By JANE GROSS
IT is two minutes before 9 at night. The Staples store I use, for tasks I once did in an office, closes at 9. After I press my face to the glass door, pleadingly, holding work that must be finished tonight, the kindly manager lets me in. Then I join a half-dozen others still busy inside, at the copier or the scanner, dropping off FedEx packages, or picking up their new business cards with amorphous job titles.
I used to go to a different office supply store. Then came the day it ran out of FedEx envelopes. Oops, the store employee at its FedEx counter said, directing me to his counterpart at its United Parcel Service station. There, no one mentioned that it, too, had run out of padded envelopes. Then, without a word of warning, an employee put the CD I was sending, containing a video of a speech I had made, into a plain manila envelope, tagged it with its destination and rang up the bill in record time.
But, I explained, the CD would never get to its destination in one piece the way it was packaged. “Sorry for the miscommunication,” I said. (Yours, not mine, I muttered to myself — but not out loud, being a believer in honey rather than vinegar.) “Please give me my money back and I’ll take it elsewhere.”
“No you won’t, lady; it’s already rung up.”
“Yes, sir, I will take it elsewhere. I clearly asked for a padded envelope and an important job depends on this.” Anger, hard as I fought it, rose in my throat.
The argument that ensued is best not described here. In any case, I was too cheap to take back the overnight package I’d already paid for. The CD — for a potential client to view before deciding whether to hire me for a speaking engagement — indeed broke en route. I did not get the job.
Then I went looking for a new store to patronize.
This is my brave new world of entrepreneurial life, which began after I took a voluntary buyout from The New York Times in 2008. After working as a reporter and correspondent for 29 years, I was eager for a midlife adventure.
After I left, though, it felt strange not to work in an office, with its regular hours, bosses and, most important, co-workers and a sense of community. I joined the legions of solo operators who took their computers to places like Starbucks, seeking the sound of other people breathing. We knew the mental-health danger of staying home for weeks in the same dirty terrycloth robe, talking only to our animals.
I missed my office friends a lot. But I expected that. What I didn’t expect was how much I missed the copy machine, the scanner, the FedEx pickup, and the I.T. guy, whom I didn’t have to pay to repair equipment.
Could I have bought all the necessary machines for my nifty home office? I could have, though it would have been very expensive, and it’s a tight fit in there already. Besides, I hate gadgets, so the fewer the better.
Could I call for home pickup from U.P.S. or open a FedEx account? I guess I could. But I like going to Staples, now that I’ve found the right one, where people who are making far from royal salaries still care about doing their jobs well. They even know my name there.
There used to be a neighborhood store, Office Inc., but it closed as the big chains grew. I loved Office Inc. For years after it was gone, I’d see the owner around town and embarrass myself by tearing up. The sight of her would make me think that the bad guys, in some I-don’t-know-where corporate headquarters, had won.
Yet each big-box store, once you get past the fact that it looks the same as the others, has its own personality. The one I use now, with the manager who lets me in at two minutes till 9, has employees who help people slide balky credit cards through supposedly self-service fax and copy machines. It has a middle-aged woman selling computers because other middle-aged women don’t like doing business with dudes who call them Ma’am, or who condescend to them as if they don’t understand speedy technospeak, or who don’t even answer questions because their iPod buds are in their ears.
WOULD I choose to be in a Staples at 9 p.m. if I could help it? Not on your life. At times like this, I miss the perks, shrunken though they may be, of being a lifer in a big corporation.
But even out here in each-man-for-himself-land, there is kindness and camaraderie. That’s why I make it a point to patronize this “nice” Staples: because being nice matters a lot in this brave new entrepreneurial world.