At Work When Your Family Business Isn’t a Family
“It was disingenuous to pretend we were all in this out of love.”
I worked at a shop called Strewn Earth for one summer. (That wasn’t its real name, but it might as well have been.) Strewn Earth was a small health food store, owned and run by the same couple for upwards of thirty-five years. It had the faint off smell of many kinds of funguses happily growing together. Its shelves brimmed with probiotics and sauerkraut and kimchi, dried lentil and chickpea crisps, seventy kinds of tea—including some meant for dogs—and cluttered vitamins and supplements I found impossible to distinguish. In a gloomy blue-lit back office piled with cardboard boxes, a pinboard on the wall featured customer requests for new products: Gluten-free ice cream cones. Salted fava beans. 1kg of Slippery Elm Powder. There was also a list of medical conditions we’d been legally banned from discussing with customers—diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s—a small, sad memorial to false hopes and dubious medical claims.
It had an air of unreality, that shop, and at times it did feel ridiculous. The background music of choice was The Lord of the Rings soundtrack, with a big emphasis on the Shire songs. My friends eyed me with incredulity when I applied for the job, but I was between my last full-time job and the start of my Masters program. I wanted one summer of lazy, low-stress employment, and some good stories to tell. I could pretend to enjoy cacao nibs, for a little while.
As the weeks of that long summer stretched on, I got more and more used to life at Strewn Earth. “You’re an Earthie now,” one of my managers said to me once, smoothing my hair as if I were a small bird that had hopped into the shop (which they undoubtedly would have welcomed). Today, the way I talk about the place—often calculated, I admit, to make people laugh—makes Strewn Earth sound a bit like a cult. The way the managers talked about it made it sound like a family. Actually, though, it was neither: It was a business.
For many, the old mom-and-pop shop elicits the same warmth as a cozy fairy tale. Most people have a story to tell about one, the little neighborhood store that ran for years, a hub of community and a backdrop to the grand settings of everyone’s lives. If the fairy tale takes a nasty twist, it’s usually a huge conglomerate pricing the shop out, a global brand taking over.
In a city famous for treasuring and supporting its small, independent stores, Strewn Earth did its best to hold its own, but it was struggling. On my second day there, I received an email addressed to all staff with the exact figure they’d already lost that year, pleading for everyone to think of ways to make (and save) more money.
The staff at Strewn Earth were a family, it was often repeated. This transparency about money was supposedly part of it: We shared secrets, and so we shared burdens. It was an appealing idea, especially for a management team of middle-class hippies I’d once heard fretting over the ethics of selling ground crickets. What it actually meant, though, was that everyone was made to feel responsible for the success or failure of the business. Staff members who came in with casual contracts and low pay were just as anxious as the owner. And the very idea of looking for another job in a time when the store’s future was uncertain was tantamount to betrayal—I once heard a coworker say, after a teenaged employee left for another retail job, “They might pay better, but I doubt they care like we do.”
People at Strewn Earth weren’t entirely wrong when they talked about the store as if it were a family. Many of them had worked together for decades; they knew each other’s foibles, secrets, histories, crushes. Working there felt like a cross between a family meal—with the requisite mix of in-jokes and blow-ups over dessert—and a high school yearbook staff constantly sifting through photos and memories, holding them up to the light for scrutiny.
We were welcomed with hugs when we came in the door; customers were often ignored if employees were having a sincere conversation. The people who worked there were the heart of the store, we were told, and we looked after each other. After a sick day, I returned to be petted and fretted over, a manager tenderly settling a blanket around my shoulders. When we talked about our days, coworkers would sit rapt. The sheer amount of attention we bestowed upon one another was overwhelming.
Ultimately, though, it was disingenuous to pretend that we were all in this out of love. Mostly we were there to work, and earn money, and then go back to our own lives, our own families, our own problems. The management frequently unloaded their worries onto their employees’ shoulders, then slyly sidestepped away from actually treating staff well. The strange compromises Strewn Earth made when it came to employee welfare took a while to sink in; at first, I thought I didn’t recognize people working on the shop floor because I was new. When I asked about them, I was told the shop employed about eight core staff, most of whom worked almost entirely in the office, and everyone else was on a casual “zero-hour contract.”
That meant the majority of staff—the employees customers met and dealt with on a day-to-day basis—never knew when they were going to be scheduled, or if they would get just one six-hour shift in a month. They had to rely on a manager ringing them the evening before to find out if they were able to work a certain shift (if they were lucky. Calls on the morning of the shift were common). The store used this “casual” arrangement to justify paying minimum wage and denying staff discounts. The rotating staff meant they were never short on the floor—managers didn’t have to worry about a regular employee being sick, because they could simply call in the next casual worker. It was a sort of second-tier “family,” it seemed, less like beloved siblings at a family party and more like distant second cousins roped into helping someone move, then not being invited to Christmas dinner. A friend of mine who eventually left Strewn Earth to work at a local bar told me, “I never knew when they were going to want me to work. I could never make plans. I felt like I was sitting around waiting for a bad boyfriend to call.”
“Casual” staff, of course, also had no sick days or benefits. As an office employee, I was told when I started that I would have sick leave, but it turned out that Strewn Earth’s version of sick leave was to wait until you had been off work for five days, and then—with a doctor’s note—pay for any further sick days after that . It was nice they were willing to stretch for serious illness, but most illness that requires time off work is anything but; you need a day here or there for a bad cold or a migraine or back trouble. When it meant the loss of a day’s wages, there was often no alternative but to come into work anyway, sick and exhausted.
The owner, a soft-spoken man who occasionally hijacked the business’s Twitter account to post pro-Brexit articles, once told me, beaming, that the store did have a “healthcare plan”: selling its own supplements to employees at cost. Then he told me that the government had invented skin cancer in order to sell sunscreen.
When I talk about Strewn Earth now, I am tempted to roll my eyes. I think, Thank god I escaped . In a way, it’s easy to laugh at managers who were moved to tears over a colleague’s tree-planting ceremony.
But I can’t pretend I didn’t see the appeal of the place, too. There was a constant atmosphere of frustration and uncertainty—not to mention the frequently strange supplements and treatments the shop peddled—yet it was enticing to be welcomed into a kind of professional family, a rare feeling today in so many jobs. After counting down the days to my departure, on my last day at the shop, I nearly teared up. I felt suddenly as though I believed everything that they had said, every piece of weird advice, every tender platitude. I knew I would miss them.
A few days later, I found myself considering magnesium supplements. I told a friend that apparently most people were lacking in magnesium; that it was really good for you; that I should probably get a magnesium supplement for myself. My friend just stared at me. “What are you talking about?” she demanded. Slowly, I realized I didn’t know.