Pavane Pour Un Dealer Défunt Page 4

It was a wild roller-coaster ride. When a salesman made an especially lucrative deal, or a final payment came in from a big custom installation, Krebs would dance for joy, like the day James "Domino" Jefferson, star forward for the Xanadu Meteors, came in and paid cash for a home-theater system. Krebs was certain that all of Domino's teammates would follow suit. He made partial payments to all parties threatening legal action. He paid some of his back rent. He got chummy with his employees, forgetting for a moment their "incompetence and working-class values." He even offered to take them to lunch. But for the most part, he treated them with the same contempt he showed everyone in the wholesale side of the business. A salesman might work for weeks building a relationship with a client, only to be told after the deal was signed, "This is now a house account." In fact, most big spenders became house accounts, on which no sales commission was paid. Technicians were told they were being paid half the hourly labor rate, plus a small percentage of parts profits, but their paychecks were often inexplicably short. When questioned, Krebs would throw a tantrum, screaming, "You don't care about this business. You're only here for a paycheck. My ass is on the line. You guys are bleeding me dry. Damn bunch of mercenaries."

Relations between Krebs and his "all-stars" became increasingly strained. Unwilling to let them do what they did best, he interfered with everything they did, whether it was closing a sale, making a house call, or cutting a deal with a supplier. Frustration caused tempers to reach the boiling point on a daily basis. Nasty exchanges took place between Krebs and the bank, Krebs and the landlady, Krebs and the vendors, Krebs and his service department, Krebs and his salespeople, his salespeople and their customers.

One by one his employees disappeared. Nate Kowalski, a veteran technician and McIntosh specialist with a strong following in his own right, left to take a job repairing medical equipment. James Grisham, one of the top salesmen, took a position with a Japanese conglomerate. Sherry Forrester ignored Krebs's outrageous and desperate overtures and gave notice. Will Petitt had become an outspoken enemy. Krebs attempted to blackmail him into quitting with a trumped-up charge that he had sexually harassed the bookkeeper in the warehouse. To this Petitt coolly replied that he would like to see this slander substantiated in court, and reminded him that he still had ten months' salary due via a legally binding contract. He negotiated a sizable settlement when he left. The rats were deserting the ship. As they left, they took with them whatever they deemed their due after months of nonstop abuse. "Shrinkage" reached epidemic proportions in the final months, especially after paychecks started bouncing.

Krebs went to his last CES. He found to his dismay that his reputation had preceded him and virtually no one of any importance (that is, no high-end manufacturer) would give him the time of day. He returned to Xanadu in disgrace, to rebellious employees and resentful customers, to six months' rent due, to unpayable utility bills, to a litany of phone calls from collection attorneys.

The bank announced its intention to call in its loan. He came back ashen-faced from a meeting with its officers. His liquid assets were gone. In a gesture of financial suicide, he had signed over his home. Then his car. They owned him, as the song goes, "lock, stock, and teardrop."

Business continued in a semblance of normalcy for three more months. Everyone, with the exception of Krebs himself, knew the end was near. How near, they could not tell. They prepared for the worst. Résumés were written and distributed, friends and acquaintances in the industry were called. Everyone worked. And waited.

The tragedy is that Krebs really did have a beautiful vision. It might have worked. In the hands of someone else---anyone else---the Xanadu Emporium might be doing a brisk business now. There was so much he didn't know, couldn't grasp, failed to understand. He didn't know that in a provincial city like Xanadu, luxury products must have mass recognition. You can't drive Wilson's WAMM down Xanadu Boulevard; you can't wear a Koetsu to the mall. He couldn't grasp that high-end audio competes not with itself but with other expensive toys: sailboats, sportscars, second homes. Most of all he failed to understand that virtually everyone in the business, whether salesman, technician, designer, or journalist, is in it for love more than money, and that no situation is more loathsome than doing what you love for someone you hate.

It was six weeks past Christmas. Dread had given way to resignation. The men in suits, with their legal papers and moving vans, issued their edict. Krebs held them off with a promise of cash payment, money due from the last home theater sale. Like a compulsive gambler, he believed to the last that his luck was going to change. He installed new locks. He sweated and prayed. He did everything but sacrifice a chicken. It was too late.

On a cold Tuesday in February, the Emporium of Wonders came to an ignoble end. The circus folded its tent. The Titanic heaved onto her side, her captain in a final mad act opting to go down with his ship. The great empty vessel upended and quietly slipped beneath the waves, leaving nothing but a gurgling void in the marketplace of Xanadu.