When I was in college, I worked for Payless ShoeSource.

Payless wasn’t my first job — that was a comic book shop — and as jobs went, it was fine. I had just moved to Lynchburg, Virginia. I was at the mall one day, saw Payless was having a job fair because they were opening a new store, and got hired on to open the store, along with about thirty other people for a couple of days to unload the truck and set up the store.

I guess I did okay, because I was asked to stay.

Over time I went from part-time to assistant manager, and from assistant manager to store manager. Then, in a gap year in college (I was a professional student) I carved out a kind of “traveling troubleshooter” role, and I spent two or three days a week helping solve problems in other stores in Virginia. I traveled a lot that year, and I enjoyed it.

I had good times with Payless. I had some bad times, too, like when I caught my thumbnail on the edge of a box one night while straightening the shelves and tore it right off the nailbed. (It’s never grown back correctly since.)

And there were fun times, like when the company sent pre-stamped envelopes and sample letters so every employee could write their Congressman and ask them for vote for a bill extending China’s Most Favored Nation trading status since Payless’ stock was manufactured in Chinese factories. I took the sample letter and pitched it, I took the pre-stamped enveloped, and I wrote a letter to my Congressman asking him to vote against extending China’s Most Favored Nation trading statues. I wasn’t even shy with my coworkers about what I’d done. China didn’t deserve super-favorable trading terms, not after Tiananmen Square.

But, all things come to an end, and in retrospect I realize I stayed at Payless longer than I should have, as I was discontented with the job my last year. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy working for the company, as I did, but my sense of rewards and satisfaction from the job diminished greatly.

My dad worked for Payless a couple of times on a part-time basis. So did (and does) my sister. It was easy money.

Payless is closing up shop. They went through one bankruptcy last year, they’re about to file for a second, and this time the vulture capitalists are going to liquidate the stores and close it up, shuttering all 2,300 stores.

I hadn’t been in a Payless store in a while, so yesterday evening I went to a store here in York, one on Market Street near Giant and Lowe’s. Partly, I needed a new pair of shoes for work; I have a terrible habit of wearing my soles out. But, mainly, I think I wanted to take one last look at the place before the liquidation madness set in.

See, I remember when Payless bought Picway Shoes in the mid-90s, liquidation the Picways, and converted them rather quickly into Payless stores. What I remember of the Picway liquidation was how junky the Picway in Lynchburg became. The shelves weren’t straightened, there was no order to the racks. There was a sense of not caring, because it was all going to be over soon.

The Payless on Market Street was nice. I wasn’t sure it was open at first — the outdoor signage was turned off, there were no posters on the windows, nor were there posters on the walls. Even when I walked up to the door and put my hands on the handle, I wasn’t convinced that the door would open.

There was only one person in the store. She was on the phone, shelving shoes from one of the carts I remember from my halcyon days. When she got off the phone, she asked if I needed any help, though I really didn’t; I’d found a style of shoe that I liked, but I needed a larger size, which I eventually found.

I sat on one of the benches and looked at another bench, thinking about what a pain it was to replace the mirrors on the benches. Believe me, I did that a number of times. Then I picked up the foot measuring device, turned it over in my hands. It was a fancy one, metal with all sorts of sliding things. Back in my day, we used wooden measurers.

She asked me if I needed anything, and I told her I didn’t. Indulging in a little bit of nostalgia, I said, as I’d worked for the company long ages past, in a time when Ents walked the Earth and the One Ring was thought lost forever. In other words, I left Payless twenty years ago.

“At least you got out,” she said. There was a touch of resignation there.

I looked at the kids shoes, then down the central aisle of women’s shoes, before I went to the counter.

“Socks!” I said. “Do you have socks?” Like a moron, I had walked past them. The men’s socks were down the aisle of men’s shoes.

I picked up some dress socks and went back to the counter. “Here, this will help your UPTs,” I said, maybe a little too exuberantly. (“UPT” means “units per transaction.” That was something that was tracked twenty years back.)

“Thanks,” she said. “Doesn’t really matter now, I guess.”

“Oh,” I said. “I suppose it doesn’t.”

A silent pause lingered.

“Your store looks really good,” I said. Then, “I’m sorry.”

“Thanks,” she said. “I try. I’m here all the time.”

I nodded. I felt like I’d dug myself a hole, then kept digging, even though I was trying to say good things, offer some praise. But what good can one say, when the person you’re saying it to has an uncertain future ahead?

She rang up the shoes and the socks. I left.

Payless hasn’t been my company for twenty years, and I won’t really mourn it when it’s gone. Yet, I feel a twinge of sadness that it’s closing up shop. For a time in my life, Payless loomed large, and while the stores I worked at in my career have all closed, soon the company itself will be no more, and that’s worth feeling sad about.

Header photo “Payless ShoeSource” by JJBers, licensed Creative Commons BY 2.0

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