I started at Pencils in office supplies in the beginning of high school, in a teensy small gap town on the lamer side of nowhere. Back in the day, it wasn’t actually that bad a place to work. I had a heroic manager who took no shit from the badger-fucking clientele that seem to invariably congregate at Pencils, which did a lot. I also was looking for, like, 10 hours a week, tops, which they could easily provide.
So I got what I wanted, I was protected from the shitty customers, and my managers were heretics who told us only to sell warranties if it made sense for the customer. Unbelievable, right? Our numbers were always great, because a culture had arisen whereby people would trust us if we said they could use it. We also had an amazing tech guy who was known for fast turnarounds and doing what he could to navigate the Byzantine bullshit that is the ESP.
Everything was pretty fine and dandy and we were doing good business. We were known as the honest Staples around the district, which speaks volumes to the company’s business model. Anyways, our store was humming along nicely.
And then corporate demanded more warranties, fewer hours, and more exhausting expectations. Going to work stopped being fun. The more experienced workers got fewer hours; the new kids got next to no training because they couldn’t afford the hours. But we still had our manager (nicknamed “Buddha”, so I’ll refer to him by that), and our tech guy, “Bird” (so named for his tendency to make loon and owl sounds when the store was quiet). Between the two of them, and with a family dynamic that saw most of us actually volunteer to help from time to time, we barely held on.
The problem wasn’t the lower hours – it was the warranties. We had made a name for being honest, and we didn’t want to lose that. Our warranty pitches became more frequent, though we made sure to say that corporate was demanding we do this. In a touching display of understanding that I won’t soon forget, customers sometimes bought the cheap warranties on peripheries to help us out. We got more in the bank, but we weren’t quite hitting the targets. Corporate started to look at us. They didn’t actually see how our store was working – the trust and the hard work we put in for them was never sought nor searched for by them. They saw numbers – their target, presumably written in lipstick after a drunken conference meeting, and ours. And they didn’t like what they saw.

They came for Bird first.

Losing Bird cost the store more than anything else. They replaced him with some beer-swilling huckster type. He cost less, you see – Bird was getting good pay, and the Warranty Bot had just started and was both cheap and utterly unscrupulous about warranties. The guy was all about the power of tune-ups and loved nothing more than mocking people who bought Set-Ups. When he wasn’t busy wheezing about how many suckers (his words) he had nailed that day, he was leering at our female employees and walking about with a slap-on grin that almost instinctively got my fists balled.
Buddha didn’t like it, but he said that he needed to keep costs down. I, after years of working there, was getting something like 6 hours a week. We were hurting, and people were distrustful of the new Warranty Bot. The kindness was wearing off and we were spiralling downhill. When I moved away, I noticed how much older Buddha looked after the changes.
I left that store and picked up work at another Staples, this one in the suburbs of a decently sized metropole. This store looked like crap from the start – the shelves were in appalling shape, the employees looked miserable, and the warranty booklets were huddled around like beggars on every available surface. But I had to eat and this store let me start the day after I walked in to ask about a job, so I took on the task.
Something was wrong from the start. Well, a lot of things were. They were trying to run the biggest size of store in the region with 500 hours, a number that would make sense only if we were a Starbucks on a quiet side of town. Morning meetings consisted of reading the warranty sales numbers followed by a reading from corporate’s magnum opus, the sales tactics book. We were told to ‘overcome objections’, to ‘ask repeatedly’ about warranties, and to ‘use the customer’s insecurity against their objections’, lines that creeped me out. They put me in tech without asking how much training I had had (none) and how much I wanted to be in tech (not at all). Once they noticed that I didn’t sell warranties, I was shipped to office supplies. And my hours were cut for ‘ignoring company policy’. 

Office supplies there was a special type of hell. Our captain was a uniquely incompetent fellow who fell so below grade that he was actually fired (I don’t know how you get fired from Pencils – it’s a war of attrition, nothing more), meaning that four of us with school hours had to run the place. It was especially helpful that the daughter of the manager worked in the department and did nothing but planograms, leaving the mountains of stock to three people with too few hours to do anything and no good reason to care. 

The Eye of Sauron was on the store at all times. Management harassed everyone to go faster, work harder, and sell more warranties. All the work we did to clean the warehouse was rewarded with demands to do more work, if it was even ever noticed (which was rare). Hours oscillated between 40 and 10, meaning that I could never really feel financially secure. While we were written up for any infraction, management performed such vital tasks as taking personal calls on the floor, playing Angry Birds on their personal iPads, listening to music in the back office, and scowling at everyone who didn’t get warranties.
If management and its stupendous motivation didn’t get you going, there were the middle managers. Personal friends of the general manager, the consultants were a little Gestapo, hounding everyone for…well, I still don’t know what I was being harassed about. After I noticed their habit of expressing their utter joy about every company policy whenever they were in earshot of anyone, I started feeling badly for them. How warped do you have to be to get excited about Pencils? It was almost pathetic. 

Several stories come to mind about that dump. There was the time where the manager’s daughter left without telling anyone (that was what management said; I imagine they just forgot about) and then came back to 30 hours, slashing the part-time cashiers and I down to 9 hours. There was the time when they had everyone Apple trained and then didn’t get Apple products. The staggering idiocy left us in rough shape, and the turnover rate was appalling outside of the favourites.
The customers were also their own brand of moron. I’ve been yelled at for being too slow, being too fast, not having products like canvases and scrapbooking stickers, not having product on the shelf (which was impossible with too few hours and a moron at the wheel), not accepting Euros, not being up-to-date on Norton Antivirus (the person came into office supplies to quiz me, because sense), $0.30 differences in price, too few staff (of course, this was a long rant which took me out of commission for some time, fulfilling precisely what the guy was whinging about), not being open at midnight, refusing returns on expired ink cartridges, having garbages that are too full, having black employees – you name it. I remain convinced that the suburb I worked in is proof of the Decline of Man. Roll that place up Katamari-style and you’ll probably find 50 I.Q points and a stick of butter.
Quitting was the best thing I ever did. Of course, my letter of resignation was never read such that they ‘accidentally’ fired me, but that’s to be expected. Bottom line is simple: Pencils is nothing more than a pile of detached, 40-something straight white men in suits mistaking projections for reality and suckling at the teat of mediocrity. The company’s strategy for sales reads like a mugger’s handbook and makes as much sense as a peanut butter and tuna sandwich on stilts. It’s dishonest, greasy, cheap-ass misers hiring dishonest, greasy people to hawk extraneous crap on an unsuspecting public. Staples as a company is best personalized as an annoying 40-year old bald man with a stamp collection and a Cheetos-stained t-shirt waddling around offering life advice in exchange for a couch to crash on. The company sucks, the job sucks, and the workers deserve better jobs. Fuck Pencils.