This week our store manager unexpectedly died.
It came as a shock, because our SM was a private man, and never let us know how very sick he was. But he was also something else to us: he was our leader. And as are most great leaders, he was also our mentor. So I am going to take a moment and tell you about him. Because we didn’t just respect Kevin W…it turns out, we loved the man.
Death Changes Everything
There is a terrible silence that follows the death of a powerful person. I don’t mean “powerful” like he can fire you, but powerful like you can feel his presence in every corner of the store, in the approach to every procedure, in every greeting extended to a customer, right down to the significance of chasing that dust bunny hiding conspicuously on a book shelf. I mean like when you enter our store, there is a viable and welcoming personality that hangs in the very atmosphere. That was our manager’s doing. That was Kevin.
It is a proud statement of fact that customers routinely comment that our store just “feels different.” It has been what sets us apart, what causes people to drive all the way up from Pueblo and across the Rockies from Western Colorado to visit – specifically – our store, and to tell us so. And now that Kevin is gone, that feeling hangs like a fine residue in the air, threatening to dissipate if we don’t grab it and hold on for dear life.
We intend to. Because we value what Kevin taught us. We value the over-a-decade-long legacy of the store he helped build, and the raw determination he had to deliver consistent, excellent customer service – which means so much more than robotic greetings and scripted lines. It means standing behind your principles. It means really believing in the importance of what you do.
This week we are in shock. Our store feels like a suddenly vacant room, full of dry echoes… weirdly empty… like the house did after my mother died…Like some part of that person was so significant to the very fabric of things, even the universe doesn’t know what to do. We cry at the oddest moments, tearing up as we pass each other and something about Kevin comes to mind. We’ve lost a family member. And the only way to get through grief, is to take it out and hold it in your hands before letting it go. The only way is to really look at and appreciate what you have lost, and share it with others.
Death changes everything. But you only lose everything if you forget what that life meant.
A Tribute to Kevin W., Store Manager Extraordinaire
I’ll never forget the first time I met my store manager – no one does, because he looks exactly like actor Sam Elliott. And I mean exactly…
(This is a picture of Sam Elliott. Mostly because I don’t actually have any pictures of Kevin, but also because I want to respect his privacy. I say again, Kevin was a private man. You could tell by the Sam Elliott demeanor. Hence all images here are not of the actual Kevin but of Sam – an actor worthy of playing him in the movie of our store.)
Kevin presented a formidable image. Thin and tough and cowboy wiry, he clearly was not someone you wished to tangle with.
We often confided in each other that he scared us…exclaiming “me, too!” in hushed tones of disbelief. But it was a good kind of scare – the kind of scare you afford a person you respect so much you don’t want to let them down. Kevin – looking every day like Sam (even on Halloween when he wore the same clothes he wore every day and called it his cowboy costume) – had that kind of influence over us. No one wanted to let down the trail boss. No one wanted to disappoint a man who worked so hard to make an embattled brick-and-mortar bookstore not only solvent, but kick-ass profitable.
See, Kevin knew as booksellers we are on the front lines of the Battle For Print, and he needed foot soldiers he could count on. We didn’t want to lose a single customer. He made us realize that this was more than retail… it was war. And you win that war where technology always fails – with customer service.
Most people don’t realize how integral a store manager is inside a big corporate-owned bookstore. But let me tell you, they quickly become that store – all those bricks and mortar hold a serious measure of their personality, their work ethic, their competency.
But they also dictate how workers interact with each other – which depends on how successful they are as parent-figures and commanders-in-chief. They have to deduce and enforce that fine line between compassionate friend and firm leader. They have to clearly delineate between your responsibilities and their own. They have to be consistent. And they have to believe in what they preach.
This was Kevin W… store manager extraordinaire. His kind is a dying breed. And that makes this loss even worse.
When you work in a large store, it is easy to think of yourself as unimportant, easily replaced, and in the mindset of large corporate cubicles… nonessential. It is retail, after all. And it takes a real people manager to change that up, someone who understands that his or her role in the bigger scheme of things is to inspire.
And not only that, but to inspire in retail. Now that’s what Texans call a “tall order.” But Kevin was from Indiana, and as a fellow native thereof, I can say that was an irresistible challenge. He met it daily with fortitude and good cheer.
From the moment of your first encounter with his soft Sam smile and easy greeting of “howdy” to the end of the day when he wished you a good night, you felt shepherded… managed… safe.
It takes a man like Kevin, looking like Sam, to pull it off with panache.
A quiet man of few words, Kevin had his ways of letting you know when you’d strayed too far from the core principles. He had a look. And if you got The Look, you knew you needed to change course and get with the program.
Furthermore, one look like this from Kevin, and you wanted to. You wanted to b-a-d.
The very best of managers manage with few words; it is more a matter of demeanor. In Kevin’s case, it was a father-like demeanor. He stood as protector of The Family in our bookstore, lodging himself firmly and solidly between the bookseller on the floor and the Corporate People who can scare the name tags off us all. He served as coach and mentor, and to some of our younger, troubled folk, as confidante.
Always he held to his principle of privacy, always while including all of the different personality types that wind up in a bookstore and flit habitually in and out of retail. It often surprised folks to see the diverse group of people he would hire – inevitably people who needed to be right there, right then, with someone like him in charge. Yet besides fishing those of us who needed a revitalization of our faith in the management “system” from unemployed waters, he seemed uncanny in being able to ferret out the booklovers, the passionate worshippers of the page.
He almost never got it wrong. And the result was a bookstore environment where we all became family… an environment like Corporate moguls like to claim all workplaces are, and where they most often certainly are not.
Kevin W. knew the secret. He was like our Yoda…Our Obi Wan Kenobe… Only one that looked like Sam Elliott. Except when he was Batman. Or Superman… Our store was his Fortress of Solitude. A place of learning and thought. A place we couldn’t wait to come to every day because of what he made it.
Kevin was our port in the storm, a safe harbor provided in the middle of all that Amazon-is-gonna-kill-bookstores business, a steady-as-she-goes influence in the tumultuousness of our retail-driven lives.
You wind up in retail for so many reasons…
Sometimes you just visit for a season or two. Sometimes you stay. And sometimes the reason is a manager like Kevin.
He made us realize that we are the captains of our own ships, but we could only set sail properly if we understood the necessity of swabbing a few decks. He made it a point to keep his hands in everything. To see everything. To be everywhere.
It was annoying.
And we loved him for it. He was the helicopter parent for all of us – even those of us far too old to be his kids. He made us feel responsible for each other and for our own goals. He made us feel like we should have them – goals. Like he was counting on us. And we didn’t want to let him down. I’m pretty sure it was the mustache.
The Way of the ‘Stache
He taught me about customer service – and I thought Hilton had taught me all I needed to know back in the ‘80s. He taught me that teamwork is not dead as the corporate world might convince you – as long as everyone looks out for each other. And in the business world of the Book Wars, he helped us see how we could make a difference as individuals, but an impact as a team. Indeed, our store sales grew exponentially under his tutelage – all at a time when common folk loved to parade in and pronounce our doom.
Kevin taught us that the fight was ours to win or forfeit.
He also taught me how to look at the business of books, because books are very much a business. If a business does not make a profit, it will not endure. So he taught me as a writer the importance of looking at that business and all of its aspects – from the importance of a good book cover to the willingness of a good bookseller to find it on a shelf for a customer who didn’t even know it was there… To be able to speak with authority about what is going on in the business, the how and why of availability, the way to circumvent the intentions of online services trying to destroy print.
He was always patient. Always even-keel. Always Kevin.
And you never knew when he would pop up. Or where. Because Kevin as a store manager was a viable presence. He was as much a part of our store as the plaster supports that hold up our roof and sport pictures of famous writers. In fact, he has been away from our store since last November, and not a day goes by even now where we don’t expect to see him just around the corner of that bay of books. Or sitting in his office studying the schedule. Or overseeing payroll.
In fact, we haven’t really been sure he wasn’t there, so strong is his influence. Because each in our own way, we all needed him. So we have been imagining him there all of these empty months. Believing in him. Not knowing that cancer was lurking.
That’s how it is with a private man. A quiet man. We suspect it’s the Way of the ‘Stache.
Every day, we have come to realize, we were following his lead. We were doing what he taught us. And like children who look behind themselves to realize that Dad let go of the bike quite a ways back, we are struggling to not wreck in surprise. We know the show must go on, that the best way to honor Kevin is to keep running the store with his sense of dedication and attention to detail.
I say again, that as a shopper, you just don’t know how much a store manager really does to smooth the experience of your visit. He or she has to be able to forecast numbers, store traffic, staffing needs…calculate budgets for new books, for payroll, for coverage to manage the seamless but unending maintenance of receiving and returns, pricing, shelving, and cashiering. He or she has to know of all the employees and all of the jobs on staff: who is most reliable, who is most knowledgeable or efficient or both, who is most flexible and when and where to staff them. He or she has to take from that chaos and convince overwhelmed clerks that they can do just one more thing, and still make each member of the public feel valued.
Kevin was all of this. Did all of this. Quiet. Imposing. Rock-solid. He was our compass, our task master, our Captain. He was a major reason we loved coming to work every day. We loved to be challenged by him. We loved being managed, valued…and always, always thanked for everything we did. Every day. Every time.
Because it wasn’t really the thanks we wanted. He made us wait for this…to want to see this:
Worked every time.
So we couldn’t have imagined that our worst nightmares would come true for Kevin and all of his family (extended and relative) …that we would lose the best thing our store had going. But the truth rode in all quiet-like. Sneaky, even.
And now it’s time to let him go, to doff our hats and shave the mustaches we were all growing as a surprise for him on his scheduled and eagerly anticipated come-back day. We wanted to show him just how much we missed him. Now we will have to in other ways – the ways that count, using the tools he gave us.
Just don’t be surprised if you find the odd, impromptu tribute to Sam Elliott at times in our store…
Yep. We’re going to miss you something fierce, boss. We already do; but we thank you for all of the lessons you taught us, for the inspiration. Go gentle, Kevin. It was a privilege to work under you.
And mind the sunset. It’s probably CG.