Steven Nicovich has had trouble sleeping lately after learning that Joe's Sports, Outdoor & More would cease to exist today.

By Damian Mann

For the Tidings

Steven Nicovich has had trouble sleeping lately after learning that Joe's Sports, Outdoor & More would cease to exist today.

"I woke up at 4 a.m. worrying about my future and my employees' future," said the 29-year-old sporting goods manager who has worked at Joe's since 1999. "I don't think it hit until last week."

Customers and 32 store employees were stunned to learn that a liquidation company would take over the Medford store today and would sell all the merchandise within two to three months.

Nicovich said the company, Gordon Brothers Group, will let employees know whether they can stay on during the liquidation process.

G.I. Joe's Holding Corp. filed for Chapter 11 protection last month in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Delaware. Gordon Brothers, based in Boston, won tentative approval Thursday to acquire the Wilsonville chain's $128.5 million-plus in merchandise for $61 million.

Nicovich, who had a particularly busy day Thursday as customers looked for bargains, said many workers tried to ignore the symptoms of a downturn.

He said employees first realized there were problems when the company announced layoffs last spring.

Then, the credit crunch hit and hurt the 30-store company as it tried to make it through the lean winter months, he said.

In February, workers were furloughed at the distribution center, which he said sent shock waves through the company.

Even though Nicovich said he's entitled to five weeks' vacation, he's not sure whether he'll get paid for it because of the financial turmoil the company is going through.

Nicovich had been living with his parents, saving money for a down payment on a home, but figures he will scrap those plans. Because he did save, Nicovich said he's in better shape than many of his colleagues.

He's not sure what kind of a job he'll get now, but Nicovich said he knows a lot of people in the sporting goods industry.

"Over the years I've been here, I've made a lot of friends," he said.

Emotions ran high as longtime employees came to grips with their uncertain future.

"I don't want to talk about it because I'll start crying," said one employee who didn't want to be identified but had worked at the 47,000-square-foot store since it opened in Poplar Square in spring 1986.

Others took the situation more philosophically.

"Life's tough," said Cameron Hall, who manages the shoe department. "You've got to roll with the punches and move on. What else am I going to do? I can't sit around and mope."

The 20-year-old Medford resident said the crew at Joe's is tightly knit, and some are more upset about losing their jobs than others.

Over the past few months, he said the employees tried their best to look for a job elsewhere. "Everybody's more concerned with trying to make it work," he said.

With a wife and child, Hall said he plans to get a job as quickly as possible. He's already contacted friends and family and has a few prospects in mind.

As the store prepared to close, some customers appeared surprised that more merchandise wasn't already on sale. Others hadn't yet heard the news.

"That's terrible," said Kimberly Schuler, a 39-year-old Ashland mother of two who describes herself as a loyal customer.

Schuler, who intently searched for a new pair of shoes on sale, said her husband lost his job at Bear Creek recently, which increased her worries about the economy. "A lot of businesses are closing down — it's sad to see."

Dennis Gerke has been coming to Joe's since it opened and said he will be sorry to see it go.

"I was pretty depressed about it," said the Eagle Point resident.

Over the years, Gerke has been involved in the Coats for Kids campaign, receiving quite a few donations from the store.

"Joe's has been very good," he said.

On Thursday, Gerke found a pair of golf shoes he was looking for, and planned to come back to the store when the liquidators take it over.

Dan Thomas also has been going to Joe's since it opened, saying it's difficult watching another local business shutter as the economy winds down.

"It's a sign of the times," said the 52-year-old Ashland resident.

Thomas doesn't expect to see many good deals during the liquidation. He points out that the closure of Circuit City didn't generate the kind of bargains locals were expecting.

Other sporting goods stores are in the area, but Thomas said Joe's filled a niche, particularly offering a good selection of baseball items. His son, Brady, plays baseball for Ashland High School.

While customers filled the aisles of the store on its last day as Joe's, employee Marco Samano said he'd only recently discovered the company would be taken over by the liquidators.

After 11 years at Joe's, the 45-year-old Medford resident said he'll manage somehow.

"I've already got something else going," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.