Monday, May 11, 2015

Books: Factory Man

Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local - and Helped Save an American Town
By Beth Macy
451 pages (including footnotes & index)
Copyright 2014

First, I have to make several disclaimers.

I went to college with the author. I consider us friendly acquaintances and rivals, as we are both journalists in the Roanoke Valley. She wrote for a different newspaper before turning to books. We are Facebook friends. She once wrote an article about my efforts to write a book about author Mary Johnston (efforts which ultimately came to naught).

We don't have lunch together, hang out, or talk trash. We greet each other kindly and professionally. I think I've spoken to her maybe 10 times in the last 20 years, to be honest.

My edition of Factory Man is autographed.

My bedroom suite was made by Virginia House, which ultimately Bassett bought out. I was grateful that my furniture was built before that happened because by then Bassett was making junk. The bed I sleep in is solid cherry wood and the drawers in the dresser are dove-tailed and not stapled together. It's solid, good furniture, and Bassett ruined Virginia House when they bought them out (the purchase is mentioned in the book).

Having said all of that, I debated a long time about reviewing the book publicly. I suspect anything I say can be misconstrued in any number of ways. If I praise too much, someone will say it is because we know one another. If I say anything negative, it will be construed as professional jealousy. I am sure I cannot win this one, but I will write a review anyway.

First, I am not sure how to classify this book. Amazon and others have it listed as a business book, and I suppose that fits best. It is a not a biography, nor is it really a history. It's more of an assessment of a certain industry, an analysis of its rise and fall.

I personally see it as an indictment of capitalism and globalization, a microcosm of the macrocosm of our society, but others may not. I know there are people who think this is the way things should be. I am not one of them.

The industry under discussion in the book is the American furniture industry. At one time, furniture was king in Southwestern Virginia. When you watched The Price is Right in the 1970s, they gave away Bassett furniture. I can remember my grandmother watching the show and saying, "That was made just down the road."

Bassett had a good name up until the late 1980s.

Factory Man tells how furniture making came to the area, and how the Bassets brought it here. They created a bank and then basically set up a town. The family experienced infighting; expansion proved exasperating, and marriages were made not only for love (if ever for love) but for what the spouse could bring to the industry table.

Thousands of people around here worked on these furniture lines. Then along came China and other importers. They brought cheaper furniture, some of it exact replicas of the Bassett brand.

Then, as has happened in so many other industries, local factories began importing the cheaper items.

Jobs went asunder like trailers turned to twigs in a tornado. Soon the area's best employers were laying folks off, not just a few at a time, but by the hundreds. Portions of Virginia have never recovered from the economic devastation of this loss of jobs.

That part of the story, the effect that globalization has had on "the little people," is the story that Macy tells in her book.

She also explains how John Bassett, III, fought to keep his factories going by finding trade-agreement loopholes. He is her hero, the old rich guy who wants to keep his people employed.

The two stories merge, of course, because they are bound up in the same issue of globalization.

Macy's research is evident on every page. She is thorough and meticulous. Her writing is personable and flowing. But she was dealing with tough subject matter.

For one thing, these people were not the most likeable bunch. They were men smoking cigars who were plotting how to make the most money they could, and they wanted to do it on the backs of their workers. Macy glides over this fact somewhat, showing the better side of the owners, generally. They did some nice things for their employees, certainly. But they also became rich off of the sweat of others.

In the end, this is a story of capitalism at work, and capitalism takes no prisoners and has no room for niceties. It rises and falls, and humanity be damned. I wanted to read stories from factory workers who hated the Bassetts, but there were few in there (I don't recall any at all, but perhaps there was one or two I am forgetting). I suspect Macy had a hard time finding people willing to publicly speak out about the furniture industry owners. One never knows what form retribution may take, after all.

The book reads like a newspaper article - a very long newspaper article. That's to be expected, as Macy is a journalist. However, the book bogs down in the middle and I confess I put it down for several months before picking it back up to finish it.

It suffers, too, because so many people have similar names. There is a chart of the family in the back of the book, but I did not find it until it was too late. By that time I was thoroughly confused as to which Bassett or Spilman did what to which factory. I have heard that this chart has been moved to the front of the book in the paperback edition, and I applaud that change if it is true. I wish I had known of the chart in the back sooner.

Macy set out to tell the story of the demise of the furniture industry and the loss of jobs. She does this admirably. She also wants to tell the story of John Bassett, III. She does this, too, but the tale feels incomplete. Perhaps it will feel incomplete until the gentleman retires or dies, I don't know.

The writer also offers no resolutions or ways to bring back these jobs backs, or how to create a new economy. She simply offers up what happened, fact by fact. The reader must draw her own conclusion from this. My conclusion is that American manufacturing has lost this fight. Even if a manufacturer remains over here, corners are cut so that the product suffers.

We are stuck with poorly made, low-quality items for a while. Eventually, I think, American made that is of quality will make a come-back, but it will be rather like the local food movement. Slow, steady, and a long time coming.

My book club read this book and it generated interesting discussion about our area. We read it not long after Norfolk Southern Railroad announced it was moving 500 jobs out of Roanoke. Roanoke has long been known as a railroad town, so for Roanoke this was a little like the furniture factories closing in Basset. The biggest difference is the railroad has been sending jobs out of Roanoke slowly for about long as I've been alive, so the impact was lessened.

I think Macy did an excellent job in her reporting of this important story. She has earned many accolades for this book and there is even talk of a mini-series or something with Tom Hanks (no real details available there). She deserves everything she can get and I would like to see her go on Bill Maher on HBO and discuss her book, because Beth is as impressive in person as she is on the page. That's an interview I would not miss.

I applaud my colleague on her hard work and brilliant effort. If you have an interest in globalization and would like to know why your neighbors no longer have a job, then this is must-read. I am not aware of many other writings that attempt to tackle this issue from the bottom up, instead of the top down.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post. I would like to read this book, bearing in mind your analogy. We have wonderful individual craftsmen out there that still pay attention to detail and make beautiful, last a lifetime furniture. Unfortunately, their products are out of my reach as they have to get so much money for them. Interesting about Tom Hanks. That would be a good series I bet.

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