Kam Brooksmoore was working the Bull Moose floor one night last October when a customer brandished a gun at him and his co-workers. He was terrified.
Bull Moose workers at the Salem, New Hampshire, store had faced “a lot of tension” from customers about the store’s policy requiring masks, which had gone into effect weeks prior after coronavirus cases surged late last summer.
That night in October, a man browsed the store without a mask before approaching the register looking to make a purchase. He flopped a DVD onto the counter, a used copy of the 2016 fantasy film “Gods of Egypt.”
“I want to buy this,” the man said.
Brooksmoore reminded him of the policy — you need a mask to make a purchase in the store.
The man refused.
“I’m not going to put one on. I really don’t want to,” he snapped at Brooksmoore.
Brooksmoore didn’t budge. Hoping to defuse the situation and get the guy out of the store, the 21-year-old employee told him he’d be happy to arrange a curbside pickup for the movie, but he wouldn’t ring him up at the counter.
The man kept getting angrier, Brooksmoore recalled. He flashed a gun, offering it as a reason why he didn’t need to wear a mask.
“We all got incredibly afraid and uncomfortable very quickly,” Brooksmoore said. He told the man to leave or he’d call the police, and the man threatened him back.
“Call the police. I wanna be on the news tonight,” the man told Brooksmoore.
Scary run-ins with customers like these were all too common at the now-shuttered New Hampshire store, former workers say. After they were fired by email last week by ownership of Bull Moose, the Maine-based media chain retail outlet, the store’s more than 20 employees have banded together to protest its closing, saying that management didn’t do enough to keep them safe from antagonistic customers during the pandemic.
In a statement, Bull Moose diverged from the employee narrative, saying that the closing “had absolutely nothing to do with masks or face coverings for employees or customers.” The social media post said that the company “temporarily closed” its Salem store, and is “not able to share the reasons behind our decisions” for confidentiality reasons. The company’s website also lists the Salem store as “temporarily closed.” Requests for comment from Bull Moose management were not returned.
Founded in Brunswick in 1989 by Brett Wickard, Bull Moose has been a beloved hub for music, film and gaming fans in Maine and New Hampshire. The store closed its Portland location last November, weeks after voters passed a referendum to raise the municipal minimum wage, leaving it with eight stores in Maine and three in New Hampshire before shuttering its Salem location last week.
Workers believe the mass firing occurred for a few reasons.
Zachary Willwerth, a former assistant manager at the store, said workers there had a build-up of concerns that went unheard from upper management. Sexual harassment from customers became “a weekly issue,” Willwerth said, “with very little support and aid from upper management” to help staff navigate those situations, or what to do when customers made racist or homophobic comments about BIPOC and LGBTQ staff members.
Heidi Krantz, another employee at the Salem store, said that customers who engaged in this behavior would easily weaponize the threat of spreading COVID.
“Whenever customers got angry, nine times out of 10 the first thing that would happen is they would rip their masks off and refuse to put them back on until we are able to finally make them leave,” Krantz said. “You’d try to help them find something and they’d breathe down their neck with their mask around their chins because they ‘can’t read with their mask on’.”
Employees had also discussed forming a labor union before they were fired, Willwerth said.
But for workers, the store’s decision last week to change their policy and do away with mask requirements was the last straw, leaving them nothing to point to when dealing with aggressive shoppers.
Roughly 40 percent of adults in Rockingham County, New Hampshire, where Salem is located, are fully vaccinated, making them able to stop wearing masks indoors, according to guidelines by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
But staff have no way of knowing which customers those are.
“We weren’t satisfied with an honor policy for customers because we very clearly already had customers who were lying to us about their vaccination [status],” Brooksmoore said.
Salem employees told management that they felt it was too early to lift the store’s mask policy. Staff were fired the next day, and have been paid in full for hours they’ve worked.
Workers have met regularly since the firings last week — “we’ve become trauma-bonded,” Brooksmoore said — and now look back at the confrontation with the man with the gun as a flashpoint. Bull Moose banned the man from the store, but Brooksmoore and his colleagues didn’t get much relief beyond that.
The week after that encounter, Brooksmoore received a $40 bonus in his paycheck, compensation a manager told him was meant to be a perk for handling the situation. Brooksmoore was insulted. What he and his colleagues wanted were “protections put into place” to make them feel safe at work during a deadly pandemic.
“They said their lawyers couldn’t handle it,” Brooksmoore said. “I was like, what about us? Because we certainly aren’t willing to handle a customer coming in and waving a gun around.”