Beth Macy, Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local, and Helped Save an American Town. Little, Brown, 2014.
Since 1998, nearly 20,000 people in Martinsville and Henry County lost their jobs. The ripple effect of these losses—the restaurants that have closed, the grocery stores that left the area completely—is almost impossible to ascertain.
This wasn’t the result of a hurricane or a flood. In fact, it has been repeated in countless manufacturing towns. It’s a story of people who are rarely covered by national media, the tale of how large corporations moved their businesses offshore to maximize shareholder profit, leaving in their wake communities, once prosperous, now reeling with double-digit unemployment.
Was that inevitable? Beth Macy doesn’t think so.
Macy, for years a reporter with the Roanoke Times, focuses on one family—the descendants of J.D. Bassett, founder of Bassett Furniture Industries, at one time the largest furniture manufacturer in the world—and by telling their story illuminates the effects of globalization on communities.
She could not have found a more fascinating group. The Bassett family is so entwined, with cousins marrying cousins [“That's not a marriage, it's a merger,” they joke] and spawning new companies, that their story alone would make a good novel. But the book benefits from a larger-than-life main character, John D. Bassett III. After sowing his wild oats as a young man, JBIII [as Macy calls him] joined the military and decided to make something of himself. However, his sister’s husband denied him the chairmanship of the company he was born to run, and John left, eventually settling in Galax as the chairman of Vaughan-Bassett Furniture.
Relying on the peerless collection of documentary evidence at the Bassett Historical Center for much of her research, Macy ferrets out not only the genealogy, but the backstory, too. JBIII discovers that laws are on the books to prevent the Chinese furniture manufacturers from dumping their product in this country, and he fights valiantly for a level playing field for his company and his workers.
In a recent interview, JBIII attributed the motivation for what he did to what his parents taught him: “You are not better than anyone else. You have responsibilities to the people in this community.. Don’t forget it. Don’t bury your talents; use them.” Leveraging the settlement from the anti-dumping petition, Bassett reinvests in his Galax factory where seven hundred people are now employed. Many in Henry County believe that, had he been allowed to take his rightful place at the helm of Bassett Furniture Industries, some of its U.S. plants would still be operating today.
Rob Spilman, Bassett’s CEO,in response to such talk, says simply, “We’ve been a public company since 1930, with shareholders that have to get profits. At the end of the day we are not a social experiment.” [New Yorker, July 10, 2014]
Shareholders on the one hand. Americans working for a living on the other. Macy believes there was a choice to be made, and her book, JBIII, and the workers of Vaughan Bassett Furniture, today turning out beautiful American-made wood bedroom furniture make the reader think that what happened in Henry County was far from unavoidable.