High Value, Chapter 10: Brendon Klein

HV ch 10

It was a quiet day at the grocery store. Brendon Klein had just finished sorting through the fruit in his pathetically small produce section, throwing away that which was irredeemably beyond its shelf life and doing his best to polish up the rest. It was depressing work. If you stood back far enough and squinted at the display, what remained didn’t look too bad.

Produce thrown in the trash cut into his meager profit margins and, subsequently, he felt each discarded grape as a personal loss. No, he didn’t just feel that way—it was a personal loss. He might have inherited the grocery store from his father, who had inherited it from his father, but that didn’t make Klein immune from the difficulties of being a grocer in a small town. And there were many difficulties.

His peripheral vision caught a drop of water falling from the ceiling. He looked up and tried to discern if it was the roof leaking again or something dripping off the ancient heating and cooling system. When that investigation proved futile, he looked down and saw a puddle of water seeping into one of the many cracks in the stone floor. With that amount of leakage, it was definitely the roof. He’d climb up there later and see if he could patch it up—again.

As with so many things at the store, the roof needed to be replaced, but with what money? The corporate grocery chains had extremely small margins. They survived by buying and selling at volume, which allowed them to squeeze their supply chains, shorting all the small-time producers and regional wholesalers. That was their model, but not Klein’s. He had extremely small margins, too, but he survived by cutting costs and working twelve- to sixteen-hour days. He hadn’t taken a vacation in years and, sometimes, it felt like he lived at the store.

Klein’s Family Grocery was tiny. He didn’t benefit from the purchasing power that a corporate scale provided, but he still needed to have competitive prices. Already, far too many families in town did “grocery runs” to the nearby regional center, a once-a-month (or more) trip to stock up at the big box store. It hurt, but it was hard to begrudge them.

After years of struggle, Klein had finally paid his father the modest sum he promised him as part of the ownership transition and was now in position to start investing in the store. It was the family’s business, but it was now his store. Klein was planning to start by replacing the produce display, although he was tempted to buy a digital sign just to stick it to that uppity busybody, Nancy Hjerne. Who was she to move here and tell them all what to do? Chippewa Lakes didn’t need more failed, big city ideas being tried on their small town. If Hjerne liked her urban jungle ways so much, she should move back there.

Klein passed by the dairy cooler and through the swinging doors to the receiving area. It was small—hardly enough to turn a pallet around—but so was the grocery store. Every option to get more space in receiving meant a sacrifice of floor space, which meant a sacrifice in sales because floor space was where a grocer moved inventory. Yet, his suppliers were driving bigger and bigger trucks, using ever larger pallet jacks, and they complained incessantly about the small space at Klein’s.

Sigh. It was a constant struggle.

At least the new florist in the retail space seemed to be working out. Carving that outward-facing space a couple decades ago was his dad’s idea, but it hadn’t always been a complement to the grocery. The space sat vacant a lot of the time, an eyesore reminder of decline. But now, a young couple from down south—Texas? Arizona? Heck, it could be Mexico; he hadn’t checked their papers. They had opened a floral shop and were making a legitimate go of it. Mateo Rodriguez and his wife, Gloria, seemed enthusiastic to run their own businesses, even if it was modest. Most important for Klein, they paid their rent on time and their shop attracted a good clientele.

Maybe he’d look into stocking some more Hispanic items. Just, not too many.

On the far side of receiving was the bathroom, a scary space with decades of grime and a lingering stink that no solvent could remove. Next to it was his windowless office, a concrete box where he retreated when things slowed down. That’s where Klein headed then, to do some paperwork and get ready for the afternoon’s deliveries.

Klein shut the door, sat down, and booted up his computer. He wasn’t into dirty websites or anything like that, but he still liked his privacy when he browsed online. He didn’t much care for Twitter, and he didn’t get the snap chats and instergram stuff, but he liked Facebook a lot. He was involved in discussions in several groups on the platform, including a couple political conspiracy forums he didn’t want his employees to know about.

He logged in and refreshed his feed. The first post Facebook fed him was the only one he would read that day. One didn’t need a sophisticated algorithm to discern that this particular post would be of great interest to Klein. All that was needed was the title: “Chippewa Lakes is getting a High Value!!!!!”

Klein barely took a breath over the next twenty minutes as he scrolled through the comments responding to the post. His hands went cold and clammy, yet sweat poured off his bald head and down his sore back. People he knew—people he thought were friends, or at least friendly—were celebrating a new grocery store coming to town. Many people he didn’t know joined in. They were celebrating the inevitable end of his family business. They were trashing him and his family. They were cheering for his demise.

“Klein’s is a dive—so ghetto. High Value can’t open soon enough,” someone wrote. “Yeah, de-kleins is the worst,” wrote another in, what Klein admitted, was a clever and sadly accurate play on words. “It’s about time Chippewa gets into the 21st century,” wrote a third. The consensus on Facebook seemed to embrace the idea that a new High Value signaled something affirming for Chippewa Lakes, and that the closing of Klein’s Family Grocery was imminent.

“Brendon is going to flip out.” That was accurate. As he read the comments, he got more and more worked up. It appeared there was a planning commission meeting in a few days where a new High Value was going to be discussed. Klein picked up his phone and called one of his best friends.

“Brendon. Hey, I was just going to call you,” came Rob Freehet’s voice from the other end of the line. They were best friends, but Klein doubted that Freehet was just about to call him.

“Rob. Man! What is going on? Are you guys putting me out of business?” Klein replied. Beyond the gruff tone of his voice, which actually wasn’t uncommon for Klein, there was no way for Freehet to know that Klein’s hands were shaking, his face and bald head flushed red with anger. 

“I don’t know. I mean…no. I’m not sure, Brendon. I just got the packet and I don’t know what is going on,” said Freehet. (In reality, he had received his packet from Justin Stark’s office two days prior. He read it the following morning over coffee while killing time in the office. He knew he needed to talk to his friend about it, but he had been avoiding the call.)

“This is going to ruin me, Rob. You need to do something. This can’t happen.” Klein clenched his hand into a fist and brought it down sharply to his side.

 “Don’t worry. They have a bunch of hoops they need to jump through and I don’t think they can. I just skimmed over Justin’s report before you called, and they need two variances, but they have no hardship.”

“Stark? He’s recommending denial?” That was good news, Klein thought. He inhaled deeply, his body’s reflexive response after many moments of tense, shallow breathing. 

“Yes,” Freehet said, though he knew it wasn’t that clear. “Look, Brendon, they’re proposing a new big box store on the Anderson property. Nancy and Ashley fought to prohibit this kind of store in the comp plan.”

Klein grunted into the phone. He’d fought against that plan—more anti-business, big government bureaucracy, in his opinion. He didn’t like Hjerne or Bare, either. They were liberal do-gooders: public employees who thought they knew more about running his business than he did. His instincts told him he was under siege. 

(Of course, he lacked the reflection to realize that the comp plan he opposed might be the one thing to save his store.)

Freehet continued. “If the two of them vote against it, the variances can’t be approved. We need four of the five votes. I’ll vote against it, so we really only need one of them. This isn’t going to happen, Brendon. Don’t worry.”

Klein was worried, though. Rob Freehet may have been his friend since grade school, but Klein knew better than to count on him in a situation like this, especially with the family grocery store on the line. Freehet may have been good for a laugh, or to share a beer with at a ballgame, but he wasn’t going to be able to deliver other votes on the planning commission.

And they both knew that none of the other planning commissioners were fans of Brendon Klein.

Read more High Value chapters here.

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