When companies disappear

I got a bit of a shock this morning.

If you read this blog regularly, you know that I’ve written a novel and am looking for a publisher for it.  In fact, my friend and fellow author Geralyn Beauchamp (see link to her blog at right) had been advocating me to her publisher, Cold Tree Press, and had sent along my manuscript with all the required accoutrements to them last month.  So I was hoping to hear back from them soon, telling me if they were interested, or what needed to be changed, or at least giving me a new addition to my small collection of rejection letters.

Well, that was the hope until today, when I called Geri and she informed me that Cold Tree Press wouldn’t be printing my novel … or any other novel, including the one Geri was working on for them.  They went out of business earlier this month.  They did it in the classiest manner possible – they didn’t file for bankruptcy or torture their creditors or employees.  They made every effort to keep going, and when all avenues were exhausted, they paid their bills, released their writers from their contracts and closed the doors.  I’m disappointed, but I give them credit (this means you, Peter, if’n you’re reading) for how they handled it all.

So the recession rolls on, hitting us from a hundred different directions.

I’ve gone through three recessions in my life – 1974-75, 1980-82 and 1991-92 – but this one is affecting me more than most because I’m older now, am more established and just plain have more stuff.  And when a company goes belly-up (or gets bought out) that I have had dealings with, whose products I own or which is just a fixture of the community, it shakes me up more than a little.

For example, take Chrysler (please).  In case you were living in a jungle in New Guinea until recently, Chrysler Corporation filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last month, after being unable to come to agreement with its creditors on a financial restructuring plan before a federally-mandated deadline, and began temporarily (we hope) shutting down all its plants..  The same day, it announced an alliance with Fiat, the Italian-owned carmaker.  It looks likely that an alliance of Fiat, the United Auto Workers union and the U.S. and Canadian governments will end up buying most of Chrysler’s assets, save for a few plants that Chrysler had already planned to shutter permanently.

Now, I own a seven-year-old Dodge Intrepid (Dodge is a division of Chrysler) with over 110,000 miles on it.  The “Happy Car,” as my kids have named it, is thus getting a little long in the tooth and bits of it are starting to wear out.  I had to replace the transmission a few years back, and have some oil leaks plugged a couple of months ago.  And the cruise control occasionally cuts out (likely a computer problem).  Add to that normal wear-and-tear, and I’ve been figuring that some more parts will just need to be swapped out in the coming years.  But will Chrysler (or its successor) still be making those parts?  I would think so – there are a lot of Intrepids on the road, after all – but with a situation like this, you never know for sure.  (Geri, ironically, is in the same boat – she has a Jeep.  Different nameplate, same company.)

And someday, a time will come when the cost of maintenance for the Happy Car will exceed the cost of getting a new vehicle.  This is the second straight Dodge I’ve owned, and I like them … but will the Dodges made by the new, Fiat-ized Chrysler be as good?  Better?  Worse?  I don’t know, and neither does anyone else.  I prefer to buy cars from American corporations – will Chrysler still qualify as one?  Or will I have to turn elsewhere, to GM … which is facing its own restructuring hassles and may declare bankruptcy as early as next week?  I’ve owned two Fords, both of which were “hoopty” enough that I’ve vowed never to buy a third – will I have to break that vow, or go against my preference to “buy American”?

See all the uncertainty?

Or, to look at another example, there’s SpiralFrog, which was my favorite music download site – it offered free downloads and attempted to make up the difference through selling advertising.  Notice that all those verbs are in the past tense.  That’s right – SpiralFrog went out of business in March, having only made back a quarter of the $12 million invested in it.  Worse yet, its closure caused the deactivation of the licenses that allow you to play the downloads.  Translation: I was stuck with over 200 music files that would no longer play.  So that stunk.

And there are plenty more where that came from:

  • I used to go into Circuit City every few months to pick up a DVD or a memory card for my camera or comparison-shop some piece of electronics.  They don’t exist anymore.
  • The upscale Gottschalk’s department store (a smaller version of Nordstrom or Dillard’s) has been an “anchor” tenant for one of the local malls since before I moved to Stockton in 1987; they’re scheduled to shut down the entire chain in the next few weeks.
  • Another decades-long anchor at the same mall is Macy’s, a corporation which has been laying off thousands and reorganizing like mad.
  • We’re planning to spend my daughter’s eighth birthday at Discovery Kingdom, an amusement park owned by Six Flags.  Six Flags management is considering filing Chapter 11, and their shares have already been delisted by the New York Stock Exchange.  (Just stay open through the July Fourth weekend, guys!  I don’t ask for much …)
  • Washington Mutual Bank was one of Stockton’s largest employers; they flamed out rather spectacularly in the subprime lending collapse, and have now been vacuumed up by Chase Bank.

I could go on and on, but I think we’ve established the premise here.

This is an economy-related stressor that no one talks about – when you have to adjust your lifestyle habits because the companies you relied on for products and services simply go poof.  For that matter, you also have to adjust your expectations for the ones who remain, because if freaking Chrysler can go kaput, what company is safe?  Will Best Buy still be around in December 2012, when their warranty on our television expires?  What about Rite-Aid and Walgreen’s, where my wife gets her prescriptions filled?  Will Dell still be operating when it’s time to buy our next computer (possibly next year)?  Those are just off the top of my head – I could probably come up with two dozen more if I wanted to spend the time.

And in the meantime, I’ve got a novel to peddle, and I’m wondering … should I start checking publishers’ balance sheets before I submit a synopsis?  How do 2009 profit projections look for MacMillan, and Simon & Schuster, and HarperCollins?  I could get obsessive about this if I’m not careful …

It’s times like this when I wonder how atheists hack it.  I mean, if you’re of the honest opinion that no one is running the universal show, nobody up there cares if you fail or succeed, live or die, how do you get up in the morning?  That’s more uncertainty than I’m built to face, I’ll tell you that.  If there is no God, suicide makes sense because, honestly, what’s the point in trudging on through all this mess just to croak at the end anyway?  Slit your wrists and eliminate the middleman!

But I don’t buy that.  I know, beyond any capacity I have to doubt it (and believe me, I have MAD doubting skillz), that the same God who will “never see the righteous forsaken, nor His people begging bread” (Psalm 37) will bring me through all this if I stick with Him.  It doesn’t make me anything special – it just means He’s extra-special.

So – maybe after some venting of the type above – I’ll see what MacMillan’s submission guidelines are.  I’ll keep my eye open for what kind of car I might purchase in 2013 or so, hoping that Fiat doesn’t make the choice any harder.  I’ll buy a CD (or pay for a download) of the Rocket Summer’s Do You Feel.  And I’ll survive.  And in a recession, survival is really the name of the game.

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One Response to When companies disappear

  1. dhelmer says:

    Oh darn…not Six Flags! I like that “dancing old man” in the commercials. (I know, I’m weird…)

    These are weird times, when the giants are falling around us. Perhaps one good thing that might come out of it could be a revival of locally-owned businesses; but the recession will be hard for them, too, of course, and at least some of the Targets and Wal-Marts of the world will surely survive. (No Circuit City means more customers for Best Buy, so maybe Best Buy will still be around for a while…)

    Maybe also we’ll see new companies emerge and find new ways to succeed in changing times. Remember when Microsoft was founded? 1975. Not that I have any love for Microsoft, but they (and there are surely other examples) started out when times were darkest, and found a new technology to exploit. I don’t know if, say, Tesla Motors will ever be as good as its buzz right now…but maybe someday you’ll be driving something by some new company like them, and it will be even better than before. Who knows? Let’s find a little hope that there might be brighter days ahead…

    I’m running off at the keyboard again. You’re right, I need to start a blog of my own… ;)

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