Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Not a Nice Guy (Tradecraft)

A long time ago, a professor friend was going back home to grade some papers. I told him, "Well, be nice." He gave me a sidelong glance and replied, "No, I'll be fair." Before opening the store I think I could have been called a nice guy. Nice is easy when you have limited responsibilities and you're not facing the world, front and center.

When you open a game store, a new set of responsibilities is thrust upon you. You are responsible for your customers, both their safety and their enjoyment. You are also responsible, legally even, to your investors and family for responsibly spending the small amount of capital you've all cobbled together. You will be taking on this role with no net, no unemployment, no disability, none of the safeties of conventional society. You are on the street if you fail, unlike the average employee. You are an employment outlier in the work world wilds.

You represent your community, their standards and expectations, and if you can't live up to them, if you can't maintain order and stability, they'll make your life hard until you do, or they'll close you down. The police will only come out to arrest Yugioh kids so many times before there's a ... conversation. Nice guy will have that conversation. Fair guy will make sure that conversation never happens.

When you open your store, there is also pie. It is assumed you have a giant budgetary pie that you'll be divvying out forthwith. As you are statistically likely to fail, the vultures come for their pie fast and furious. You will be called many times a day, indefinitely, by people assuming you're a fool in need of capital separation. I kid you not. They call every day.  Ten years now. The key is to first screen by caller ID. When that fails, it's a race to see how many seconds it takes before you can hang up. "Can I speak to the person in charge of..." is probably six words too many. These people are time bandits. You don't want to be nice.

When you open your store, you'll also be public facing. If you work in an office, you might think you're public facing as well, but you aren't really public facing until you've worked on main street, where every individual in your community will eventually mosey on in. Besides the usual customers, we get criminals, spies, the insane, people high out of their minds, religious zealots and many combinations.

A nice guy is sunk in these situations. I know this, because I used to be him. I used to engage these people, play a part in their fantasies, scams and intentional attempts to undermine me. I used to want to fix them, want to get to the bottom of their psychosis, want to unwind their crazy religion or dispel their predictions of failure, as if the universe had thrust me into this position to somehow bestow compassion and wisdom. Or maybe, and this is the worst delusion, I'm being tested.

One store owner warned me about leaving before I lost my soul. If that soul was nice guy, it's certainly gone after dealing with these folks. It's the woman who charged into the store in a cloud of fumes with a gas can and slammed it on the counter. It's the meth head who snuck into the office and stole my laptop. It's the criminal duo who tested me to the point where I made it clear I was not a corporate franchise, and hinted I would hurt them if they continued their scam. These guys killed nice guy. But it was for the best.

There is a look I've developed over time, perhaps involuntarily. It is the "I am not impressed with your bullshit, and I may hurt you" look. The troublesome know this look extremely well as they see it from law enforcement all the time. My cop friends and I talk about that look. The troublesome move on to greener pastures, where they can find a nice guy. Every veteran retailer has perfected the look. The look is some fantastic shorthand.

I'm not a mean person, but nice guy is long gone (ask my wife). I haven't lost my compassion for these people, even when they threaten to cause harm to my business or threaten me, but I strive more to be fair than the good Samaritan, administering aid. I strive to be more wrathful bodhisattva than angry demon. The pitfalls of striving towards wrathful bodhisattva is arrogance and anger, with arrogance being my likely downfall. My NPC role in this situation is that of shepherd and these are wolves. Like Jules grappling with being the shepherd in Pulp Fiction, the key is not to be the tyranny of evil men.

Fair, not nice, is what my customers and their parents expect of me. It's what my shareholders expect of me. The universe has decided it best you go back to the home, the treatment center, or the hole you crawled out of and reconsider your poor choices. You are a danger to the sheep (or are you the sheep?).

I strive to offer a fair value at a fair price. I don't do favors. I try not to make exceptions that cause trouble for my employees, although I'll bend over backwards to fix a wrong. I'm fair every day, where nice is far harder when it comes to consistency. Fair also includes firing customers, in rare occasions. It includes letting employees go before they do further harm to the business. It includes burning with fire when a product or product line is no longer working. Fair means doing these harsh actions as soon as possible, and not waiting longer than necessary. Fair means we give thousands of dollars of games to charities each year, but have to say no to the many people who would like us to support their cause.

Fair will put my son through college, pay my mortgage, and keep everyone safe.


  1. I cannot agree enough with all of this. My most expensive mistakes as a store owner have come from me trying to be nice - mostly in taking too long to realise employees are just not doing what I believed they could, and aren't going to work to get there. That and being bad at finishing relationships with companies whose products just aren't working for us/taking a punt on marginally commercial games from new designers who are just starting out.