Growing up in the blue-collar town of Urbana, Ohio, Beth Macy knew lots of factory men and women.
Her mother soldered lights in an airplane factory and watched other people’s kids while the parents worked manufacturing jobs. This was back in the 1970s and early 1980s, when one could feed and clothe a family on factory wages and could afford to send children to college with a little financial aid from Uncle Sam.
Macy attended Bowling Green University on a Pell Grant and studied journalism, which propelled her to a prize-winning newspaper career.
Three decades later, she thought about her hometown when she visited Bassett, Martinsville, Galax and other manufacturing towns that had seen better days and would ultimately inspire her new book “Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local — and Helped Save an American Town.”
The promise of upward mobility for factory families in those places had been outsourced, along with more than 19,000 jobs in Henry County alone. Furniture and textile companies shipped jobs overseas, where low-wage workers churned out the dressers, tables, towels and pillow cases that had allowed generations of Henry County families to have roofs over their heads and food on their tables.
“It just seemed that a kid in Bassett or Galax was not going to have the same chances that I had,” Macy said. “These were people who lost their jobs through no fault of their own. Nobody ever takes the long view about what has happened to those people.”
A close friend of Macy’s who worked in the furniture industry told her that there was one man down in Galax who was still building furniture in his own factory and who was dedicated to saving the jobs of local people — John Bassett III, heir to the family that gave a company and a town its name.
“Yeah, that Bassett,” the friend said.
In 2011 and 2012, Macy reported a story called “Still Making it in America” for The Roanoke Times that chronicled how the brash, cocky, opinionated Bassett had been cast aside by his own family and was left with one small factory in Galax, the Vaughan-Bassett company. From that humble outpost, he launched the largest anti-dumping petition against Chinese manufacturers — and he won. He pumped the money back into his company and added jobs.
Macy realized that there was more to the saga than a newspaper story, so she wrote “Factory Man,” which has already earned national praise. The book comes out July 15 from Little, Brown and Company/Hachette Book Group.
In a glowing review in The New York Times, book critic Janet Maslin put Macy’s book “in a class with other runaway debuts like Laura Hillenbrand’s ‘Seabiscuit’ and Katherine Boo’s ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers.’ Maslin wrote that the book “will be one of the best, and surely most talked about, books of 2014.”
The book earned a $30,000 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award from the Columbia University Journalism School last year. It garnered starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly.
Macy chronicled the history of the Bassett family and company, a story that comprises hard work, greed, race relations, family squabbles and even sex. She traveled to Indonesia to interview workers who perform the jobs that Virginia workers once did.
As Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Rick Bragg said: “Beth Macy’s award-winning look at one furniture maker’s refusal to give in is a breath of hope — and a damn fine story to read.”
Here is what she had to say about “Factory Man.”
Q: What made John Bassett III such a compelling figure that made you want to write a book about him?
A: My neighbor Joel [Shepherd, president of Virginia Furniture Market] said there was this guy down in Galax who had said, “those Chi-comms weren’t gonna tell him how to make furniture.” That’s when the goose bumps went up on the back of my neck. “Story alert.” The story has everything. He’s a rich Bassett, he’s a fighter who took on China and he won in the International Court of Trade and he’s from Galax. It’s a family feud story and it’s the story of every factory that closed in America, from textiles to whatever. I said, “I have to go meet him.”
Q: Bassett’s story is almost Shakespearean in that he’s like a prince who’s sent into exile and then has to fight his way back.
A: It’s like the worst thing that ever happened to him and the best thing that ever happened to him. When I first met him while I was working on the story for the newspaper, I could tell he was thinking, “Why the hell did The Roanoke Times send this damn hippie down here to interview me?” He told me to dress down because we were going to be in the factory. I had my jeans on, I had my hiking shoes on. And he was going to give me 15 minutes in the boardroom, but I just kept coming at him because I really knew the story. I waited to ask about the family stuff until we went to lunch. We went to lunch — and on the way back, [I said] “Tell me about your brother-in-law. I understand he elbowed you out of the business.” I knew the whole story. And he goes, “Elbowed! Hell, it was more like a knee or a foot!” When he was young, they thought he was arrogant and cocky so they just dismissed him. The tensions kept going with his brother-in-law, with whom he was very much on the outs. That’s all he would say about it. There was this idea that they had this big fistfight, which [Bassett] still denies. I said, “No disrespect, but I don’t believe that.” I heard all the details from all these accounts, even from the ambulance driver [who arrived after the alleged fight]. But he won’t say any more about it.
Q: In “Factory Man,” you write that you are not a business writer, but you don’t hold back in taking on top American economists and their views on globalization. Do economists believe that, in the big, macro-economic scheme of things, places like Bassett, Martinsville and Galax don’t matter?
A: They think [saving manufacturing] is like sticking a finger in the dike. [Economists believe that] we shouldn’t be making furniture in America. It’s dirty and sweaty and doesn’t pay that well. So we shouldn’t do that. I was the first person in my family to go to college from a factory town not unlike Galax … My parents couldn’t have afforded to send me to college, but there was financial aid. Today, because college costs have gone up and financial aid has not, I just would not be able to go. That’s the situation. People like that in Galax find it hard to go to college and they can’t afford to go to Virginia Tech or Radford. What’s left for them? This grand economic theory that all the boats are rising? What globalization did was that the rich got richer.
Q: Displaced furniture worker Wanda Perdue said to you, “I want you to see what they do in Indonesia and explain to me why we can’t do that here no more.” You went to Indonesia and found that many of those workers are worried about losing their jobs, too.
A: I went there and talked to those workers and told them about Wanda. I knew it was a stupid question, but I asked if they ever thought about those people for whom they were no replacements. They said “No.” There was no need to translate. They giggled because they thought they had been rude, but they elaborated and then they said [they] are very worried because their wages are going up and [worried] that they will be displaced by someone else — in Africa or someplace else.
Q: Did John Bassett III take on the Chinese out of pride or out of concern for his workers?
A: I really believe that he thinks of his workers that “These people made my family rich. Generations of these people worked to allow my family to have two homes in exclusive communities.” I think he genuinely feels a sense of responsibility to these people. He did have to close some factories. He went and he told the workers himself. He told me, “You don’t know what it’s like when the women cry. They hang on you. They don’t know how they’re gonna feed their families.” It wasn’t like somebody on Wall Street calling up and saying, “Close Plant 36 in Alabama.” He did it himself and it was really difficult.
Q: Your publisher — Little, Brown and Company — is owned by Hachette, which is involved in a brutal business fight with Amazon. How has that fight affected you and your book?
A: I had an Amazon link on my author page, and I was telling people to go there and pre-order my book. Then, on the day I got a super nice paragraph from Janet Maslin in The New York Times, [Amazon] froze my pre-orders. That was the day it felt very personal. I’m just not worrying about it, because there’s nothing I can do about it. I feel really good about Canterbury [Books and Gifts at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Roanoke] selling my book, because they’re a nonprofit and all the money goes to support programs for at-risk kids, some of whom live in Roanoke because their family lost their jobs in Henry County. I feel really good about supporting that.
Q: You left The Roanoke Times in May to work on another book, which will also be published by Little, Brown. What can you tell us about it?
A: It’s called “True Vine,” which is a little crossroads in Franklin County near Sontag, a little sharecropping community. It’s about race and greed and what passed for entertainment in the Jim Crow South. It begins with a crime in 1899 when two boys who were sharecropping with their parents, 6 and 9 years old, were kidnapped by a bounty hunter and sold into something like slavery for 28 years and were forced to be circus freaks. You could say it’s about the circus, but it’s more about the family and their mother’s efforts to get them back. For 28 years she looked for them and no one would help her. Then there is this dramatic scene in Roanoke in 1927 when she risks her life to find her sons.
Q: You mention in “Factory Man” that you and John Bassett III are not chums, yet you talk every day. Sounds like a complicated relationship.
A: We’ve talked three times today. It is complicated, but I love him. I see that he’s flawed just as he sees that I’m flawed. I’m grateful that he let me tell this story, which I think is a really important untold story. His friends, family and sons didn’t sign up for any of this. He’s taught me a lot about business. He has that dumb-like-a-fox folksy way that makes you understand it. He’s also mean at times. He’s told me, “You don’t know anything about business.” Then he saw I was learning, reading The Economist and all the stuff that he reads. That surprised him. I think we’ve both been underestimated.