How It Went Down at InkStop

by jvaragona

I saw this coming. I am unemployed now, and I saw it coming. The signs were all there. I tried to tell others. My comments and information were scoffed at. Surely the company would find their way through this they would say. A higher up told me to stop talking shit. I have learned from this situation to trust my gut, because I was right all along. And it was probably worse than what I assumed.

The night of Thursday, October 1st, 2009, was cold and rainy. I had just finished working a full 12 hour shift at the InkStop store I managed. On my way home, a co-worker from another location called me. He had heard from his co-worker who heard from her boyfriend that worked at another location from his boss that we were not to show up for work the next day because we were all out of jobs and we were not going to be paid. I told him that nothing that the company did surprised me anymore. We had listened to lie after lie about product shipments that never came, about eviction notices that simply meant the company was tactfully renegotiating leases, and that overall everything would be okay.

My boss, who had only been on the job for several weeks, was ringing in. I told the guy I was talking to that I would let him know what was going on, and then I clicked over.

“Well I guess you’ve heard the news,” he said.

Let’s back up here. We were told repeatedly not to gossip or listen to rumor during these mysterious times. Boss man himself told us exactly a week prior that no stores were going to close, that the company would give advance notice if anything like that would happen, that product would be coming soon for our big 4th quarter, and that our many investors would take care of us. I couldn’t blame him for believing what this company ran by con-artists had told him. Why would they hire someone and open a few new stores in other parts of the country in that past month only to shut it all down? Nothing really ever made much sense, but I wasn’t about to believe the lies he was passing to us from headquarters, and I’m sure he had his suspicions as well. He was going into stores where employees told him that they haven’t seen any substantial shipments for the past nine months, where they told him about receiving visits from sheriff’s deputies for non-payment of rent and visits from utility providers saying we had 24 hours to pay up to continue service. Unless you drank some pretty tasty Kool-Aid or were sporting some nice rose-colored specs, you would be concerned with the hand you had just been dealt.

A day after boss man told us about the great things that would happen, he was told he had to go close a store 4 hours away. So much for advance notice. I scrambled to find out more if I could. Some employees in other markets were tweeting about stores closing in their markets. Jobvent.com, which had been a haven for folks concerned about the way the company was being run, had a few posts discussing store closures in more markets. I used sources I had along with this information to calculate that in several days, 10-15% of the company was suddenly being closed down. From what we knew, the district and regional managers were as blindsided by this as we were.

I could only expect a store closer to me would close. Sure, it makes sense to close lowest performing stores, but you also have to figure that many of these stores had received judgments against them in the courts and had run the course of appeals and dragging ass as much as they could to “renegotiate leases.” It makes sense in an economy as uncertain as it is during this time with a company that was struggling to try to lower rent, but is not paying the best way to accomplish this? Maybe to get to the bargaining table, but once your ass is taken to court, you would think the relationship with your landlord would be soured. After poring over court dockets, it seems that InkStop may have been able to settle some of these cases, but after paying up something, they went right back to not paying. Again, you’d assume that would tick a landlord off even more. For the store we ended up closing, that was the case as they had recently lost an unlawful detainer case, which spelled the end of the line. I tried to be as optimistic as possible when I told my findings to that store’s manager after they received a default judgment against them weeks before. Would they close? I am no legal expert, but since I had been looking into the long list of lawsuits against the company I worked for, losing an unlawful detainer case means you’re gone. I said maybe they could drag it out, but 45 days seemed like the maximum amount of time they’d be able to drag out. My optimism was giving it 45 days.

So the day before it all shut down, a group of us had to gut this store that received the judgment. 1500 square feet filled with product, which we loaded into a rented trailer and unloaded into another store. We then had to dismantle all of the fixtures, load them up, and then empty those into a storage facility. It was the most work I had done in one day for this company. We had opened stores in the past for them, but never worked with such a deadline and so much physical work crammed in to meet it–all for naught.

And now back to our program.

“Well sir, I’ve only heard rumors, so why don’t you clear that up for me?,” I replied to my boss.

He went on to explain the conference call he was on an hour before our conversation. The CEO, Dirk Kettlewell, explained that they needed more funding to keep InkStop going, but temporarily all 150 some odd stores were shutting down, effective immediately. I knew that meant for good. We all knew that any hint of optimism was all part of the long trail of lies. Boss man added that we weren’t going to get paid the next day. How convenient! Take your workers to the absolute last day before they find out they will not get paid, therefore getting an extra week out of them on top of that. It sounded genius, in an evil kind of way. We were (and still are) fucked.

I could tell that my superior was just as surprised by all of this. We could only blame those at the top for not being able to pay our bills the next day and having to juggle our remaining funds for the foreseeable future somehow. I frantically, mid-conversation popped a u-turn in traffic, in the rain, to get back my coffee maker and other personal effects like a magnet with my son’s photo on it or the personalized mug I got for my first Father’s Day with a picture of us on it. As I drove back, I called my one associate multiple times. Of course this would be the time she doesn’t pick up her phone. I left several screaming voice mails, getting progressively louder like it would summon her to pick up her cell phone. And I called my wife telling her what we feared would happen, but weren’t entirely surprised by.

I zipped to the back of the store to grab my personal items and sped off in my car back home.

Finally my associate called me back. I told her the news and she cried and screamed in disbelief. We had talked about this happening though. It’s that damn how and when that sneak up on you. We had even had specific “What will we do when we’re unemployed?,” half-joking conversations. The time had come.

We couldn’t have stopped this. It was almost destined to happen with the long line of mistakes that we saw being made. Some were lucky to get away before it went down. I had looked for other work, but given the sad state of our economy, I came up empty. As things got worse, I grew my beard out and said I would stick with the company to see how it all would end, thinking we had several more months. I didn’t really figure it would rob me and countless others from substantial amounts of money that we worked for or that it would happen so abruptly.

Update 10/27/09

Here are some links of press coverage. I went on a media blitz in St. Louis getting the following coverage.

KSDK: Ex-InkStop employees say they are laid off and unpaid

KMOV: InkStop employees left out of work, unpaid

St. Louis Post Dispatch/STLToday.com: InkStop runs dry leaving ex-employees unpaid and unhappy

Special thanks to Casey Nolen of KSDK, Chris Nagus of KMOV, and Steve Giegerich of the Post Dispatch for those pieces.

Also Janet Cho of the Cleveland Plain Dealer has done an excellent job of keeping up with this story with the several pieces she has written. Here is a link to the tagged InkStop content that she has done.

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