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Working at Jo-Ann's: Real-World Graduate School

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Headlined to H4 4/5/14

Conventional--mainstream--traditional wisdom argues that the personal perspective of a writer has no place in a news story. But in a world where we've been down so long it looks like up to me--in a world ruled by people who wield concepts like sabers, I must tell the truth and shame the devil.

When I fled academia because I finally had to admit that my willing embrace of a fantasy paid my mortgage and guaranteed that students who had studied with me would be working minimum-wage jobs after graduation as they searched for stardom--I'd been a theatre professor, after all--when I woke up with a grand hangover after over twenty years teaching acting, I was still addicted to life as myth. I still thought that my belief in a fanciful reality could make it real both to myself and to others with  whom I spoke. In other words, leaving academics had not completely cured me of my taste for imaginary versions of reality.

A case in point: who else but a theatre professor would imagine that she could have a good time working as a sales clerk for Jo-Ann Fabrics? But that is exactly what I convinced myself I could do. In retrospect, I now think of my year at Jo-Ann's as real-world research. What I saw and was required to do at this store also feels like a 21st-century form of penance. Sheltered within a university's walls, I had no real understanding of what sales clerks across our country must cope with every single day. At Jo-Ann's I experienced first-hand what students holding undergraduate degrees, in a field that offers no paying jobs, will encounter when they accept retail jobs to pay off their college loans. I think of my year with this company as a sobering graduate-school experience in which I came to better understand how many, many people in our country are forced to spend their working hours.

In March of 2013, wearing my friendliest smile, I walked into the local Jo-Ann Fabrics store, identified the most mature, knowledgeable-looking woman on the sales floor, and asked if she would take a look at the samples of sewn, knitted and embroidered pieces I'd brought in for her to see. 

My home-made needlepoint pillow
(image by Sandra Lindberg)

Though she seemed the most likely candidate for store manager, and though she admired the tailored jacket, knitted pullover, and needlepoint pillow (the one pictured is from a kit created by Ehrman Tapestry: I'd brought in to demonstrate my handiwork skills, she told me two things that--if I'd really been listening--I would have considered very deeply. One, she was not the store manager. The twenty-one-year-old who looked frazzled and uncertain was, as the older woman termed it, "manager of the day." MOD, they call them at Jo-Ann's. And two, applications for sales positions are not filled out in the store; they are filled out on line using the Jo-Ann Corporate website. I thanked this friendly woman who had steered me right, and then went home to apply for a sales position at Jo-Ann's using their on-line site. I should have been paying attention to the corporate philosophy inherent in these details.

You see, when I was twenty-one I'd worked for a fabric store and really enjoyed the experience. Now at loose ends, and needing a little extra income before my retirement kicked in, I thought I'd employ my crafting skills by working part-time at a fabric store in 2014.

I had no idea how much working retail had changed. But, because the store manager did hire me, I spent the next twelve months learning exactly how selling fabric to American women had embraced the most ruthless of corporate strategies. What I experienced was a huge departure from business practices of 1978.

So What's Jo-Ann Fabrics?

According to Yahoo Finance, "Jo-Ann Stores has the fabric-store market all sewn up. It's the #1 fabric retailer (ahead of Hancock Fabrics) nationwide, operating more than 800 stores in 49 states. The company sells a variety of fabrics and sewing supplies, craft materials, frames, home decorations, artificial floral items, and seasonal goods. Most of its small-format stores (averaging 15,000 sq. ft.) are located in strip-mall shopping centers and operate under the Jo-Ann Fabrics and Craft name. The company also operates large-format Jo-Ann superstores (36,000 sq. ft. on average) and an e-commerce site, The company is owned by acquisitive private-equity firm Leonard Green & Partners."

I'll return later to the connection between Jo-Ann Fabrics and Leonard Green & Partners.

Hoover's company profile of this corporation notes that Jo-Ann Stores is rated #202 out of 224 on the Forbes list of privately held companies in the U.S.

Gale Directory of Company Histories reports that Jo-Ann Stores sold more than $2 billion in recent years. Its nearest competitor sells only half as much merchandise, and owns less than half the number of stores of Jo-Ann's empire. .

Sounds like a pretty profitable business. You'd think that would be reflected in the way it treated its employees, its customers, and how it maintained its facilities. Unfortunately, all that profit seems to be going to top-management salaries and to the relentless pace of expansion the corporation demands of itself. With over 800 stores in 48 states now, Jo-Ann is still expanding.

Who runs this fabric and craft empire?

The first store in this chain's history was founded by two immigrant German families, the Rohrbachs and the Reichs. A cool bit of history that the current corporation does not mention in its promotions literature has to do with how women ran, and provided continuity, to the earliest version of this company when the company's founder, Berthold Rohrbach, died in 1943, the same year he and the Reichs founded the company,

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Sandra holds a B.S. in theatre, and an M.A. in theatre criticism from Illinois State University. Her M.F.A. is from the Professional Actor Training Program at the Old Globe Theatre--University of San Diego. She also recently completed a Paralegal (more...)
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Share your retail employment stories here. Let us ... by Sandra Lindberg on Saturday, Apr 5, 2014 at 10:54:00 AM
I write not because I want to describe how thing... by Sandra Lindberg on Saturday, Apr 5, 2014 at 11:47:08 AM
Ah, but if the world were only fair to one and all... by Doc McCoy on Sunday, Apr 6, 2014 at 1:42:11 AM
I'm afraid the assumptions you make about my backg... by Sandra Lindberg on Sunday, Apr 6, 2014 at 8:16:28 AM
For several years now I have refused to shop at J... by KenH on Sunday, Apr 6, 2014 at 11:50:04 AM
Thank you so much for sharing this story. I am ve... by Sandra Lindberg on Sunday, Apr 6, 2014 at 12:36:23 PM
My analysis, after reading your links, (which inci... by Doc McCoy on Sunday, Apr 6, 2014 at 8:06:26 PM
You can cry that it isn't fair - or even ethica... by Sandra Lindberg on Sunday, Apr 6, 2014 at 9:40:58 PM
Initially, my business experience comes from both ... by Doc McCoy on Sunday, Apr 6, 2014 at 11:07:05 PM
Continued....Developing countries will have skille... by Doc McCoy on Monday, Apr 7, 2014 at 12:17:20 AM
Thank you for providing the additional details ab... by Sandra Lindberg on Monday, Apr 7, 2014 at 6:57:56 AM
It is called competition.  Life is competitiv... by Doc McCoy on Sunday, Apr 6, 2014 at 8:17:01 PM
Thank you for an insightful look into the working... by frang on Monday, Apr 7, 2014 at 10:43:17 AM
Thank you for your reply. I do know this series o... by Sandra Lindberg on Monday, Apr 7, 2014 at 12:33:08 PM
I have read the articles and find that they paint ... by Doc McCoy on Tuesday, Apr 8, 2014 at 1:26:17 AM
Thank you for your very thorough reply to a varie... by Sandra Lindberg on Tuesday, Apr 8, 2014 at 7:29:14 AM
To conclude: Again, our conversation here is n... by Sandra Lindberg on Tuesday, Apr 8, 2014 at 7:29:39 AM