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Ups and downs of working with “The Man”

The Buck Stops Here columnist Melanie Thomas shares an entertaining account of what running a tight-quarters business with your spouse is like, along with providing hints for survival.

By Melanie Thomas

People often ask me (and by “people” I mean mostly women) what it’s like to work side by side with my husband day in and day out.

My answer is, “We don’t.” If we did, one of us would be in jail and the other one in the hospital bleeding out from stab wounds. It’s just not feasible, at least not for two alpha personalities like us. Confined spaces are not conducive to a long-term relationship.

Don’t’ get me wrong. I know many husband-and-wife teams who have made a success of 24/7 togetherness, and I applaud them. But for us, it’s not happening.

So how do we make it work? By clearly defining our areas of expertise and responsibilities and not second-guessing our partner. For instance, Jay buys all the

Arsenal of the Alleghenys, the Gettysburg-based business Melanie Thomas runs with her husband, Jay.

Arsenal of the Alleghenys, the Gettysburg-based business Melanie Thomas runs with her husband, Jay.

firearms. I don’t consider myself expert enough to pull the trigger (no pun intended) on spending that amount of money. I do, however, purchase sabers, bayonets and other accoutrements. So when we attend a show to buy inventory, we split up and work the room from opposite sides. If I see something, I let Jay know and if Jay spots a jewelry dealer, he does the same for me.

We rarely work in the store together. If we did, things could get nasty. The few exceptions to this are the 4th of July Reenactment and Remembrance Day weekend in November, which commemorates Lincoln’s delivery of the Gettysburg Address. We are fortunate to have friends who volunteer to help handle the onslaught of tourists, but they don’t fool me. Their real goal is to keep both of us alive and wound-free.
The retail side of our store is only 650 square feet, but we take utmost advantage of the tall ceilings and wall space, lining them with racks of firearms and swords. The office and storage area comprise another 300 feet, where desks, safes and other necessities are housed. Imagine the closeness factor. Because the shop is so small, our front desk/cashier area accommodates only one worker at a time, leaving no room for anyone else except a paying customer.

Because 80 percent of our profits stem from the sale of weapons, I make myself useful by handling the bookkeeping, although in a previous column I admitted I never balance the checkbook. (I still don’t.) I maintain the website (the bane of my existence), make the marketing and advertising decisions, email photographs of new inventory to our “special” clients, plus sell vintage and antique jewelry, contributing the final 20 percent to our bottom line.

Let’s get back on point. How do we make the business relationship work? The trick is to never, and I mean never, question each other’s decisions in the delineated area of responsibility. Bouncing ideas off each other is one thing. Questioning the spouse’s decision is a road straight to Hades.

About 10 years ago, we had a conversation similar to this one, when I decided to spend hundreds of dollars (okay, it was more than $3,000, but why count pennies?) on our website, which was a dinosaur.

“We need to update and revamp our website,” I said.
“Why?” Jay replied.
“Because it’s old and clunky.”

Jay is not and never will be a computer person. To put this in perspective, he bought his first smart phone about three months ago and will read his emails, but refuses to learn how to respond. Apparently, that falls under my area of expertise.

Continuing the conversation about the website, Jay then asks, “How much will it cost?” He now has that leery look in his eye because I rarely consult him on purchases below $2,000.
“About $3,000, give or take,” I said, waiting for the bomb to go off. It did.

“$3,000? Why so much? Why do we have to do this? That’s a waste of money!” Jay fumed and stomped around, but I was adamant.

This article originally appeared in Antique Trader magazine
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The rest of the conversation escalated into a yelling match ending with the two of us not speaking for the rest of the day. Turns out I was right, of course, because our Internet sales quadrupled less than two months after the new site launched.

Another time I bought a large vintage jewelry collection just to acquire three striking pieces. Yes, the collection was a lot of money but the owner refused to divvy it up, knowing she’d be stuck with several items after all the cherry picking. Jay, never one to mince words, informed me, “You made a big mistake with this one,” he said. “You’ll never sell it all.”

“Look at those three pieces. I’ll sell those right away and make our money back,” I argued.

“Right. Uh-huh.”

This comment started a diatribe much too ugly to print here. But the most irritating part is Jay was right. I was stuck with pieces I couldn’t sell and wound up using them as charitable donations and tax deductions.

About three years ago, just before Gettysburg’s 150th Anniversary, we were asked to provide a description of what we sold and our hours of operation for a special advertising brochure.
I asked Jay, “What time are we going to open during Anniversary week?”
He says, “I don’t know. What time do you think?”
“How about 9:00?”
“Nine o’clock! That’s too early!”
“Then what time do you want?” I ask again.
“I don’t know. You decide.”
“I just did,” I huffed back.

Our part-timer listened closely to this exchange, in a desperate attempt to determine who held the real power in this business partnership. He never figured it out. But he did know he was responsible for opening the store.

“Okay then, 9:00 it is.” I looked at our employee and he nodded.
Jay exploded. “Fine, open at 9:00, but I won’t be here until 10:00.”
I frostily told him, “I don’t expect you any earlier than usual.”

Familiar with this tone, Jay realized discretion was the better part of valor and he retreated to the front desk.

This system of divide and conquer also works because of a major difference in our personalities. Though we’re both strong alpha types, Jay is much more extroverted than I am. He gets his energy from being around people and comes home upbeat and chipper when he’s had a busy day. I, on the other hand, am extremely introverted. After a hectic day, I look and feel like I’ve been rode hard and put up wet. People drain the life out of me to the point I’m incapable of doing anything productive for the rest of the evening. When Jay asks what’s for dinner, as he always does, my pat response is, “reservations.”

Probably the most challenging part of being married to my business partner, especially one who loves what he does, is getting him to turn it off. Because our store is also my husband’s mistress (please note, I am not complaining here), dinner conversation revolves around what I call “store-speak.” And sometimes “store speak” gets old, like on our wedding anniversary, out to dinner with friends or on a rare vacation. And as all self-employed antique traders know, we never embark on a true vacation. Every antique store in every city of every nation we’ve ever visited has either seen our noses plastered to their plate glass windows or our shadows darkening their doorways, looking for that once-in-a-lifetime find.

Overall, though, it’s a good gig working and living with the same partner. On days when I’ve a looming writing deadline or want to be the first one at my favorite shoe store’s sale, I go. And after 23 years of marriage, 22 of them with a shop, there’s not much I can’t get away with. Besides, I’m prettier than my husband’s mistress!