Death of a Business

Death of a Business December 4, 2017

After World War II America’s economy roared to life. Wartime energies found themselves redirected to fuel a boom time in the nation’s history. In 1949 my grandfather opened a business in Tuscaloosa, Alabama: Business Supply Company, a business for businesses as it were, selling office products, printing, and more. My father took it over in the 1960s. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, I knew it simply as “the store.”

It will close its doors on December 31. My dad and mom will retire, “shut her down” and “open a new chapter in their lives,” as the expressions go.

The arc of a business, like that of a life, is riddled with joys and sorrows, comedy and tragedy– the tug and ache of yet another day, the need to make a showing in the world.

I knew my grandfather, however, only in tragedy, in the large presence of his absence. In April of1963, several years before I was born, he took his life while on a business trip to Jamestown, New York. Arthur Miller’s postwar Death of Salesman captured a piece of our family’s history only too well.

The story that has come down to me is as follows. The store, like many new businesses, found itself in significant debt. Dealing with this and the slings and arrows of a hardscrabble background led my grandfather, Albert, to drinking—and drinking–and drinking. This took its toll on my dad, his three sisters, and my grandmother—and on him. Albert had traveled to Jamestown to meet with higher-ups at “Art Metal” furniture company, the first company to manufacture metal office furniture and one to whom my grandfather owed a significant sum. Here the picture gets blurry. But presumably baited into a dark place by one too many, he slit his arm and bled to death in his hotel room. When found, the family was told, he had made a tourniquet and put it around his arm in an apparent attempt to unwind the tragedy. Several days later, my father, 17, and his uncle identified the corpse, shipped home on a train to Alabama.

My dad always told me to do what I wanted in life, because from this point on he didn’t have a choice. He began college but never finished. As the only son, he was expected to make a go at running the business. He did it and he did it well. The store became a fixture in the business community of Tuscaloosa, employing up to 18 people and serving the needs of many businesses and individuals.

I have fond boyhood memories of the store. I especially liked the print shop: the bracing smell of ink, the churning purr of running machines, and, not least, the calendars with scantly-clad women on the walls. Bill, Jesse, and Letch were the printers’ names. “Letch,” my dad used to say, “often felt like a second father to me.” I also liked the rows of office furniture in the front of the store; the shelves of paper, pens, staples and the like. And best of all: the display window area–overlooking Greensboro Avenue and across the way from Pink House Antiques–where I once pretended to be a mannequin.

Occasionally I did odd jobs. Mainly collating, but sometimes I helped assemble furniture. Which is a riot, because tape was then and is now my preferred “tool.” And there were several happy instances when I got to deliver furniture with the “delivery guys,” in the white vans embossed with the store’s name. Riding shotgun, window down, Coke in hand, the sultry summertime breeze—it could hardly get better for a Southern boy.

The store gave our family a comfortable middle-class life. But the good came with difficulty—increasing difficulty as the years piled up. Some of it was run-of-the-mill stuff: complaining customers, slacker workers, several burglaries, the unhappy necessity of cold-call selling, long-time customers who suddenly took their business elsewhere.

And then the creative destruction of capitalism itself arrived. Maintaining a small office supply and printing operation during the age of Staples, Office Depot, Fed-Ex-Office—not to mention the computer and Internet revolutions—might be compared to running a monastery scriptoria in the age of Guttenberg. The writing was on the wall. “The competition is maddening!” says Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. And it was.

But this death came slowly and in the face of plucky defiance. An agile and quick learner, my father computerized his whole operation in the ‘80s and ‘90s, cut overhead, changed location, and attempted to make up in service and trust what the “big boys” had slashed in prices. To this day, my father helps troubleshoot my computer difficulties. Tape, I’ve found, is too imprecise an instrument.

A man of faith, my father has often found comfort in the Bible’s melancholy parts: Ecclesiastes, Job, Psalm 90, where the Psalmist sighs: “Make us glad as many days as thou hast afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil. . . . Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish thou the work of our hands upon us, yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.”

This ending is neither a whimper nor a bang, but a sigh, a well-deserved sigh, a letting go–a vocation, born of tragedy and constraint, concluded. What began nobly in 1949 shall perish nobly in 2017.

May the favor of the Lord be upon the memory of Business Supply Company.

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