Though the store had always been a major presence in my life, until I started working the sales floor I had only a vague notion of what my dad did and whether he was good at it. The only thing I knew firsthand was that he had an almost paranormal awareness of what was on the shelves. Back when I’d been in fifth or sixth grade, Kim and I were assigned to help with the annual summer inventory. Dad would put us in the fishing tackle, where we were to count how many of each little item—lures, hooks, swivels, packets of line, and such—hung from each peg. We were to write down the tally, making sure that we didn’t mix different hook sizes, etc. As the day went on, it was tempting to eyeball a peg and guesstimate a number. If we did, he’d know it. “You wrote down ‘twelve,” he’d say, “and there are fourteen of those.” How did he know that? To this day, I have no idea.
Now I saw him in action every day. First observation: my dad’s management style was not by-the-book. In fact, it was a textbook lesson in how not to handle your employees. He played each of the guys against the others. One week, he’d buddy up to one, saying that his hard work had made him an obvious choice to lead the staff in my dad’s absence. A week later, it would be another guy who got the boss’s approval.
The result was a constant hum of tension in the store, with each employee jockeying for my dad’s attention and favor. Today we’d call it a toxic work environment. I’m betting the place might have blown apart at the seams had my dad not been spending months at a time in Florida, which gave everyone else a chance to settle down. Finally, he formalized Bob Aiken’s status as his number two. Bob’s level head and straightforward leadership were an antidote to the craziness.
Another insight of mine, which would be bolstered many times, was just how effective a salesman my dad was. He was the quintessential Irishman—jovial, a back slapper, full of… well, an ability to shoot the breeze. Sometimes I’d watch him from across the store, laughing with people. He could banter and bargain with anyone, and I could see that his customers enjoyed the exchange. He knew a lot about the merchandise, and that came through when he talked about it. He believed in what he was selling. He was also an expert at going for the added sale—if a customer bought a pair of sneakers, he made sure to push a pair of socks. This wasn’t a mere cash grab. He considered it a disservice to that shopper to have him leave the store without everything he needed to get the best possible results from his purchase.
He roamed the floor through the day, visiting with customers, making sure that each one felt, every minute he was in the store, that he was looked after. The moment the front door opened, we were to be on hand to greet the guy walking in and be ready to answer his questions or show him around. Treat him as you would a guest at your house, I remember him telling me: “If you had a visitor there, you wouldn’t keep doing what you’re doing. You’d drop it to say hello and make him feel at home.”
That was a lesson that stayed with me. You can have the greatest merchandise in town, but if you don’t throw your energy into customer service, you won’t keep people coming back. To this day, nothing annoys me more than to walk into a store unacknowledged. I hate having to roam the aisles looking for help. At 345 Court Street, that never happened.