14 May 2014

In The Frame

by David Edgerley Gates

A departure from the usual.

My pal Justin Sachs owns a frame shop here in Santa Fe, Justin's Frame Designs, and he's been badly needing some time off. He prevailed on me to take the reins for these past ten days, so he could go down to Corpus and windsurf. I'm familiar enough with his business to be okay with it. Little did I anticipate.

The experience was instructive, shall we say. Some of you, I know, have been teachers, some of you military or law enforcement, and of course being writers, we're in effect running a small business, as in self-employed, but being responsible for somebody else's livelihood is a different kettle of fish. Put bluntly, it's nerve-wracking. You da man. You have to make the decisions. You have to direct a staff. You have to keep a close eye on the bottom line.

Years ago, my dad had an apron factory in Boston, in the old garment district. Long gone now, plowed under with the Big Dig and redevelopment around South Station, but this was then. It was more than a little reminiscent of THE PAJAMA GAME, a couple of floors in a warehouse, banks of sewing machines. They were manned by women of what used to be called a certain age, mostly Italian. I remember the marzipan cookies they baked for Christmas. My father sunk a lot of money into it, much of it borrowed, but in the end he couldn't keep it afloat, and he took the failure personally. Who wouldn't? The problem was that the bottom fell out of the market. This was the late 1950's, and the big hotels had stopped buying their own linens and doing their own laundry. They contracted out. Nor did even rich people keep household servants, Upstairs, Downstairs, and they had no need to supply them with uniforms. My dad had figured to move into the retail end, and sell to local five-and-dimes, but they were a dying breed, too. The big chains were pricing them out, and it was cheaper to buy imports. In other words, the timing was terrible. He bought in when the domestic rag trade was taking a nosedive headfirst into the toilet.

Anybody who starts a business, in this day or any other, has an uphill climb. You have to research the marketplace, the need. Goods and services. Can you survive downtime? There's always going to be contraction. And when times are tight, you still have to make payroll, you have to pay suppliers, and of course you have to answer to your client base, who are inevitably cranky and fickle. This isn't Russia, and a command economy. You can lose your customers with a single disappointment, even one they've imagined.

So, a burden. And no excuses. There ain't no hierarchy to blame. You're at the top of the food chain. There's a familiar axiom from my time as a GI, which might bring a rueful smile from a few of you. You can delegate authority but not responsibility. This is where the buck stops.

Mind you, I'm not the FNG, or a total cherry. I've known Justin for fifteen years or so. This is, in fact, the third frame shop we've worked in together. It's, however, the first one that's his, and his alone. He calls on me to fill in the gaps, whether it's balancing the checkbook, or filing quarterly tax returns, the enormous paper trail, but my schedule is pretty much on my own time, two or three mornings a week, maybe, if that. I don't begrudge it, either. It's a little spare change, and it's no big deal. It doesn't cut into my time that much. I want his business to succeed. He's got a daughter to put through college. More than that, he's honest, he works his ass off, he gives good weight.

What did I learn? Well, personnel issues can suck. At least none of the guys called in sick because their hair hurt, while Justin was gone. And the clients can really be a pain in the ass. They all think they're the center of the universe. Then your suppliers screw you up. They ship late, or they don't send you what you need to finish the job, so there's a constant tension between what people expect, or demand, and what you can accomplish, given labor and materials. You're holding the bag, you're trying to keep your head above water, and into the bargain, you have to be nice to people, which you might realize isn't exactly my strong suit. I don't suffer fools gladly.

Anyway. Long sigh. Sometimes you get thrown into the deep end of the pool. Not necessarily a bad thing. We should know our strengths and weaknesses. I lasted the week, and the frame shop didn't go under, unlike the apron factory. I think I gave the guy good weight. It wasn't easy, and I took the work home at night. Come the end of the day, it's really about small satisfactions, or minor victories.

Oh, and friendship. It's a currency we trade in, and don't spend lightly. So the guy owes me one. Then again, I owe him. Call it even. He got some time on the beach, to decompress, and I spent some time in the saddle, the senior NCO again. Can't honestly say I've missed it.

5 comments:

Fran Rizer said...

Isn't it great when something happens that makes us glad we do what we do for a living?

R.T. Lawton said...

David, well written and a very pleasant article about connections in life. Good on you.

David Dean said...

You took on a lot in my book. I remember my captain shaking my hand each time I returned from my annual vacation and saying, "Thank God you're back." It truly is lonely (and stressful) at the top.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Good post, David. Funny how much being the boss of a small business sounds exactly like being middle management: screwed above, below, and sideways. About your dad's apron factory, one reason you didn't mention is that so many of us, not necessarily Downstairs, stopped wearing aprons. As Mao said, women hold up half the sky--no aprons needed.

Dixon Hill said...

Yes, running someone else's business is nerve wracking in a very different way than running your own. I think you repaid whatever debt of friendship you owed--and then some. :-)

--Dixon