jesse and I convinced Adam to try this roller coaster just once. I explained to him that if he went on it and hated it I wouldn’t try to force him to ride it again so he agreed. While we waited in the long line I could see Adam was getting more and more nervous. I’m sure he thought that this was a bad mistake. He wanted to back out of this agreement but we all talked him into trying it, just this once. All during this ride Adam had the funniest forced smile on his face. He wanted to pretend that he was enjoying this. I know he was really frightened but I didn’t let him know that he wasn’t fooling me. When the ride was over I asked him if he wanted to go again. Trembling, Adam said, “No thanks. Not right now.” I didn’t want to pressure him anymore. Although it was obvious that Adam didn’t enjoy scary rides as much as his little sister did, he would always at least try them.

Before the kids went back to school, we went on an eleven-day vacation to England with our friend Kevin Simpson. We spent most of our time in London, exploring art museums, antique stores, and the usual tourist destinations including Big Ben, The Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, 221 Baker Street (the fictional home of Sherlock Holmes), The Wax Museum, The London Dungeon, and more. We also took the kids to see the famous murder mystery play of “Mousetrap,” which was the longest running play in the world. Kevin was adventurous enough to rent a car and drive us all to Bath, a small community north of London where there are natural hot water springs. Driving on the opposite side of the road was no problem for Kevin. We had a great time on this vacation and even though we were in London for almost eleven days, there was still more we wanted to see. We’d have to return to England some other time.

Next chapter: Even on a vacation to Maine, I find unusual stuff to buy for my store.
Pictures: Cassy goes to her first Red Sox game.
Our family travels to England.

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