Help Wanted: Finding employees with integrity and passion is a challenge

By Melanie C. Thomas

Have you ever noticed how many antiques businesses wind up as family affairs? Is it because we’re paranoid about protecting our sources and clientele? Or is it something else, a nut so hard to crack that we’re unwilling to let anyone but family into our inner circle of antiquedom?

Jay and I are the typical “mom and pop” shop, but with another heavy tourist season fast approaching, we are toying around yet again with becoming employers. I say this because our last few forays in this role were abysmal.

Take, for instance, the adjunct professor we hired who taught American history at the local college. He knew all about the Civil War and, better yet, was an avid antique gun collector. He was begging us for a part-time job.

During the initial weeks, the “Professor” went gangbusters. He showed up on time, swept

Arsenal of the Alleghenys, in Gettysburg, Pa., is the place where the Professor, Millenium and the Waiter (you'll meet them in this column) made a lasting impression on owners Jay and Melanie Thomas.

Arsenal of the Alleghenys, in Gettysburg, Pa., is the place where the Professor, Millenium and the Waiter (you’ll meet them in this column) made a lasting impression on owners Jay and Melanie Thomas.

off the steps, wiped fingerprints off the display cases, you name it. He could talk the talk and walk the walk around firearms. His students visited often, which at first seemed like a good thing. We had hopes the Professor would turn these groupies into collectors, but most of them were just angling for a better grade.

After a few weeks, we noticed the Professor hadn’t sold anything of real substance, not a single weapon, military accoutrement or piece of jewelry. We needed to determine the cause, and after a few short hours, we figured it out.

Before I go on, let me stress here that the Professor’s poor salesmanship skills wasn’t due to a lack of training on our part. We know that trained employees are engaged employees, which makes for engaged customers who ultimately buy things. (Wayne Jordan wrote an excellent column about this not too long ago.)

All of the Professor’s training went out the window, however, the minute he had a “classroom,” or in our case, a potential customer. He enjoyed lecturing and after 30 years of teaching, lecturing put him right back into his comfort zone.

So while the Professor was educating and engaging, he failed to convert these “students” into paying customers. We needed to review with him how to close the sale.

That’s when things went awry. Even though the Professor was paid a base salary plus sales commission, we were shocked to discover the compensatory aspect of the job didn’t matter to him. He just wanted to be around lots of antique weapons.

We patiently explained that while his expertise was appreciated and necessary, we needed sales to keep our doors open, so his ultimate goal was to sell artifacts, not talk about them.

He didn’t care. From that day forward, the Professor’s attitude took a nosedive. He showed up late, “forgot” to clean off the display cases and even missed a few days with little-to-no explanation.

But he helped us get through tourist season, so Jay and I decided to take a few well-deserved days off. The Professor had been with us several months by this time, and we knew he could handle himself, although we didn’t expect stellar sales receipts. After verifying his availability to work, we booked non-refundable tickets to San Antonio.

On our second day away, we had just been seated at a lovely restaurant on San Antonio’s famous Riverwalk. We were hot and we were hungry. The aroma of Texmex food wafted through the air making our mouths water.

Then my cell phone rang.

It was the Professor. He wouldn’t be opening the store that day, or the next two days for that matter, because his wife wanted some “family time” with him and their grandchildren.

“But,” I responded, “if you don’t open, the store will be closed for five days.” He said he couldn’t help it, his wife insisted.

Remember when I mentioned he begged us for a part-time job? The Professor was actually trying to escape his wife and her “family time” junkets. She wanted him home more often than he cared to be.

When we returned, we left a message for the Professor to pick up his final paycheck and return the store’s keys. He did neither. We wound up deleting his access code from the alarm system and changing the locks.

Editor’s Recommendation: Military history and collectibles references
There’s no question about the intrigue associated with Civil War artifacts and memorabilia, but how much do you know about the items columnist Melanie C. Thomas  and her husband, Jay, offer at Arsenal of the Alleghenys?
At our online store you’ll find an entire selection of references about militaria, including:

  • Warman’s Civil War Collectibles, 2nd Ed. CD
  • Life In Civil War America (Your choice book or digital download format)

Check out these and more militaria references at !

What we learned from the Professor really surprised us. His lackadaisical concern about his lagging sales made us realize his motivational factors were far different from ours. He didn’t care if our monthly profit and loss statement showed black or bled red.I filed that nugget of information away.Our next attempt as employers came with a young woman who had just graduated with a Master degree in American Studies. She wrote her thesis on mourning jewelry from the Civil War and did an internship at a large auction house, photographing inventory for their catalog and website. Because of her age, I’ll call her “Millennium.”Millennium was poised, attractive and knew her way around jewelry. Because she knew nothing about antique weapons, we tweaked Millennium’s job description to include website maintenance, hoping to slowly ease her transition into retail sales.Again, things started out smoothly. Millennium took clear and concise pictures for the website and showed an active interest in all the merchandise, including the weapons.An unanticipated plus from hiring Millennium was the reaction from our male clientele who enjoyed chatting with a tall, attractive, 20-something while supposedly checking out the guns. We all know what — or shall I say who — they were really checking out.Our first clue that something was amiss came when I noticed the website hadn’t been updated in several days. I always gave Millennium a list of items to be added or deleted, so this was cause for concern. Then our tenant pulled me aside and asked if we’d changed our store’s hours.“No,” I said with a sinking feeling. Millennium seemed to think we had, since she’d been opening late — really late. I pulled our security alarm’s database and sure enough, instead of punching in her code at 10:00, the times were erratic and closer to 10:30, sometimes even 11:00.This called for a chat. So as usual, I left Millennium a list of items for the website with a note that I’d be in around 3:00.At 1:30, I discovered Millennium surfing eBay. The list of website updates sat untouched. When I asked her what she was doing, her response took my breath away.“You can’t tell me what to do,” she snarled. Then she stood up and demanded a raise! After only nine weeks of employment and dare I say it, almost no sales, this chit of a girl was giving me attitude and demanding more money.I responded that yes, I actually could tell her what to do because I signed her paychecks. She grabbed her purse and stomped out, shouting an obscenity while slamming the door. We never saw her again.Another alarm code was deactivated.New employees can sometimes have an overinflated view of their value to a small business’ bottom line. So another nugget was filed away.After this debacle, we decided to suck it up and work 60 to 70 hours each week throughout tourist season, only to collapse and recoup during the winter.That was two years ago. Time marches on and keeping our store open six days a week, 10 hours a day gets old and makes me older. At the end of last tourist season, and knowing the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg loomed before us, we knew we had to attempt the employer/employee relationship one more time.Based on our previous results and knowing the definition of insanity, we thought we would go outside the proverbial box for this next search.What if we hired someone with absolutely no sales, historical, antiques or website experience? What if we tried to find a reliable adult, someone with good customer service skills? Perhaps a jobless baby boomer caught up in this endless recession or a stay-at-home mom who needed a few hours away from the kids and a few extra bucks in her wallet?We were discussing our conundrum while dining at one of our favorite restaurants, where the food is excellent and the service superb. Our “regular” waiter was tending to us, someone we’d known since discovering the place five or six years ago.The “aha” moment struck Jay and I at the same time. Feeling our way slowly, we asked the waiter how many hours he worked each week. We then asked him if he could use some extra wages. Taken aback, he responded yes, he’d been thinking of finding a way to supplement his income.We struck like lightening, setting a date for him to visit the store so he could learn more about us and our business.A few days later, the “Waiter” arrived more curious than anything else. He asked intelligent questions and dare I hope, seemed excited. After assessing his skills, we determined he would work only in the front of the store.Although an expert at sweeping and cleaning glass, Waiter was literally a blank slate regarding Civil War artifacts and jewelry. But we knew this going in. Claiming he wanted to learn, he proved this by taking home reference books for further reading, off the clock.Waiter took an active interest in the merchandise and was attentive to the customers. Within a couple of weeks, he knew how a percussion rifle worked and could explain the difference between gold plated versus gold filled jewelry.Things went tediously well. We had no idea how much work went into training a blank slate. Even the simplest things could not be taken for granted. For instance, I thought everyone knew the difference between a revolver and single shot pistol, but apparently not.Six weeks into this no-end-in-sight learning curve, the phone call came.Waiter was really sorry, but he just couldn’t see himself learning enough to ever be passionate about Civil War collectibles. His resignation was clean and simple, just like he was.Three strikes and we were out.Because all those “nuggets” of information were beginning to weigh down my pocket, I retreated to my darkened office, determined to get the answer to my original question.What is it about the antiques business that makes for the rare, non-DNA member of the employee team?I think I have the answer.Antiques stores are not “mom and pop” businesses by choice, but by necessity. Because the only ones who really care what color ink is in our checkbooks, understands the value of everyone’s contribution to the bottom line and enjoys a passion for our inventory, is us.

 About our columnist: Melanie C. Thomas has 20 years experience researching, buying and selling military memorabilia. She and her husband run Arsenal of the Alleghenys, a Civil War artifact shop in Gettysburg, Pa. Learn more at, 717-334-1122 or