Saturday, December 16, 2017

Saying Goodbye to Office Max

Today is one of the saddest days in recent memory—it’s the day they closed the doors, forever, on the Office Max in College Station, Texas. Yes, to those who consider far more serious matters of great world importance, including world peace, tax bills, and football playoffs, this is entirely trivial, but not to me. I have a longstanding love affair with office supplies.

It began with a childhood love of school and my dear mother’s willingness to indulge my request for Hefty #2 pencils and Big Chief tablets if I explained that “I really needed them.”

Those who knew me then recall I would spend an hour selecting a school binder, the right color for the zippered pencil case with the holes punched in for your notebook, the tabs for subject dividers, the favorite colors of anchor lead Husky #2 pencils by Empire, and, of course, the size of Big Chief tablet I felt comfortable with.

After mastering the big pencils, it was a pencil with our school name on it that I could get for five cents in the school office. Sometimes, I’d treat myself and use my allowance on some Dixon Ticonderoga #2 pencils from Handy-Andy or others from Winn’s 5&10 would delight. I might purchase an extra school practice book (my mother should have known the signs of a nerd by then) from Kresge’s.

All these brands would occupy my thoughts until I learned the beauty of pens. In elementary school, it was Venus Max colored drawing pencils for the geography maps we had to draw. Then, in high school, we used Paper Mate Flair pens and stippling pens for bio drawings. The ballpoint Paper Mate stick pens with the pretty blue barrels and the blue caps had seen me through high school notes.

With my transition into engineering classes, I felt a close kinship with Pilot Razor Point fineline markers. The pen tips, though, eventually got worn and crushed, and there was nothing more fun than a new pen, for $.79 (at the local college bookstore). Color choices abounded, and this was before they sold multipacks. You can’t take notes with the wrong pen! Later on, I'd find the Pilot V's to my liking. Fellow supply lovers are nodding their heads in agreement. Others are forgiving when I opine on office supplies.

I still remember how I felt in the 70s when Engineering and Office Supply (EOS) closed their Redmond Terrace location. I found my first Pentel automatic pencils there (0.5 HB lead for the black barrel, and 0.7HB lead for the blue barrel). This is far worse. I like to browse selections of pens plus I’m picky about computer paper (how many nerds look for the brightness rating and weight on your laser paper?). I love having an assortment of jumbo paper clips in a cute new container every now and again. Back in October, I learned the news that my Office Max store had been slated to close by the end of the year. I was devastated.

Why should it matter that the “Max” store is closing when the parent company “Depot” remains open less than one mile away? Because the two stores are similar only in the word “Office.” There is a world of difference in the personnel who staffed my Office Max and the very nice folks at Office Depot. Depot staff are competent and pleasant; Max staff/team members were extraordinary.

Customer service isn’t just a department to call; it’s a philosophy of a store that’s reflected in every aspect of their operations. Such was my Office Max. If you’re local and you’ve shopped at either one or both, quick—can you recall the names of the folks who work in the different departments?

Perhaps that’s an unfair question if you’re not an authentic office supply junkie. Maybe you don’t have to have anything but what you walk around and pick up off the shelves. Maybe you have a box of 12 pen refills that last you a year as you don’t care what kind of pen you write with or whether your legal pads are narrow ruled, wide ruled, or quadrille ruled. There are needs, you know, for all three categories. Well, there are! No, I’m not kidding.

This Max was a team, a family, and collective group of kind professionals who gathered to help every customer with the same level of expertise and professionalism, and we were all special to them.

It started with Carlos, a manager with years of office supply experience. He helped me decide between four different HP printers that I was considering, as he knew my typical page prints, based on how often I bought reams of paper at Max.

Carlos put me in the computer chair of my dreams when I came into the store too tired to shop but I needed something. I collapsed into one that looked comfortable, only to realize I’d left a key coupon at home and the sale on the chair would be ending that day.

He said, “No worries, I’ve got you, and I know you won’t use the coupon for anything else.” I reassured him I wouldn’t and he not only gave me the floor model, he even found a very creative way to get it into my jaunty little sports car (thing of the past) to boot! Customer service, Max style. Happened all the time.

By the way, the words “some assembly required” are fine when it’s children’s toys that need assembling. I once had a $39 failure trying to build the “Easy-to-assemble” two-shelf bookcase from Depot. Since I didn’t own a power drill, my Phillips head screwdriver, channel locks, and hammer were not enough for the job, and out it went to heavy trash day, along with a few tears and a few choice words said outside of the earshot of the dog.

For computer choices, if you don’t know how to "build your own" on the various techno websites, and you must own a Windows system, because you work in a Windows world, when everyone else tells you at least once a day that their Apple MacBook Pro never has the problems you are having. Right? Anyway, if you want a Windows system and you, like virtually everyone else in town, have vowed never to set foot into Best Buy ever, ever again…you could go to Max and have Harrison talk you through the best system available at the best price at the time. Harrison never steered me wrong, computers, peripherals, routers, and without seeing my full system, was the troubleshooter when my three-screen view went down to two. I thought I'd have to spend at least $200 on a new monitor. He said, "It's probably the USB to VGA connector that failed." Try that first, and though they didn't have one in stock at Max, the web site did! Two fast days later, no new monitor required, and a net savings of $160.

It’s not just about selling you technology. It’s about service after the sale. Two years ago, I bought a 1TB portable hard drive. In fact I bought two of them at the same time, as they were on sale for $89 each. Cute little red My Passport Ultras, from Western Digital. Oh don't I sound like I know what I'm talking about? You betcha! They teach as well as advise at Max.

On a business trip in November, to my dismay when I connected my portable hard drive to my travel computer, the error “Cannot read hard drive” came up. Fortunately I could access my files to work on from a different source but certainly the hard drive was the repository for lots of photos I determined to keep, but not on my desktop because of the space required. When I returned to B-CS, I promptly went up on Sunday afternoon with the hard drive, and was delighted to find Harrison working that day. I explained my dilemma and told him I’d located a program online that could help recover, data but it was $98 and I wasn’t willing to buy what I wasn’t sure would work or try to use it without knowing how to prep a new drive to receive the transferred information.

Harrison said, “leave your drive with me and let me see what I can do.” Four hours later I came back and he said, “I found a program online that only cost $79 (instant savings of $17!) and I downloaded it and am running it on your drive right now. It’s going to have to run overnight, but it will be fine here. Check in tomorrow by phone and I’ll tell you how far along it is. The next morning at 8 am he said it would be about 6 pm that night before it was finished and in case his manager sent him home, he’d come back and make sure it finished, on his own time.

Sure enough, Harrison had too many hours in to remain on the clock that day but on his own time, he came back and finished it up and then showed me how he’d partitioned the new drive for me and where the data was (divided by recovery into four segments). Well, this may all be gobbledygook to you, but to me it was irreplaceable photographs and memories I’d never see again if they weren’t recovered. That kind of above and beyond service wasn’t just for me. I was one of many, many regulars this Max store had. He also knew that a full-time writer and editor couldn't last long without her files. And whether or not he was on the clock didn't matter to him. I was his customer.

Two years ago, when Gen. Joe Hanover was alive, and he had put me through the first revision of his life story, where he thought he just wanted the old coil binding unwound and some new pages slipped in, haha, we went to Copy Max (the print center inside Office Max) and the manager, Art, met him and shared with him how they could transform his project into something befitting a general.

Art and Joe became good friends and probably four reorders of a large number of copies ensued before Joe was ready to go to hardback printing. But Art always addressed Joe as “General,” and his dear Michelle, by name. They weren’t the regular customers I was, but the point is that Art and his team remembered all their customers by name.

Then there’s my patronage of CopyMax. With no disrespect to any other independent proprietor in town, who do fantastic work and support this community, I loved my CopyMax and wouldn’t go anywhere else. No matter how much I don’t know about the world of “what you can do” in document design (I write the words, I don’t do the layout), Chris solved my problems with such kindness and courtesy.

He kept up with all my projects (and I had a ton of them), and he’d ask me how my clients’ projects were advancing. How he kept all that in his head, along with that of the entire customer base they had, is amazing. Chris graduated from Texas A&M today and is going to Depot down the block. Keep in mind my print and copy projects now belong to Depot, as long as Chris is there.

Then, there’s one of the key managers, Mike, who is well known and beloved in this community. He was the most capable, thoughtful assistant manager in the grocery stores formerly known as Appletree (previously owned by Safeway), and our small town friendly atmosphere kept people going to Appletree. Eventually they sold to Village Foods and Mike kept things going well. It was a great day to see him in Office Max and while he was there, customer service continued to be the priority. I can’t say it enough times, this group of employees was a team, unparalleled in consideration, efficiency, and good advice.

So, why the shutdown? A corporate reaction to a proposed nasty rate increase at Culpepper Plaza (or that’s what we used to call the strip development). You could almost sense it coming when the uber popular (why? It’s Aggieland) Spec’s Liquor next door relocated to the vacated Anna’s Linen’s space over in the University Drive center that holds Michael’s and Half Price Books and Records, among other stores.

It would appear that the rent increases have now caused two major stores to leave. But in Max’s case, that was all the impetus corporate needed to close my favorite office supply store. Did it make economic sense to keep Max open when Depot was just a mile down the road? Maybe not to big city executives who pore over spreadsheets and look to save costs wherever possible.

But their corporate decision took away customer service I have counted on for as many years as Max has operated in College Station. Depot here does not automatically earn my business; the print center there does, with Chris there, as he understands how to create what I need, no matter how ineptly I explain it.

And as of today, the doors are shuttered. At first they were planning to stay open until December 27, but I’ll bet the same executive team decided they didn’t want to bear holiday pay for the 25th. At least that’s the way it appears to this heartbroken, slightly bitter customer.

With Saturday, December 16, their targeted final day, clearance prices moved from 25-50-75-90% by Thursday, December 14. I went in on Thursday, and there were teams of contract people knocking down displays to transport them who knows where. Only a few display printers were left, which no one would risk buying because they carried no warranty and you know better than to buy one where Little Precious and Chip off the block Jr. have pushed the buttons nonstop when mom or dad were busy perusing the myriad of choices.

All that was left by then anyway were some great deals on a surplus of notebooks and binders and a tray of pen refills for pens I didn’t own. I went ahead and bought up many binders, intending to donate them. I wasn’t happy to see the yellow caution tape around areas where nothing was left. It felt like a crime scene with police tape marking the sections where the public was no longer allowed.

I’m almost ready to drive the 60 miles to Staples in Temple from now on to shop, because their prices aren’t as high as Depot’s are (file boxes for $13.99 vs. $35.59. My rewards account (Depot/Max) says I’m a VIP member but I was happier with my Max Perks.

I moved from Pilot Razor Points to their Roller Balls, the V rollers, the Dr. Grip’s, the Pentel Energel roller balls, and the Uni-ball 207s Micropoints. I had them all and in many colors. Don’t have a Sharpie in color? Call me, I can hook you up. Sharpies are very important. You know this.

I’d waste, er, spend, fifteen minutes staring at the pen wall in Max. Depot didn’t have that. Other times, I lived wild and bought a multipak for $6.99, in the days when I was living wildly. Pretty big risk for $6.99. Just saying. If ever I didn’t like the pens, I’d donate them to those who needed or wanted spare supplies.

Max sold refills to Keurig coffeemakers for their customers. I haven’t been in Depot recently to say whether or not they sell them too, but I don’t care. Depot has those godawful fluorescent lights in their store. Max had better lighting, better ceilings, and most of all, plenty of floor space for you to feel like you weren’t squeezed into a sardine can.

The computers on shelves at Depot are fine, but the ones that were on the custom display counters in Max made me actually think about buying one. Product selection was more expansive at Max. Depot has Depot brands, other names (Foray) that are Depot brands and Blue Sky (from China, the same brand I can get at Walgreen’s more affordably). Max had better legal pad selections.

For some reason Energizer battery selections became obscured and in Max and all you saw were Duracells, while some Energizers were still sold at Depot. That’s the only item I can think of where I’d go to Depot…the dadgum Energizer batteries. No disrespect to the cute pink bunny but the Energizers lasted longer, period.

I should be ashamed that I’ve gone on this long about an office supply store, but it was a pleasant opportunity for a writer to shop for essential supplies and beautiful presentation accoutrements that stepped up my game, I was told. When Depot “merged” with Max, I knew then that this day would ultimately arrive. I was just hoping against hope that it wouldn’t be for a far longer time.

RIP Office Max, and thank you to all the staff at the store formerly on Texas Avenue, for every professional courtesy and kindness you shared with our community. You will be remembered.

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