Many of us who are not essential workers feel a mix of relief and guilt, while we also try to figure out if there is another way to help those in need. Staying at home is a public health service, but many of us want to do more. Through the past weeks, I have found meaning in my situation. I began the stay-at-home period fearing for my mental health, and I also felt both guilt and relief because I am temporarily successfully self-employed.
I am a small business owner of over twenty years. Small means that I am the CEO, the accountant, the strategist, the packer, the logistics manager, the buyer, etc. I wear all the hats except during the holiday season, when a couple of friends or a family member help me pack.
I’ve enjoyed gross sales of over $100,000 for at least thirty percent of the years in business. This was enough to make me feel as though I were contributing something to the family besides my unpaid labor. Having given up in frustration with Amazon and eBay, for years I tried to make a go with my own websites. But about eight years ago I ended up returning to the large marketplaces.
Had I made this a full-time endeavor, my story would be different. I never took out a business loan. I never had a business plan. I maintained my own websites, which quickly meant mine became old-fashioned and cumbersome. Except for on a couple of occasions I didn’t invest in professional development or any other professional services. I started my business while in graduate school and continued as I homeschooled my kids. But all along I kept it a part-time endeavor, since I was also interested in other work .
Before the pandemic I received a letter from Schleich, a name brand toy company I have carried for over fifteen years and primarily sold on Amazon.com. I also sold a little on eBay and Sears, and even less on my own website. Schleich told me they now forbid their customers to sell on the large marketplaces. This came after I had just purchased thousands of dollars of toys.
In December one of their representatives assured me that if anything happened with Amazon they would refund inventory I had purchased. The rep was aware of the problems I had with Amazon. (For the last three to four years I’ve had multiple issues on Amazon with my Schleich listings. This was because they intended to be the sole carrier of Schleich and other name-brands. Amazon would take my listings down or or make it very difficult for me to list in ways I can with less-known brands.) Now, they won’t give me an answer as to whether they will take any inventory back.
Schleich’s agreement with Amazon states that Amazon will be the only retailer selling Schleich toys on Amazon.com. This takes away at least ninety percent of my business.
Having already purchased much of what I would need in 2020, when Minnesota started to shut down, I had $38,000 in inventory, but with business so slow during the year, I had no idea how I was going to get rid of this without just donating it and taking it as a loss. I keep emailing Schleich asking about returning items, but they won’t respond properly. I marked everything down and put a sale on all Schleich items, plus I lowered my shipping and handling costs.
In the third week of March, the orders suddenly started coming in. It wasn’t as busy as during the holiday season, but much more than usual for this time of year. As I realized what was happening, I felt guilty. So many people were suffering around the country, and they wanted to get their children a toy. They were suffering, while I was getting rid of inventory. Sure, it will take many months to rid myself of the majority of it, but still, I was busy and successfully self-employed (not that I have ever been eligible for unemployment). I reconciled myself with the thought that at least the children were getting toys without costing their parent’s too much.
As the weeks have passed, while I still feel lucky and privileged to be safe, fed, and housed, I also realized it is okay that I am getting rid of my inventory. It’s not okay that others are suffering greatly. It’s also not okay that this billion-dollar corporation sold me thousands of dollars of inventory before basically putting me out of business. It’s not okay that Amazon is determines the online marketplace to the extent that they do. It’s not okay that Amazon and other large corporations don’t pay any taxes, while I do. I don’t have employees, but I still work hard for what I earn, and I then put money back into the economy.
After a month I have realized a deeper meaning for me. For years I have insisted that I didn’t want to be a retailer. I am a historian, and I wanted to do something that felt more meaningful. Besides writing, I wasn’t sure what that will be – if I would tutor more people, edit more essays, or what. I started writing again about ten years ago. This helped my sense of purpose, but things hadn’t fallen into place yet.
Now in 2020 the corporate bullies have pushed me into action, ideas have landed in my lap, and I have a new sense of purpose knowing I can use my other talents to make the world a better place. Despite not being sure how to lose myself of so much inventory without taking a great financial loss, the pandemic has allowed me to ship out hundreds of toys to children who are also at home with their working parents. I stopped feeling guilty for this, because it will help me move quicker to a new project. There is value in providing children with quality toys. Yet, I am grateful that at some point I will be able to focus on other areas in my life.
So as I sit at home waiting out the pandemic and packing so many toys, I keep my dream of more meaningful work for myself alive each day.