Factory Man–A Review

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.

JB III reading from the bookoats as a young man, JBIII [as Macy calls him

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.

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Choosing Civility

Many people seem to long for a simpler time, and when they are pressed to articulate what they mean, “respect for others” invariably is part of the definition. According to a study recently completed for KRC Research, 70 percent of Americans believe incivility in our country has reached crisis proportions. Professor P.M. Forni, who is founder of the Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins University, has captured ways for all of us to live well, reflecting that “a crucial measure of our success in life is the way we treat one another.” His book is Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct. By modeling civility in our lives, Forni contends that we will be making our own lives better, for civility is fundamental to the making of a good, successful and serene life. In other words, being good is good for you.
So what is civility? It is to choose respect, empathy, and consideration of others at every opportunity—at work or in our personal lives. It also entails “an active interest in the well-being of our communities.” Forni expands on twenty-five rules of conduct, such as “acknowledge others,” “think the best,” “speak kindly,” “respect other people’s time,” “don’t shift responsibility and blame.” Our parents may have called these “manners” and indeed, Forni says, “Manners do the everyday busywork of goodness.”
Much of this seems to be common sense, but Forni notes, “common sense has taken eons to become common.” “Angrily contested parking spaces, cellular telephones ringing everywhere, offensive anonymous Internet messages, volleys of racial or homophobic epithets in the streets and out-of-control bullying in the schools; shrill fellow air travelers, narcissistic co-workers, yelling supervisors, pushy shoppers, surly salespeople, self-serving friends. . . .” In such a world, perhaps this sense isn’t common at all. To offset such a coarsening of our society, we need to choose civility.
Entire tomes are written about the philosophy of civility in society, but Forni’s work is practical and adaptable. What would make our community better? What would be the brightest sign of hope and promise for all of us? Certainly we could aspire to be known as the place where we all treat each other with respect, where our leaders speak to each other collegially, where our students refuse to bully each other, where kindness is paramount. To become such a community, reading this book (and perhaps discussing it with a group as we did recently at the library) is a good place to start.

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Louise Penny’s appearance at McIntyre books last fall was simply a great time for everyone. My husband and I arrived early and met friends for lunch in Fearrington Village. We were in the bookstore an hour in advance of her appearance and already people were finding seats. There were over 200 people in attendance, many of whom were pressed against the glass front of the store a long way from the speaker.
She began her talk by taking a photo of the group, which I found rather endearing.
That word could describe Louise Penny herself; she makes an instant connection with her audience, and is funny and self-deprecating. She talked for about an hour, fielding questions for the last fifteen minutes or so. The bookstore, which is pretty small, did a great job of traffic management in getting those of us who wanted copies autographed into a fast-moving line.
I discovered, in conversing with line-mates, that the woman ahead of me was a branch librarian in the Henrico County library system, and that I had been in her branch within the previous year. That was definitely a long drive for her and her husband. When we got to the front, we told Ms. Penny we were both librarians, and she told me, “Librarians are my heroes!” Not too hard to guess, since Inspector Gamache’s wife is a librarian, but it was great to hear.
Later, while we were having coffee in an adjacent shop, in she walked by herself, bought a soft drink, and waved to the four of us just as if we were old friends. That’s the secret of Louise Penny’s success in large part—she sees herself as an ordinary person.
About the book, How the Light Gets In. You may have already read it, since this post is so long in coming. If you have not, however, suffice it to say it is clearly her best book and well worth reading. I think it’s helpful to read her last several books leading up to it, so you have the setting and the characters straight in your mind. This book is definitely a culminating volume.
Finally, this wonderful author just won the Order of Canada, one of their nation’s highest honors, given to those who have made an exceptional contribution to Canada or Canadians.

We are just out of view to the left.

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Autographed copy

Some time ago I wrote about the mysteries of Louise Penny, and now I have to share my excitement—I am going to meet her tomorrow!  My husband and I are traveling to a bookstore in North Carolina to hear her speak and then to get a copy of her newest book, How the Light Gets In, autographed.

I haven’t been to many book signings.   I managed to catch Jan Karon in Lynchburg about a dozen years ago or more.  I heard Wendell Berry speak at Duke and was struck dumb while he signed my book.  I’m going to try not to be a blathering idiot tomorrow.  A friend of mine said he would say, “When I grow up, I want to be just like Armande Gamache.”  I’ll bet she’s heard that one before, but I can see why people would say it.

Here at the library, we are happy to start back with our fall programming this month, and especially with our youth services schedule.  During August, our youth service specialists recover from the intensity of our summer reading program.  They also take the opportunity during this break in our schedule to get training.  Some traveled to the state library in Richmond, and everyone heard a speaker on the Every Child Ready to Read @ Your Library program.

We are also excited to be sponsoring a nutrition class at our History Research Center on September 26.  Chef Laura Pole will be with us to talk about eating for a lifetime, focusing on good health.  Chathamooca is catering a lunch cooked with Chef Laura’s recipes, and this is a free event—so there IS a free lunch!   To register, call us at 432-3271.  We have forty seats available for this event.

To know more about what’s going on, check out our calendars on this website or follow us on Facebook.

Next time—what it’s like to be in the presence of greatness.

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It’s All About the Journey

It’s been pretty busy in our library system for the last couple of months. First of all, we opened our newest branch, the Pittsylvania History Research Center and Library, which is located in the recently renovated Chatham Train Depot. We are open from 10 am until 2 pm Tuesday through Saturday, and we’d love to have you come by and take a look. We have lots of interesting material on local history and genealogy, computers that you can use to do research, databases, microfilm, historical displays, and a working model train depicting Chatham in the 1940s.

Dr. Betty Whitehead Meeting Room

At the end of May, we renamed the meeting room in the Chatham library the Dr. Betty Whitehead Meeting Room.  Dr. Whitehead was chief fundraiser for the Chatham building and accomplished much for the community.  As part of this occasion, her son Cam and daughter Katie presented the library with a beautiful painting which currently hangs just outside the meeting room door.

We also installed a new electronic sign at Brosville, which we hope will draw more attention to what we call the hidden jewel of our system. The Brosville/Cascade Library is significantly below road level on US 58 between Danville and Martinsville, so has always been somewhat difficult to find. We hope this sign will rectify that, as well as draw attention to the fantastic programs we have going on there.
Speaking of programs, it’s time for our Summer Reading Program, which is taking place at every branch but the History Center. We have room for you, ages 0 to 109! Check out everything we have to offer this summer by going to our website at www.pcplib.org and clicking on library calendars.
Finally, I’ve been doing some reading. I’ll talk more about the other books later, but I do want to highlight one you should not miss. It’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. If you want a “gentle read” that also makes you think, this one fits that bill. Harold Fry comes to believe that by walking from the southernmost part of England to the northernmost part of Scotland, he can keep a friend of his alive. Of course, it’s all about the journey. We’ve got a couple of copies of this gem of a book available, so you should be able to get it right away.

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A Thread of Grace

I read an extraordinary book recently that I think many people overlooked when it was first released.  The author’s previous novels were science fiction, so some may have expected this one to be in that genre as well.  However,  A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell, which was released in 2005, is a fictional treatment of the bravery and generosity of spirit of the Italians in North Italy near the end of World War II.   It seems, as one reviewer noted, almost as if half of the population hid the other half—the Jews—from the Nazis.   The author insists that her narrative actually underplays this hospitality, based on her research and her interviews of those who survived.  The result is a fast-paced, action-packed book.

The characters are richly drawn, particularly Renzo Leoni, who operates in the book under several aliases and is mistaken by the Nazis as one of their own.  Claudette Blum and her father are Jews who also figure prominently in the narrative, and it is in fact Claudette’s life after the war that provides the final scenes of the book.

As in any book about World War II and the Nazis, there are plot lines that will break your heart, but the richness of the writing and, yes, the thread of grace, make this wonderful book well worth your time.

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It’s another mystery

The last time I wrote, I promised some fiction for my next post, and I have to say, I have discovered a wonderful mystery writer. A couple of my colleagues here at the library recommended Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series to me. I’m hooked.
The books are set in England, and the one I am currently reading takes place after World War I in the early 1930s. This book , The Mapping of Love and Death, is not the first in the series, so I will definitely go back and start at the beginning of the series after I am finished. From what I understand, the back story is that Maisie served as a nurse during the war, and then opened her own detective agency, taking over from her mentor, Dr. Maurice Blanche.
In the volume I am reading, Maisie is working to unravel the mystery surrounding a death that took place quite a few years before. There’s no blood and gore component to this one so far, so those that prefer their mysteries “cozy” will be fine with this one.
I think what grabbed me, in addition to the recommendations of friends who know me, is that the covers are all these wonderful art deco style drawings of Maisie. I am captivated by posters in that style and from that era, so the books caught my eye. I know, I know—don’t judge a book by its cover. But there it is, and I stand by it.

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Two more

Before February gets away, let me tell you about a couple books I have read since my last posting.
The first is My Mother, Your Mother by Dennis McCullough. It’s simply the best thing I have read about caring for a family member who is in the later stages of life. McCullough is an advocate of what he calls “Slow Medicine,” an approach that focuses on the older person’s everyday needs and approaches possible medical interventions with caution and thoughtfulness. A geriatrician, McCullough has a lovely writing style that is calming and radiates caring for both the older person and the caregiver. He has a great way of putting the challenges of caregiving into a broader context of helping the older person have a good quality end of life.
The second is Thinner This Year by Chris Crowley and Jennifer Sachek. She’s a nutritionist and exercise physiologist from Tufts University; Crowley co-authored the earlier books in the Younger Next Year series that I have written about before. He is a retired lawyer whose overarching message is that we all need to exercise six days a week for the rest of our lives. This volume uses the same style as the earlier books, alternating between the medical science and Crowley’s personal story. This is not just one more diet book; in fact, it’s not a diet book at all. Crowley is seventy-seven and bikes up mountains, so that gives his words some weight. Inspirational stuff and worth looking at if you are embarking on the late middle age journey and want to stay active until the end.

Next month, some fiction–I promise!

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And We”re Back!

It’s been a long time. I have been out on medical leave, but the positive thing about that is I had some extra time to read. I have a few books to recommend.
First, the new Margaret Maron book is a gem. Buzzard’s Table is the latest outing in the Deborah Knott series and it is well worth your time if you are a fan of Maron, as I am. Nearly all the Knott books are set in North Carolina in places we all know, and the latest continues the trend of weaving a character from her earlier series, Sigrid Harald, into the Knott plotlines. This one seems so obvious from the get-go, but you quickly learn you are not as smart as you think you are. Maron keeps you guessing throughout, and I have to say that I had a stronger feeling of disquiet and foreboding while reading this book than with most of hers. She’s a master; don’t miss it.
Speaking of masters, I started reading the Robert Caro four-volume series on Lyndon Johnson. Meticulously researched, sparklingly written—what’s not to like. I will say that these might work better on an e-reader because they are heavy—and I mean physically heavy! I read the first of the four, The Path to Power, written in 1982, which deals with Johnson’s boyhood up into his first term as a member of the House of Representatives. I have started the second, Means of Ascent, and will read them all. [A fifth volume is planned.  Caro is in his seventies; he says it will take three or four years to write.] It’s fascinating to see the political arguments we have in our nation today are some of the same that were being debated in the 1930s. This is a series for the ages.
Finally, I read a book that stretched my tastes a bit. It’s Doors Open by Ian Rankin. This is a crime novel set in Scotland that my daughter gave to me to read during my recuperation. It captivated me from the earliest chapters; Rankin knows how to tell a story.
So there it is—three strong recommendations for these long winter nights.

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Book Review

How Children Succeed:  Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough.  New York and Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

Paul Tough has written many times before, movingly and effectively, about the lives of children in marginal situations.  In this, his latest book, he explores the newest research about what qualities children need to develop in order to have a successful life.  Using a story-driven style, Tough shows that childhood stress, which has a profound impact on a child’s later success, can be overcome when caring adults intervene.

One of the most interesting things about this work is Tough’s challenge to our cultural thesis that success follows those who score highest on standardized tests.  Studies that follow children through years and decades of their lives show clearly that it is not this indicator that matters the most.  Instead, skills that are connected to character—skills such as curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, grit, self-control, perseverance—these are the true predictors of success throughout life.

Even more exciting is the research that shows that these traits are not something that must be learned as a child.  The book traces the lives of several young adults who have faced incredible challenges at home and yet, with the help of a mentor, develop those non-cognitive skills connected to what Tough calls “performance character,” turn their lives around.

This is a profoundly optimistic book precisely because it proves that character is malleable and positive changes can happen when transformative help is provided.   Children can learn the non-cognitive skills that allow them to face and conquer difficulties, to strive for a goal, to achieve a better life.  Tough’s conclusion is also a challenge because it makes clear that all of us can help influence the development of character skills in children.  He shines a light on places where this reversal of a negative outcome has been achieved, and says he has a “feeling of admiration and hope when I watch young people making the difficult and often painful choice to follow a better path, to turn away from what might have seemed like their inevitable destiny. . . . [But] it’s not enough to just applaud their efforts and hope that someday, more young people follow their lead.  They did not get onto that ladder alone.  They are there only because someone helped them take the first step.”

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