In 2011, my husband and I went to hear Umberto Eco speak at the Chicago Humanities Festival. When they opened up the talk to audience questions, I started cringing in my seat as a kind of preemptive reflex. Sure enough, someone from the audience eagerly grabbed the microphone and asked Eco if he believed in God.
I intensely dislike audience Q&As at these kinds of events. I understand why they exist, and I always take questions from the crowd when moderating panels, but I’ve come to dread the whole enterprise. There’s always the “This is more of a statement…” person; the question asker who seems to have wandered in from an entirely different event; the pedantic blowhard. At the same Chicago Humanities Festival where Eco spoke, I attended a talk about composing television for music and film where during the Q&A, a woman loudly described the rape scene in A Clockwork Orange and then sat down without asking a question. I also once went to a book reading by Joshua Ferris, who mentioned he had gotten an idea for his novel while shopping at Home Depot, and a guy in the front row called out, “What’s Home Depot?” (Ferris, without missing a beat, explained that it’s a store like Menards, where you can buy lumber and tools.)
Asking good questions is hard. I make a living from asking people questions, and I’ve had my share of blunders. As a young financial markets reporter, I once lobbed what I thought was a friendly open-ended question at a source, only to have him snap, “Do you know anything about capital markets, madam?” There was also the time Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called on me at a press conference and I blankly said, “What?” like an idiot because I was spacing out in the front row.
But it hasn’t been all mishaps! I’ve learned a lot about interviewing and asking questions, and my last two years talking to owners of long-running businesses for The Distance have been particularly instructive in how to do interviews for feature stories. (Breaking news and more adversarial interviews for investigative pieces have their own techniques, as do live or broadcast interviews where the journalist’s end of the conversation is equally visible.)
Come prepared but with an open mind.
Sometimes I write down a list of questions and sometimes I don’t. Even if I do have a list of questions, I review it before leaving for the interview but don’t print it out. I don’t like to be so wedded to my list of questions that I forget to listen. Sometimes the best material comes from a tangent or an offhand reference that the person makes, and it’s important to let the conversation wander down those paths.
I do a lot of research before interviews and usually have some idea of what the story’s underlying thread will be so I can focus my questions, but I’m also willing to ditch that angle if my initial instincts don’t pan out. For my most recent story about Office Furniture Resources, a company that buys and resells used office furniture, I had gone in thinking that the business gets its inventory from corporations that go under. I thought the story might have a twinge of melancholy to it, examining how OFR makes its money from reselling the vestiges of defunct businesses. Instead, I learned that OFR gets used furniture from Fortune 100 corporations that are moving or upgrading their offices. That piece of information took the interview in a different direction, and the final story ended up focusing more on OFR’s years of relationship-building and the behind-the-scenes logistics of the used office furniture business.
Ask the right kinds of questions.
All the stories we do at The Distance attempt to answer the question: “What’s the key to staying in business for so long?” But I don’t pose this question directly to business owners. It’s just too on-the-nose. Most of the people I talk to don’t really think in those terms, and if they do have a response, it’s usually kind of canned. After all, if someone asked you, “What’s the biggest life lesson you’ve learned?” you probably wouldn’t have a pithy answer. What’s worked well for me is to ask a whole bunch of questions about how the business operates and how it’s evolved over time. I might also ask the person to describe how he or she got through a difficult period, or how they made certain important decisions. When I transcribe the tape and review my notes, I’m able to pick out some common themes in the discussion and get closer to answering the overarching question.
Open-ended questions are also really important, especially in the kinds of stories we do at The Distance, where the voice of the business owner is critical. Yes/no questions yield bad quotes, so you don’t want to get in a position where you’re just reciting a bunch of facts at the subject and getting them to confirm those facts. You’ll end up with an hour of you showing off all the research you’ve done, and not very much from the person you’re interviewing.
For feature reporting in particular, you often want subjects to set a specific scene for you—what something looked like, where they were, what they were thinking or feeling or wearing. When someone starts describing a scene you think might make a good anecdote for the story, slow down and walk the person through the scene in detail: “So you were sitting here? Where was the other person? Then what did you do?”
Location, location, location
I do all my primary interviews in person at the business itself. Seeing interview subjects in their natural habitat, so to speak, adds a lot to stories. When possible, ask for a tour or to tag along with someone at an event where you can see the person in action. If I have a choice between the person’s office and a conference room, I always choose the former because people’s office decor—what’s hanging on their wall and sitting on their desks—usually generates interesting material. That’s how I learned the president of Carma Labs (the maker of Carmex lip balm) collects motorcycles and self-playing musical instruments, and how the owner of Merz Apothecary ended up reading a framed letter on his wall that had him, his son and me in tears.
Take your time and over-report.
When you sit down to write, you want to be in a position where you are making tough, practically heartbreaking, decisions about what makes the final story. Also, you don’t know what’s the most important or interesting unless you’ve gathered a lot of material. A typical Distance episode is around 15 minutes, with that split between my narration and the tape I’ve gathered. That usually works out to seven or eight minutes of tape from interviews that take anywhere from one to three hours. It’s never easy to leave out so much material, especially since people take that kind of time to talk to me. But all that information lives in the background of the piece, informing the overall narrative and helping me tell the story with greater confidence and authority.
Perhaps the most important tip I can give is to act with empathy and be grateful for your interview subjects’ time, candor and trust. I am constantly amazed that anyone agrees to talk to journalists. A few months ago, I was on the phone with a potential subject who wanted to know what measurable benefits previous Distance business owners have gotten from being featured on the show. I was honest and said “none.” As far as I know, there have been no uptick in sales or life-changing business deals for any of the businesses profiled on the show. The benefits are more intangible—public relations, the opportunity to share your story with an outlet that will treat it with care. If I’m being truly honest, the show and I are the ones who benefit the most. We’re getting great stories that will hopefully keep building our audience and contribute to a conversation about business models based on long-term vision and staying independent.
By the way, if you’re wondering how Umberto Eco responded to the question about whether he believed in God, he said: “I don’t speak of private questions in public. Anyway, the only thing I am pretty sure—God believes in me!”
Before joining Basecamp, where everyone can live and work wherever they want (look at our desks!), I commuted to an office where I had a cubicle. I’d always worked in newsrooms, which tend to be livelier than a many other workplaces—TVs blaring, reporters having loud arguments with recalcitrant public officials and corporate spokespeople on the phone. Even so, my last cubicle was a little dreary, so I gave it a makeover with neon pink damask fabric wall coverings and matching accessories that imbued the space with a Laura Ashley fever dream vibe. It improved the quality of my work life immensely.
Office workers spend a lot of time at their desks—eight to ten hours a day. And it’s easy to take that furniture for granted. For Office Furniture Resources, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, commercial furniture is its lifeblood. OFR buys desks, chairs and cubicles from Fortune 100 companies that are moving or upgrading and resells that furniture to businesses with smaller budgets. A five-year-old Herman Miller or Steelcase chair has a lot of life left in it, and OFR has built a healthy business on finding new homes for all that gently used office furniture. It’s an industry that operates completely behind the scenes yet touches the lives of office workers everywhere.
WAILIN: Twenty-five years ago, Tom Quinlan had just moved to Milwaukee and was looking for a new job after almost 20 years working at a Chicago company that sold office furniture. One day, he ended up on the phone with someone back in Chicago that he knew through his old job.
TOM: Someone asked me, he said: “I’ve got a bunch of furniture here. Would you be interested in taking it?” And I said, “Oh, okay.” So I, I drove to Chicago and they walked me back into this warehouse and I think there was like a hundred chairs, and the guy goes, you know, “Will you take these hundred chairs for me?”
WAILIN: They were red guest chairs, the kind you might find in a reception area or a waiting room, and they were made by Steelcase, a big office furniture manufacturer. Tom’s old job had been managing the warehouse of a Steelcase dealer, and he knew they were well-made chairs.
TOM: And I said: “Okay, I don’t have to pay for these hundred chairs?” “No, just take ’em because it’s gonna cost us more money to throw ’em out than it’s worth. We just want you to take ‘em.” Oh, okay. I think I can probably sell those chairs.
WAILIN: Tom loaded the hundred red chairs into his rental truck and put them all in the basement of the two-flat in Milwaukee that he and his wife, Suzanne, were renting.
TOM: And then, you know, Suzanne, who came home from work and she went down to the basement and she said, “What the hell are you doing with all these damn chairs? What’s gotten into — that’s crazy!”
WAILIN: What Tom did with all those damn chairs was start a business called Office Furniture Resources, or OFR. This year, it celebrates 25 years of buying and selling used office furniture, everything from cubicle panels to credenzas to filling cabinets to carpets. If cubicle walls could talk, what stories would they tell? Well, we’ve got one of those stories today, and you’ll hear it on The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. Introducing the new Basecamp Three. Basecamp is everything any team needs to stay on the same page about whatever they’re working on. We use Basecamp to run our show, and I should mention that OFR also uses Basecamp. As a general rule, we do not feature Basecamp customers on The Distance. This was an oversight on my part and I apologize for it. We’re still sharing this story because I really like it. So let’s get back to Tom Quinlan and the hundred red chairs in his basement.
TOM: I said, “You know, there’s an opportunity I just couldn’t say no to, and I think I can sell these chairs.” And then, at the same time, I had a friend who lived in Milwaukee. She had some time on her hands, and I said, I think if I taught her what I know about furniture, I bet you she’s gonna be able to go around to local businesses and sell these chairs.
WAILIN: That friend was Nancy Kidd.
NANCY: My name is Nancy Kidd, and I am employee number one.
WAILIN: At the time, Nancy had a bunch of different jobs, like working at the local YMCA and selling ads for a fitness publication. Tom put two of the red chairs in her car and told her if you sell these, you can keep half the proceeds.
NANCY: I went into this print shop and I actually had to get some printing done and I said, “Hmm, you guys don’t have any place to sit down in here while you’re waiting.” And they said, “Oh yeah we know, we should get some chairs.” And I said, “I have a couple in my car.” I said, “These are Steelcase 454 guest chairs. They weigh about 75 pounds each. They are built like a brick shithouse and they’re gonna be 75 bucks each.” And he said, “I’ll take ‘em.” I said great. So, took them out of the car and they gave me 150 bucks. I drove over to Tom and I was just like—that was so much money to me. When he gave me that 75 dollars, I was like oh my God. Whatever. I’ll do whatever.
WAILIN: That was how it all started. Tom and Nancy sat in the basement — Tom on a big leather chair, Nancy on a little green chair that belonged to Tom’s toddler son—and they worked the phone.
NANCY: I would call people and I would say, um, “Hey you know, I was wondering if you had any 30-inch deep cantilevers. Oh, you do?” And Tom would nod and say, “How much?” And he’d write something on a paper and I’d say, “How much are you asking for those? Oh, 5 percent? Five cents on the dollar? The list price? Oh yeah, okay, um.” And he would, like, hand signal and tell me what to say and do and I would say it and do it and buy stuff.
WAILIN: It was just Tom and Nancy in those days, so Tom would drive around picking up furniture himself.
TOM: We would go into a building and we would buy a floor of furniture and at the time, back 25 years ago, we didn’t really have a warehouse or a facility to bring it out, so we would try and flip it. So we would take it out of the building and then try to resell it to another dealer, used furniture company that’s in our business, and that business could be in Chicago or it could be in California, Texas, Ohio. It didn’t really matter.
WAILIN: Eventually, OFR got big enough that Tom needed to rent a warehouse in Milwaukee. Today, the business has locations in Milwaukee, Madison, St. Louis and Chicago. When companies are looking to get rid of their office furniture, usually because they’re upgrading or moving, OFR comes in, takes everything apart and hauls it away. It then resells those used chairs and desks, either to another furniture dealer, to a business that’s looking for office furniture, or to shoppers that walk into an OFR retail store. Whenever big corporations jump on new trends in office furniture, like going from tall cubicles to more open spaces with lower walls, it’s good business for OFR.
TOM : You have the Fortune 100 companies. All this product that they decide it doesn’t work for them, trickles down to the rest of us. And there’s a lot of the rest of us. We don’t sell used furniture to the Fortune 100 companies. We take their furniture, we work with them because they have to get rid of it, and then we basically trickle it down to small, mid-sized firms, 50 to 200 employees, that they don’t have the budget but they have the need. And that’s our typical customer profile. A lot of people think that we get the furniture from companies that are going under or are bankrupt or out of business. That’s not the case at all. Ninety-nine percent of the furniture that we get are from companies that are redoing their space for whatever reason.
WAILIN: The process of removing office furniture is known as liquidation or decommissioning, and it’s intense, physical work. A single workstation — that’s the industry term for a cubicle — can consist of hundreds of individual parts that have to be taken apart.
TOM: So we’re doing a job downtown and it might be like, maybe a floor or two. Square footage is maybe 30, 50 thousand square feet, so you know, an average downtown building floor is anywhere from 25 to 50 or 70 thousand square feet. You can fit about a hundred workstations on an average floor.
WAILIN: The decommissioning is usually done at night. The furniture is loaded onto trucks and transported to a warehouse about 15 minutes from downtown Chicago. OFR might shuttle 15 to 20 truckloads of furniture to the warehouse on any given night. After 25 years in the business, Tom can estimate with uncanny accuracy how many truckloads are needed for a job. Nancy remembers when she and Tom did a walkthrough of a big downtown office.
NANCY: We must have walked 30 floors of the building. I mean, it was just like (sound) crazy. We got to the end and somebody said, “Well Tom, how many trailers do you think are gonna come out of this building?” And Tom said a hundred and five, and I think a hundred and six or a hundred and three came out of the building at the end and I’ll never forget it. His mind is just a trailer load.
WAILIN: The used office furniture business is heavy on logistics and manual labor, but it’s also built on human relationships because Tom and his staff need to know which Fortune 100 corporations are planning to move or redecorate. In the Midwest, OFR is tight with the big commercial real estate firms that manage office buildings. It also has contacts at new furniture dealers and local moving companies and installers, all of which can recommend OFR to their customers. The network that OFR has built is one you only get by being around for many years. And it all started with Nancy and a recipe box.
NANCY: Tom said we need to connect with every installation company in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri. So I would go to to the library and get the Yellow Pages or the microfiche and get on those machines and write down phone numbers and then make phone calls, hey this is what we do, you know, do you ever have a need for this, do you have a garage full of stuff we can buy from old de-installations. I had four-by-six index cards and I had like a recipe box, and I alphabetized it and I would get on an airplane with my recipe box.
WAILIN: The result of all those phone calls and relationship building can be seen in OFR’s warehouse in Des Plaines, Illinois, a few miles from O’Hare International Airport. It’s just one of the company’s warehouses, and it’s packed to the brim.
TOM: This is 50,000 square feet of office furniture. There’s probably easy, a thousand workstations in here. There’s probably 1,500 chairs. There’s probably a couple thousand filing cabinets.
WAILIN: For OFR, the ideal liquidation is one that yields a lot of furniture with a high resale value, like Herman Miller chairs that are just five years old and have probably another 15 years of life left in them. On the other end of the spectrum is furniture that is outdated, like wood laminate surfaces that were designed to hold clunky desktop computers or big filing cabinets from the days when cubicle walls were higher and companies stored a lot of paper. There’s just not demand for that kind of furniture anymore. So the wood laminate goes to a landfill, along with stuff like fabric. Metal gets taken to a scrap yard for recycling, although it’s kind of a bad deal for the company right now.
TOM: The price of metal is really going down. The last time I looked, it was like 15 bucks a ton. A year ago at this time, it was 275 dollars a ton. So that’s a huge deal in our business because people always ask that question: “Am I gonna get any credit back for metal?” Well, at 15 bucks a ton, it costs us more money to put it on a trailer, bring it to the scrapper, than we’re getting back, so it’s a losing proposition for us, so we have to charge for that. When you were getting 275 a ton, you could actually give back to the customer credit for the metal.
WAILIN: OFR has faced other economic pressures, like Chinese imports that sell for the same price, new, as gently used furniture from Steelcase and Herman Miller. Then there was the most recent recession, when Fortune 100 companies kept decommissioning their offices but smaller businesses stopped buying furniture. It was incumbent on OFR to show customers they could create a nice space for a fraction of what it costs to buy new furniture, like $200 for a Steelcase chair versus a list price of $1,000. There’s another, more abstract sales pitch too, one that’s about convincing businesses that a more inviting office space leads to happier workers and increased productivity.
TOM: When you sell your house, the day of the open house, you always have a fire going in the fireplace, right? You’re trying to make people feel like this could be my space. Wouldn’t it be nice to be sitting there on Sunday with a nice fire? You’re just trying to give them that warm and fuzzy. Commercial furniture is the same feeling. You want people, when they get off the elevator, to feel like, I can spend the next eight to ten hours here.
WAILIN: OFR doesn’t just extol the virtues of used office furniture to potential customers. It furnishes its own corporate headquarters with chairs and workstations from liquidations. Last year, it decommissioned Google’s former office space in downtown Chicago. Google took all its chairs when it moved further west, but the company left behind some very nice Herman Miller workstations that convert from regular to standing desks.
TOM: Those are really hip. Everybody wants those; those are great.
WAILIN: Tom’s wife, Suzanne, who’s in charge of OFR’s finances, uses one of those sit-to-stand desks. Nancy Kidd has a special piece of furniture in her office too — the little green plastic chair that she used to sit on in Tom’s basement. The green chair originally belonged to Tom and Suzanne’s son, Jack, who was just a toddler when the business was founded and is now 26 and works in the Milwaukee warehouse.
TOM: You know, actually, in the last few years, he’s really probably the one that really makes it all work for us. He’s autistic, so for Suzanne and I to watch him grow and have a social environment at work, it brings tears to your eyes.
WAILIN: Tom has watched other long-time employees grow up and raise families of their own while working at OFR, and those are relationships he takes seriously. He believes in promoting from within and having everyone try each other’s jobs. Like if someone gets hired as an accountant, they might spend some time offloading furniture from trucks, just so employees understand every facet of the business.
TOM: Suzanne and I, we’re there all the time and there’s nothing that is above us. You have to maintain those relationships and be willing to do whatever you’re asking someone else to do. You should be willing to do and that is true when you’re 21 and that’s true when you’re 65. People have to understand that you’ve done that and you know what you’re talking about. They’ll respect that.
I would say 80 percent of my day is communicating to employees. The other 20 percent, I’m getting coffee. The interaction with your employees is like what makes me come to work every day. That’s the fun part. You’re watching them grow and you’re giving them the ability to grow.
WAILIN: As a used furniture guy, Tom never gets to see what the new spaces look like after a customer moves. But he always tells them, it’s okay. I’ll see the stuff in 10 years. And he knows better than most people that there’s still a lot of value in old furniture.
TOM: The reason why we’re successful and we started this business was the fact that I walked in that warehouse 25 years ago and I saw an opportunity to sell those chairs. I want everybody that works for me to feel the same way. They have to be able to recognize and see opportunity and then jump on it, and then live with it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But if you don’t do it at all, you’re dead.
WAILIN: Nancy saw an opportunity, too, when she walked into the print shop and asked if they wanted to buy the two red chairs in her car. Those chairs are still at the print shop. Tom’s thinking of paying them a follow-up visit.
TOM: For our 25-year anniversary, we thought maybe we should go back and see if we can buy those chairs back and replace them with something a little bit nicer. I’d make it worth his while. And I’d bring him nicer chairs, too. I’d replace ’em. Wanna make sure that he’s happy.
WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. You can find us online at thedistance.com, where we have links to episode transcripts, and on Twitter at distancemag, that’s @distancemag. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the leading app for keeping teams on the same page about whatever they’re working on. Your first Basecamp is completely free forever. Try the brand new Basecamp Three for yourself at basecamp.com/thedistance.
I first learned about boot jacks a couple weeks ago, when I reported this story about Alcala’s Western Wear, a 41-year-old retailer in Chicago. Illinois is not a place where you see a lot of cowboy boots — not like, say, Texas or Montana, where airport security checkpoints come with boot jacks to help flyers take off their boots.
Yet even in this urban metropolis, Alcala’s Western Wear has flourished, offering a massive selection of cowboy hats, boots, shirts, belt buckles and more. Western wear has been far more than a fashion fad for the Alcala family, now in its second generation of ownership. The Alcalas know what it’s like to bootstrap a business in every sense of the word.
WAILIN: Richard Alcala has been selling clothing for a long time, long enough that you can track his career by the width of men’s pants. When Richard was starting out, bell bottoms were all the rage, thanks to Saturday Night Fever.
RICHARD: They were really tight in the thigh and they were really wide as soon as it got to the knee. From the knee down, they were like a big, big V. And they covered — they were so wide that they covered your shoes. Everybody wanted to be like that guy in the movie.
WAILIN: That guy, of course, being John Travolta. Saturday Night Fever came out in 1977. And men’s pants have gotten a lot slimmer since then, surprising even Richard, who’s been in the retail business for more than four decades.
RICHARD: Guys’ skinny jeans. I never saw that coming. And it’s still coming strong, my gosh. I don’t think those tapered jeans are going anywhere. I think people really really love them and they love the way they fit.
WAILIN: Richard’s business isn’t going anywhere either. He’s the president of Alcala’s Western Wear, a Chicago store that sells cowboy hats, boots, shirts, belt buckles, and more. Here, east of the Mississippi River, you’ll find more apartment dwellers with cats and dogs than grizzled ranchers with cows and horses. And yet Alcala’s Western Wear has endured, outlasting disco and many other fashion fads. You’ll hear the story of this urban cowboy outfitter on The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. Introducing the new Basecamp Three. Basecamp is everything any team needs to stay on the same page about whatever they’re working on. Tasks, spur of the moment conversations with coworkers, status updates, reports, documents and files all share one home. And now your first basecamp is completely free forever. Sign up at basecamp.com/thedistance.
RICHARD: I’m wearing some brown alligator boots by Old Gringo and I’m wearing a Stetson hat and it’s a white color because good guys wear white, supposedly, from the movies, okay, and I’m wearing a bolo tie. It’s made out of stone. And this is how I dress every day. You know, it’s who I am.
WAILIN: Richard Alcala is the fifth of ten children who were born into a family of salesmen. His great-grandfather sold cars at one of Ford’s first dealerships in Mexico, and he was also the first taxi cab driver in the city of Durango.
RICHARD: He had the first license for a taxi and he would go up and down the boulevard giving people rides. And my father said there were so many people they would stand on the outside of the car on the running boards and just hold on because they couldn’t fit into this car because they could only fit so many people in this car, right? And he loved selling cars. My great-grandfather loved selling cars, and so I think it’s just in our blood.
WAILIN: Richard’s father, Luis, came to the US and landed in Chicago, where among other jobs, he had a table at the Maxwell Street market. This was an open-air bazaar on the city’s near west side that was known as a bargain hunters’ paradise for over a hundred years, until the mid nineties. It was where Richard learned how to make a sale from watching his father.
RICHARD: He would go to Maxwell Street every Sunday and set up his own little booth there on the street and he would sell things. He would sell clothing. He did brooms. He sold lawn mowers. Basically whatever he could get, he would sell. And since we had a large family, you know, the sons would go with him and help.
We weren’t allowed to keep our hands in our pockets. That was a big no-no. Never put your hands in your pocket because you’re telling the customer that you really don’t care. So you could never put—even if it was below zero, you could not put your hands in your pocket.
It was neat to sell something. That was like the pat on the back. When you sold something, you felt like, “Wow, I did this. I did this and I did this on my own.”
WAILIN: Luis Alcala eventually opened a brick and mortar store on the south side of Chicago, selling men’s clothing. Many of his customers worked at a nearby US Steel plant, and business declined when that factory closed. So he opened a second menswear store in 1975, this time further north, in a neighborhood populated with Polish, Mexican and Puerto Rican residents. Five years later, another John Travolta movie — Urban Cowboy — sparked interest in western wear.
RICHARD: They wanted to wear his hat. They wanted the same shirt that he wore in the movie. All of a sudden, every guy in Chicago wanted a big pickup truck. Now, was it practical to have a pickup truck in Chicago? Probably not. Did anybody care? No. Nobody cared that they didn’t need a pickup truck, but they wanted a pickup truck because that’s what he drove in this movie and they wanted the hat that he wore and it really really brought western wear, like—it made the whole industry, like, really really popular.
WAILIN: At Alcala’s, customers were coming in asking for shirts with snaps, and boots, and hats. Richard, who had worked at the store since the eighth grade, thought the family business could distinguish itself from other menswear stores in the neighborhood by focusing on western wear. But his father took some convincing.
RICHARD: He wasn’t very fond of the idea because we had been carrying menswear for a long time, and to all of a sudden stop carrying it and switching over to something new was like a real big change. It was a real big change but I told him, I says, “Dad, we have to do this. We can’t be — we can’t be both. You know, we can’t be western wear and we can’t be menswear. We have to be one or the other because we don’t want to confuse customers.”
WAILIN: Not only did Alcala’s make the switch, but it grew into an enormous one-stop shop for everything western, and expanded to women and children’s apparel. The store is 10,000 square feet and carries 8,000 pairs of boots, 3,000 pairs of jeans, three thousand shirts and 4,000 hats. There’s also belt buckles, bootstraps, leather duster jackets, bolo ties, blankets and jewelry.
RICHARD: We’ve always believed that the customers should get a good selection. Customers don’t want to come in and look at a shirt and have ten shirts to decide from. I think it’s better if they can look at 200 shirts and decide from 200 which ones they like.
WAILIN: Alcala’s prides itself on its large inventory and customer service. There’s a tailor on staff who will alter jeans and shirts for free, usually while you wait. There’s also a specialist in the hat department.
ENRIQUE,: Hi, my name is Enrique Mendoza and I’m working at Alcala’s, shaping and cleaning hats for a very very long time.
WAILIN: How long? Since 1988, when Enrique came to the US from Mexico. His brother-in-law worked at Alcala’s as a tailor and got him a job in the hat department, where he’s been ever since. If you want the brim on your Stetson to frame your face just so, Enrique’s your man. He uses a foot-operated steamer and his hand to mold hats into the right shape. Enrique estimates he works on 200 hats a week. Sometimes it’s a quick spot clean, other times it’s trimming a brim and shaping the crown. You can get the cattleman crease, which has three creases, or the pinch front crease, which creates a triangular shape, or the telescope, which is a circular crown with a crease that goes all the way around. There are a lot of choices — straw, felt, leather, different colors and band styles and brim sizes — and Enrique has 27 years of experience helping customers make sense of it all.
ENRIQUE: I’m asking, “Okay, where are you going?” If you going to a wedding, you need a nice and elegant hat, right? If you go to a rodeo on an open field, you need a different hat, so it depends on where you going, is the hat you have to buy.
WAILIN: Enrique’s secret weapon is a spray bottle of Windex. He discovered by accident many years ago that it’s a good cleaner for hats and dries faster than water.
ENRIQUE: You gotta do the brush, you see? The clock go this way; you have to do the other way. That’s the way that finish the hat, look.
(Sound of brushing)
And the Windex, it helps you clean it, look. See?
(Sound of brushing)
WAILIN: The kind of personal attention that Enrique and other staff members provide is more important than ever, now that Alcala’s is facing so much competition — both from online-only retailers and its own suppliers like Levi’s, who have started selling directly to consumers. The store sells merchandise online, but Richard thinks of the website as more of a big, Google-friendly business card than a source of revenue.
RICHARD: I don’t understand how people can buy boots and shirts and jeans online without trying them on. I guess you gotta order them and return them if they don’t fit, and do it all over again, you know, I think it’s easier if you just come to a store and try them on.
WAILIN: And if you come to Alcala’s in person, you can try on merchandise while your kids ride one of the store’s two mechanical ponies. You can feel the difference between rattlesnake and eel skin and stingray boots, or ask Enrique Mendoza how your hat should look.
RICHARD: If we close our store tomorrow and we depended online business, we would be closed in 30 days. There’s so much competition out there. There’s so many non stores. There’s so many people out there selling the same product that we do who don’t have a store. They have a garage. They’re working out of their basement. They don’t have 30 employees. We have 30 employees here.
WAILIN: A lot of those employees are family members. Remember when I told you Richard is the fifth of ten kids? Five of his siblings work at the store too, along with other relatives.
RICHARD: My brother Robert, he’s the accounting. I have a sister, Lupi, she’s accounts payable. I have a brother John who is in charge of shipping and receiving. And I have another brother Louie, who’s a cashier. My wife Elia, she’s a cashier. And then we have nieces and nephews working here and I’ve got a brother-in-law working here, so there’s a lot of family members working here.
Everybody has their own responsibility. You don’t have two or three people doing the same job, so I think it’s important that everybody kind of like has their own position. They have their own responsibilities, and I think that really helps when you’re in a family business. So this way, not everybody’s meddling into everybody else’s job.
WAILIN: Richard’s job is president, a position he’s had since 1982, when his father picked him as his successor after a year of observing him and his siblings.
RICHARD: Since I was number five out of ten, I thought I would never be able to run this company because I have four brothers who are older than me. And so one day, my dad had a family meeting and he called us over and he says, “I want someone to run this company. One of you’s are going to run this company and I’m not gonna base it on age.” And I was like, “Yes, that’s great, I’m so happy, wow. So now I have a chance.” And so I really really worked hard and I proved to my father that I wanna be the one who runs this company. He picked me and he told my brothers — he told my older brothers, he said, “Look, even though he’s younger than you, you have to respect his decisions. You can’t look at him like he’s your little brother and now your little brother is bossing you around.” He said, “Everybody had the same opportunity that he did, but none of you’s showed the same interest that he did. So now this is how it’s gonna be. Your brother’s going to be in charge and if he says go right, we’re gonna have to go right.”
WAILIN: Richard’s father, Luis, passed away in 2014 at the age of 92. Portraits of Luis Alcala and his wife of more than 60 years, Carmen, hang side by side at the front of the store. Hand-lettered signs above each painting say “El Rey” — the king — and “La Reina” — the queen. In Luis’ portrait, he’s wearing tinted aviator glasses and looks every bit the patriarch, watching over the business he founded. Richard is 57 and starting to think about stepping back in a few years. He plans to search for a successor the same way his father did, by finding someone who really loves the business and will take care of it, someone who’s a natural salesperson.
RICHARD: I’m a real firm believer that you have to wear what you sell. I would feel ridiculous if I’m helping a customer, showing him cowboy boots, and I’m wearing gym shoes. It’s important that you wear what you sell and that you love what you sell. You have to believe in it.
WAILIN: Over four decades in the business, Richard’s tastes have evolved a bit. But he’s still very much a believer in the appeal of a sharp-looking pair of boots and a hat — in white, of course, because he’s one of the good guys.
RICHARD: I used to wear, like, real loud fancy shirts with a lot of embroidery in them, and I’ve noticed that I really don’t anymore. So yeah, you know, your tastebuds kind of change. Your tastebuds kind of change over the years, but you know, I still love what I’m doing and it’s been 43 years and I’m still here.
WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. We’ll be back next week with a mini episode where Shaun shops for a pair of cowboy boots at Alcala’s, so stay tuned for that. In the meantime, if you could leave us a review on iTunes, we would be so grateful. It helps our show gets discovered by new listeners. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the leading app for keeping teams on the same page about whatever they’re working on. Your first Basecamp is completely free forever. Try the brand new Basecamp Three for yourself at basecamp.com/thedistance.
Human history comes with a long paper trail, and there’s a company in Chicago whose mission is to preserve and restore that physical record. Graphic Conservation Company is a 95-year-old lab that specializes in repairing works on paper—anything from illuminated medieval manuscripts to personal family documents. It has undertaken some incredibly complex projects over the years, including restoring the state of Illinois’ copy of the House resolution for the 13th Amendment. Graphic Conservation can smooth wrinkles, remove ancient adhesive residue and even create new paper from scratch to patch holes in damaged items. Listen to our episode on the business or scroll down to read the transcript.
While reporting this story, I discovered a small personal connection to Graphic Conservation Co. The business started as a specialty book-binding department within RR Donnelley, a Fortune 500 commercial printing company. It’s where my dad, who immigrated from Hong Kong to the U.S. in the 1960’s to attend college, worked as an electrical engineer for his entire career. He started at Donnelley during the period that the company sold its Graphic Conservation Department to its then-managers, who made the lab into a private business. Donnelley’s legacy lives on at Graphic Conservation Co., which still uses equipment from the 1930’s. You can see some of those machines in the photo below, taken in 1935.
The kinds of projects that Graphic Conservation takes on fall into a few general categories. There are works of art, like this 1871 Currier and Ives lithograph of the Great Chicago Fire. The piece arrived at the lab with discoloration from acidic framing materials. The conservators cleaned up the acid stains.
Much of Graphic Conservation’s recent growth has come from individual clients bringing in personal documents like immigration papers and marriage licenses. The lab has also worked on mementos like old letters, photographs and tickets. Below is a marriage license from 1894. The document was very brittle and was rolled up in fragments. Conservators flattened all the pieces, put them together and filled in the parts where the ink was gone.
Another personal item that came into the lab was this Holocaust identification card. In this case, Graphic Conservation’s staff used Japanese tissue of a similar tone to patch the holes and stabilize the document. The goal here was repair and preservation, so the conservators did not fill in lost ink as they did for the marriage license above.
Besides art and personal documents, Graphic Conservation also works on priceless documents. The most notable recent example is the state of Illinois’ copy of the House resolution for the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. The vellum document, one of just a handful of commemorative copies signed by Abraham Lincoln and others, had been folded and wrinkled almost to the point of illegibility.
Graphic Conservation’s staff re-humidified and pressed the document repeatedly over many weeks to remove the wrinkles and help the ink re-adhere to the vellum. It did this project pro bono for the state.
Graphic Conservation has more before and after examples on its website. If you have a document you’d like to get repaired, the company will write up a technical condition report and give you a quote for free. (The staff does need to inspect the item in person at their office in Chicago.)
WAILIN: In 1864, a year after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, a lithographer in Chicago made 52 commemorative copies of the proclamation. These were called broadsides and each one measured 18 by 24 inches, with a portrait of Lincoln in the middle and some additional illustrated vignettes.
TANNER: Visually, I just love kind of the cadence of it, how it’s illustrated on top. Then you read the first part of the proclamation and then it’s illustrated right in the middle and there’s a beautiful picture, a portrait of Lincoln front and center, and then it’s handwritten again at the bottom.
WAILIN: That’s Tanner Woodford. He is the executive director of the Chicago Design Museum and a lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Of the 52 known copies of this commemorative broadside, number 28 belonged to Tanner’s grandfather, who kept it on the wall next to his television.
TANNER: I’m not really sure, honestly, how it came into his collection and I asked him several times, and each time I got a different story (laughs), so I think at some point he was just being a grandpa, you know (laughs), just telling me stories, just trying to get me excited about history.
WAILIN: There was the story about how an ancestor rode horseback across the United States burning down towns and stole the document. There was the one about how Tanner’s grandfather found it in the wall of a house he bought. And there was the story about how the family is somehow related to Zachary Taylor or Herbert Hoover or maybe both. Whatever the real story, the broadside of the Emancipation Proclamation passed from Tanner’s grandfather to his mother to him, and by the time it reached him, it was showing its age.
TANNER: There’s a big piece of yellowed tape at the bottom where there was previously a rip and somebody else had tried to tape it and put it back on their wall. There’s a very large stain that takes up, probably, what do you think, that’s an eighth of it or so? And it looks like it was some sort of a water stain at some point in time, and then there are pretty clear rips throughout the entire thing from where it had been rolled and you know, maybe carried on horseback, I have no idea.
WAILIN: Tanner wanted to look into getting the document repaired, but he didn’t know where to go. And then one day, he was giving a friend a tour of his museum and his friend said, hey, you like art history. I know someone you should meet.
RUSS: Hello, my name is Russ Maki. I’m president of Graphic Conservation Company.
WAILIN: Graphic Conservation Company in Chicago is 95 years old and specializes in repairing and protecting works on paper, anything from fine art to historical artifacts to personal documents. On any given day, Russ Maki’s team might be removing decades-old masking tape from a Matisse or piecing together a marriage certificate found in someone’s attic or preserving an illuminated manuscript from the fifteenth century.
RUSS: It’s also, frankly, the only business I’ve ever been in when I’ve delivered a product and everyone in the room has been in tears. There’s a phenomenal connection between paper and the human record and what that means to people, and we think about that a lot here.
WAILIN: Every piece of paper that comes into the lab tells a story — not just what’s on it, but the story of its own creation and the journey it’s been on since then. And now you’ll hear the story of Graphic Conservation Company on The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. Introducing the new Basecamp Three. Basecamp is everything any team needs to stay on the same page about whatever they’re working on. Tasks, spur of the moment conversations with co-workers, status updates, reports, documents and files all share one home. And now your first basecamp is completely free forever. Sign up at basecamp.com/thedistance.
RUSS: There’s no predictability to this business whatsoever. I have no idea what’s going to walk through the front door and that frankly is some of the fun of it. Every day we get something new and sometimes it’s through, you know, a FedEx pack or UPS. Sometimes it’s an armed courier. Sometimes it’s just, someone just knocks on our door and says, “I’m here.”
WAILIN: Graphic Conservation keeps a narrow focus on paper and vellum, which is a material made from animal hide. The company’s clients include institutions like art galleries, auction houses and museums, which might not have in-house paper experts or, in the case of museums, need extra help getting an exhibit ready. Increasingly, the lab has been seeing business from individuals with personal or family documents.
RUSS: Somewhere, tucked into their crawlspace, they have a marriage license that’s their great grandparents’ or an immigration paper from Ellis Island as they came over, and it’s usually in pretty bad shape. It was probably rolled up at one time and then crushed between a book or whatever, and they realize that, “Hey, there’s only one of these, and we’d like to preserve that for our future generations.” And they find us through the Internet, which is the big change in this business. So the average client ranges from an individual who has never done this kind of work before, who doesn’t know what a conservation lab is all about, to a very sophisticated, educated client that has collected art at the highest levels for their entire lifetime.
WAILIN: The work that comes into the lab can have significant financial value, like if they’re collectibles or pieces of fine art. Or they could be items whose value is measured in sentimental or emotional terms. The company once repaired a letter that a client’s father had written to Santa Claus in 1930, during the Great Depression, admitting that he hadn’t been very good that year but asking if Santa could bring him an apple for Christmas.
RUSS: We made facsimile copies of the original for each of the siblings to have in their house, and to remind them that you know, if you ever thought that you had a bad day, you really have not had a bad day.
WAILIN: Then there are those rare jobs that involve priceless works. In 2011, the lab restored the state of Illinois’ copy of the House resolution for the 13th amendment abolishing slavery. The vellum document, which was one of just a handful of commemorative copies signed by Abraham Lincoln, needed months of painstaking work, which Graphic Conservation did for free in this case. Russ remembers the day it arrived.
RUSS: When the team, along with the security personnel, left the lab, we all stood around it, the entire team. Not a word was spoken for minutes. You’re looking at a watershed moment in American history and I think the exact word count of the Article 1 of that is 35 words: that neither slavery nor involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime shall exist within these United States, or something to that effect. In 35 words, slavery was abolished. Today, that would be a 2,000-page document, right? So you’re looking at the utter simplicity of the prose. You’re looking at the magnificent calligraphy on this vellum document and you can just transport yourself back to February 1st, 1865, when it was signed and what Congress must have looked like that day as that was taking place. People risked their lives by signing that document and they knew they were risking their lives, and sure enough, President Lincoln was dead 75 days after he signed that document.
WAILIN: Graphic Conservation Company has a staff of eight people working in an 8,000-square foot lab with an expansive view of a railroad yard, the south branch of the Chicago River and the skyline, all serving as visual reminders of the city’s industrial past and present. The company itself comes out of this legacy. Graphic Conservation started in 1921 as a specialty department within RR Donnelley, a Fortune 500 commercial printing company founded in 1864. The department was originally called the Hand Bindery or the Extra Bindery because it focused on restoring fine books and making hand-tooled leather bindings. The group later moved from books to paper and was renamed the Graphic Conservation Department. In 1982, as the economy was in a recession, RR Donnelley sold the department to the managers who were running it, and Graphic Conservation became a private company.
RUSS: So we were part of Donnelley for the better part of 60 years and have been separate and apart from them for the last 34 now, and today our work — we do some work in book, but we’re one of the largest private paper conservation labs in the country.
WAILIN: Graphic Conservation still uses some cast iron book presses and other equipment, including a pencil sharpener, that date back to the 30s. A lot of the paper conservation process itself has also remained unchanged. And even though no two projects are quite alike, the lab sees a lot of the same problems over and over. They deal with rips, creases, water damage, tape residue or the telltale brown stains of acid burn. Maybe the document got so brittle that it flaked off into little fragments that have to be pieced back together like the world’s most tedious jigsaw puzzle. Some of the pieces that come in are newspaper pages or print advertisements or tickets, things that were never meant to last very long. Other times, something was put in a bad frame and got damaged. Russ, who became owner of Graphic Conservation in 2009 after working at a specialty paper company, doesn’t blink at much anymore.
RUSS: We had a client call us from a high-rise building. They, for some reason, on a windy day, decided to open all their windows and I think they got their art framing supplies from a big-box retailer, and they had one single hook in the wall for each of their four Warhols. Well, the Warhols flew off the walls, and unfortunately they were framed in glass. So glass shattered each one of these, or punctured each one, and we had to repair them. So yeah, we’ve seen it all. (Laughs)
WAILIN: And the lab’s conservators have fixed it all. They’re able to erase acid burns and water stains, to smooth out creases and scrape off ancient residue from adhesives, sometimes spending hours on a single square inch of paper with a microscope and a scalpel. The staff fills in holes by taking antique paper that matches the piece being repaired, reducing that paper to pulp and reconstituting it. If there’s missing artwork, the conservators can even paint in the lost image or text in a completely seamless way. The company has created new paper to fix posters, photographs and even a letter from the Boston Red Sox to Babe Ruth in 1918, agreeing to pay him a thousand dollar bonus for the season and another thousand if the team won the American League pennant that year. Russ has the before and after images of the letter framed in his office.
RUSS: He cashed both checks (laughs). So it was a good year for the Babe. (laughs)
WAILIN: I see a couple little holes, and some tape on the top left corner by the letterhead.
RUSS: Exactly. So we repaired all those areas of loss and as you can see on the right, the image post-restoration was brought back to life.
WAILIN: What are those blobs under the “Yours truly?”
RUSS: Insect damage. So insects had literally eaten away part of the paper. And you’ll see that with old documents that aren’t properly stored, frequently. It’s sad, but there are some bugs out there that really enjoy eating paper. Silverfish, especially.
WAILIN: Every job that comes into Graphic Conservation requires a series of judgment calls on what kind of treatment to use, and how far to go in preserving or repairing something. In the case of a Holocaust identification card, which arrived in extremely fragile condition, the team filled in missing pieces with Japanese tissue of a roughly similar tone, but didn’t recreate any printing because the purpose was to stabilize the document for posterity, not alter it. With the state of Illinois’ copy of the 13th amendment, which had wrinkled almost to the point of illegibility, Russ and his team discussed what to do for months before starting the treatment, which involved re-humidifying the vellum, pressing it, and slowly repeating that process over many weeks.
RUSS: Ours is a business where you get one shot at it to do it right. Again, everything we do here is the original art or the original document and there are no do-overs.
Russ’ staff members have backgrounds in studio art, chemistry and conservation. The company trains from within, hiring interns and developing them into part or full-time employees. Christina Marusich, the head conservator, started as an intern when she was a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has been working here for over 30 years. It’s amazing to think that interns are allowed to handle the documents that come into the lab. As a visitor, I was terrified of accidentally sneezing on something, like the Albrecht Durer print from the sixteenth century lying on a worktable that Russ pointed out on a tour of the lab. But interns need literal hands-on experience to learn how to do the work. Here’s Christina.
CHRISTIA: We work a lot as a team, so we’re working alongside each other and can — just learning how things should be touched and moved around and examined, so a very conscientious group here, very gentle and quiet, you know, no fast moves (laughs).
WAILIN: At Graphic Conservation, minor treatments cost in the mid to high hundreds of dollars, with more complicated jobs going well above a thousand dollars. But the company doesn’t charge for assessments. When prospective customers bring in something to be examined, the lab provides a complimentary condition report and outlines a proposed treatment. It also gives a quote, with a guarantee that the final price won’t go over that amount. But there’s no requirement to commit to anything. When Tanner Woodford brought in his copy of the Emancipation Proclamation broadside, it turned out that Graphic Conservation had worked on a different copy of that same broadside, and Russ was more excited to see Tanner’s version than anything else.
TANNER: It wasn’t even so much him trying to sell me on the process. It was more of him just being blown away by seeing another one, you know, just geeking out. That’s the thing I love about them, is they care so much about the artifacts that come in and they’re so knowledgable about them and it’s almost like when they fix them, to me, I get this feeling of really giving this thing back to the world. Russ was like, I just want to see it, if you could just bring it by sometime and I can give you a quote if you’d like, but I really just, I want to see another one.
WAILIN: Tanner did get a technical condition report and a quote from Graphic Conservation. He wasn’t ready to get the work done yet, but on Russ’ recommendation, he replaced his grandfather’s old frame with a better one. Tanner is saving for the restoration work. In the meantime, he hangs the document in his apartment near his television, just like his grandfather did.
TANNER: I could take the Emancipation Proclamation and put it in a flat file and keep it safe for much longer than if it’s hanging on a wall, but what’s the point of having the Emancipation Proclamation if you can’t enjoy it? If anybody ever wants to come see it, just shoot me an email (laughs). I might regret saying that, but (laughs).
WAILIN: When the time is right for Tanner to get his copy of the proclamation repaired, he’ll know where to go. And Russ and his staff are patient. They plan to be around for a long time, focusing on what they do best, and not chasing after bigger volumes or faster growth.
RUSS: To be candid, I don’t want this business to grow beyond a certain point. It’s kind of selfish on my part, but I really, I want to know all of our clients. I want to know every job that’s in this lab. I want to maintain our reputation as being absolutely sterling in this business, and if it gets to the point where we have more work than we can handle, the possibility exists that we can disappoint, and we’ll never do that. The element of trust is gigantic in our business because if you’re going to find us to have us do some work for you, more than likely, you’re sending us one of the most important things you own — important either in terms of financial value or in terms of sentimental or emotional value, and we pay a great deal of respect in that process. It’s important. So we’re not gonna overburden ourselves and we’re certainly not going to over promise.
WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. Special thanks to Tanner Woodford for telling me about Graphic Conservation Company. If you want to see before and after images of some of their projects, I’ve included them with the transcript of this episode. Look for a link to the transcript at thedistance.com. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the leading app for keeping teams on the same page about whatever they’re working on. Your first Basecamp is completely free forever. Try the brand new Basecamp Three for yourself at basecamp.com/thedistance.
On the day after Christmas, as buckets of freezing rain and sleet fell on the Chicago area, I white-knuckled my way to the 61-year-old Uptown Tavern in the suburb of Westmont to interview the owner, Bill Carlson. I wasn’t expecting to find anyone at the bar, but when I walked in, there were 15 people drinking, chatting and watching TV.
It’s always busy at the Uptown, which hosts fundraisers, serves a free turkey dinner on Thanksgiving and provides a place for local third-shift workers to unwind in the early morning. Not bad for what Bill calls “a little shot and a beer bar.” He knows that even a humble tavern needs to keep evolving to survive. Pop open a can of Old Style and settle in for a story about a friendly neighborhood dive.
WAILIN: Bill Carlson has two rules when it comes to bartending. Number one: Always pay attention when you’re behind the bar. Bill takes this principle so seriously that eight years ago, he stopped smoking months in advance of the state smoking ban so he wouldn’t have to step out for breaks.
BILL: I’m so anal about waiting on customers that I wasn’t going to be outside when a customer might need a beer or a drink. So, you know, I get very upset with my bartenders if they turn their back to the bar to have a conversation. You can have a conversation and still scan the bar to see if somebody needs something.
WAILIN: Bill’s second rule of bartending, which relates to the first one: Listen to your customers.
BILL: You just try to be a good listener and not offer too many solutions. That seems to work out better than just — being a good listener is, I think, very important and remembering what they’re telling you. So if they come back in a day or two, you can ask them about it. Yes, I do believe that’s very big.
WAILIN: Bill has been listening to his customers for a long time. He started bartending in 1977 and has spent most of his career as the owner of the Uptown Tavern, an unassuming watering hole in the Chicago suburb of Westmont that’s been open since 1955. Bill describes the Uptown as just a little shot and a beer tavern, but the bar has been constantly evolving beneath its wood-paneled surface, and that’s largely because of Bill’s listening skills. Not just lending a sympathetic ear at the end of a long day, but paying attention to what his customers want. For example, no one seems to order Cutty Sark or JB Scotch anymore.
BILL: Now you better have Johnnie Walker and Dewar’s and onto the next line of ’em, you know. Bush Mills Bourbon, you know, I’d never heard of it. “You gotta get Bush Mills, everyone likes Bush Mills.” Okay! We got Bush Mills, you know? So just stuff like that. So you gotta keep up with the times, ask your clients or your customers what they like, what’s the new trend, you keep up, you’ve gotta keep up, you know, think young. You want a younger crowd to come in and spend their money as far as the bar business, think young and ask questions, ask your people, ask the customers at night what they want, you know, what they’re looking for.
WAILIN: Pull up a stool at the Uptown Tavern on this episode of The Distance, a show about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. Introducing the new Basecamp Three. Basecamp is everything any team needs to stay on the same page about whatever they’re working on. Tasks, spur of the moment conversations with coworkers, status updates, reports, documents and files all share one home. And now your first basecamp is completely free forever. Sign up at basecamp.com/thedistance.
BILL: It’s a blue collar town, it’s a working man’s town.
WAILIN: The Uptown Tavern is located in downtown Westmont, Illinois, a town that earned the nickname “Whiskey Hill” during Prohibition because the alcohol kept flowing. The bar is across the street from a commuter train station and kitty corner from where the legendary blues musician Muddy Waters used to live. For decades, the Uptown opened at 6 am and drew an early morning crowd of workers coming from overnight shifts at the nearby hospital and manufacturing plants. In 2009, the village of Westmont banned alcohol sales before 9 am, and those regulars disappeared.
BILL: They stopped coming in because they, you know, if they get off of work at 7 and we couldn’t open ‘til 9, they’d go get something to eat or something. They’d go home and start doing a project or doing whatever, found other places that were open earlier, so kind of lost all that trade.
WAILIN: Bill fought to get the time moved earlier, and the town relented. Starting January first of this year, the Uptown got to open at 7 am, and Bill is hopeful that his morning regulars will return in a few months as word gets around. Here’s how a typical day at the Uptown unfolds.
BILL: It’ll be an early morning crowd. It’ll thin out around, you know, after The Price is Right because it’s very — Price is Right is big around here, from 10 to 11, you know, and then it’s the Jeopardy crowd from 3:30 to 4, and you’ve got your after-work crowd. About 6, they start clearing out, and then about 7, 8 o clock, when we have our live entertainment for the evening starts up, it picks up again.
WAILIN: The Uptown is a modest place, located in a building that used to be a taxicab stand. There’s a large U-shaped bar, four tall tables with stools along the side wall, six TVs, five video gaming machines, a machine that sells Lotto tickets, and a digital jukebox that no one is allowed to play during Jeopardy. Aside from a collection of model race cars and some beer posters on the walls, there’s not a lot of decor. It would be easy to look at the Uptown and think this is the way it’s always been. But the place is very different from how it was in 1988, when Bill started working there after 13 years at another bar around the corner.
BILL: Oh boy, it’s totally changed. It had a drop ceiling. It had one TV that was in that corner that was about a 20-inch TV. It had an antenna, like on the roof, to pick up Bear games ’cause back then, they were getting blacked out because they couldn’t sell out all the time, so you’d pick the signal up from Rockford. It was a bunch of older people in here that were very bigoted, lack of a better word, I mean, and they were, and it was horrible. There were a lot of fights and we cleaned the place out.
WAILIN: A few months after Bill started working at the Uptown, the owner of the bar, an older man who had been in the hospital and wanted to retire, offered to sell him his share of the business. Bill had a young family to support and jumped at the chance. A few months after that, the previous owner’s business partner wanted to sell his share, so Bill brought in a friend to buy that stake. That was in 1989. And there was no real passing of the torch. Bill and the old owner closed their deal at 2 in the afternoon, and Bill was behind the bar that evening when his predecessor came in.
BILL: He walked in at five o’clock, took all the money out of the cash register, and walked out. And that was the only advice he gave me was: Don’t leave that cash register open. ‘Cause I was so appalled, I called my lawyer, and he goes, “Don’t worry about it. In a year from now, you’re not even going to think twice about it.” Twenty-six years later, I still think about it! How could he do that? He had a snoot full and he said, “Hey, you know, we closed today so I guess I get today’s receipts too.” So he just came and took all the money out of the cash register. I was standing behind the bar with my mouth ajar. I was like, what did you just…? And he walked out the door. That was the last time I actually saw him.
WAILIN: And with that, Bill was left to run the Uptown. At the time, the bar had just two beers on tap: Miller Lite and Old Style. The place was the kind of friendly neighborhood dive where you could get your paycheck cashed on Fridays instead of going to a currency exchange, and where you could spend two dollars to enter a non-legal, low stakes betting pool. None of that exists anymore, but Bill’s strategy for running his business is the same as it was back then: Give customers a reason to visit. And the Uptown is popular. On the day after Christmas, in the middle of a downpour of freezing rain and sleet at three thirty in the afternoon, there were 15 people at the bar. Bill knew pretty much all of them. And he was expecting even more people in the evening.
BILL: We’re a little shot and a beer bar, but we’ve expanded as far as the liquor we carry, the beer we carry. We’re trying to keep up with the Joneses kind of a thing, but in order to attract people, you give people a reason to come in, my philosophy, and you make it priced accordingly, you know, to draw ’em in and you have different things to bring ’em in. The poker machines, karaoke, live music, whatever it takes.
WAILIN: You can still get Miller Lite and Old Style at the Uptown, but the bar also stocks a rotating selection of 15 craft beers and a wide variety of liquor. Bill has tried a lot of other things to get people in the door over the years. He’s hosted a yearly pig roast, a blues night, and Super Bowl parties where you could fill up a 25-ounce mug of beer for a dollar. His bar was the first one in town to have a CD jukebox. For the last eight years or so, the Uptown has featured live entertainment. Tuesday is open mic night, where you can play an instrument or read poetry. Thursday is karaoke. And bands play on Friday and Saturday nights. Bill stopped working nights when he turned 50, but sometimes you can still find him behind the bar on busy evenings, washing glasses and getting ice.
BILL: At night, it’s definitely gotten younger, especially when I quit working nights, you know, we went younger with a younger girl bartender, which brought in a younger crowd and it just makes sense, I mean, without a doubt. And as I’ve gotten older, you know, I could see like the crowd getting younger and younger and when I come in here at night, from knowing 95 percent of the people, that’s down to, like if I come in here at 10 o clock at night, five percent of the people know who I am. Who’s the old guy over there, you know? Or I’ll go behind the bar and do something, you know, who’s that? They don’t know me. Which is nice, it really is.
WAILN: The daytime crowd tends to be older and more price conscious, and Bill is sensitive to that. He’s kept his prices down, charging just two seventy five for a pint of Miller High Life or Miller Lite, and he offers different specials each day. The Uptown crowd might be price conscious, but it’s also very generous. Bill holds a lot of fundraisers. It started years ago, when he raised money to cover the funeral expenses of a friend who had died without the means to be buried, and the philanthropy grew from there. The Uptown raised over ten thousand dollars for Make A Wish in 2015. For the last four years, Bill’s hosted a summer cookout to raise money for disabled American veterans.
BILL: So I like the fundraising. I enjoy it, you know, I think it’s for a good cause and people get behind it, even people who don’t have a lot, you know, we try to do raffles and stuff like that for people that don’t have a lot of money but they want to give, so it’s not the upscale raise a hundred thousand dollar kind of a deal, but it’s more local, you know, and people get behind it.
WAILIN: Bill estimates he’s raised ten thousand dollars for disabled American veterans over the years. There’s a bucket over by the video gaming machines for unredeemed vouchers. When someone is left with just a few cents and they don’t feel like cashing out such a small amount, they can toss their voucher in the bucket.
BILL: They don’t care about two cents or five cents, and I spend the time to redeem them all and turn it into cash. Hey, if it’s a couple hundred here, a couple hundred dollars there, it means something to a disabled American vet. If it’s a car ride to a doctor, whatever.
WAILIN: Bill likes to take care of people, whether it’s the beneficiaries of his fundraisers or his customers. The Uptown is open 365 days a year. It’s hosted weddings, including the ceremony and reception of a couple that met at the bar. On Thanksgiving, the Uptown serves a free turkey dinner with all the trimmings. And on any day, if you come in while Bill’s behind the bar, you’ll get friendly service and a sympathetic ear from a guy who looks a lot like the actor Sam Elliott.
BILL: I love people. I love tending bar. I feel like I’m on stage when I’m behind the bar. I’m a very shy person when I’m not behind the bar, and the bar seems to bring out the best in me.
WAILIN: At 61, with almost 40 years of bartending experience behind him, Bill has perfected the art of listening and making his customers feel at home. His son, Bill Junior, who goes by Billy, worked briefly as a bartender and remembered how his dad taught him to always be scanning the bar and not talking too long.
BILLY: I went away to college and I got a bartending job and that was my hardest part, was I didn’t want to say like, “Okay, I have to go now, nice story!”
BILL: People talk and you just gotta walk away and go serve and walk back, and they’ll just continue where they left off. They don’t mind. They want to tell you what they want to tell you. They don’t care.
WAILIN: Bill doesn’t drink and he hasn’t for years — Billy has never seen his father drink. Bill has taken to walking six to seven miles a day. He thinks he’ll work for another five years and then look for someone to buy the Uptown. His business partner — the friend who bought a minority stake in the bar 27 years ago — is still involved with the business, taking care of the bookkeeping and ordering, and at some point he’ll want to retire too. Bill thinks they’ll get out together, although he’s not ready to say goodbye entirely.
BILL: Part of the sale would be contingent on me still getting to work here because I really like what I do, and I really think I’m good at it, and my partner tells me, he goes, you’ll know when it’s time to stop. You’ll know. People will tell ya. Why are you such a crab ass? Or for whatever reason, you know. So, I mean, as long as I get good reports, I’m still busy. People come in and they ask me when are you gonna work or when are you working? You know, you know.
WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. Special thanks to Billy Carlson for introducing me to his father. I’ve started posting transcripts of each episode. If you want to check those out, visit thedistance.com, where you can also sign up for our newsletter. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the leading app for keeping teams on the same page about whatever they’re working on. Your first Basecamp is completely free forever. Try the brand new Basecamp Three for yourself at basecamp.com/thedistance.
I love print. I love the feeling of physically holding a book and turning its pages, or leafing through a magazine. As a former newspaper reporter, I never stopped marveling at how I could file an A1 story at 5 pm and by early the next morning, there it would be—my words and my byline, above the fold—on hundreds of thousands of papers landing on people’s doorsteps, a weighty tactile thing that had been physically printed and distributed at great expense.
But as a former newspaper reporter, I also have no delusions about the sorry state of print media. I lived through multiple rounds of layoffs and buyouts at my old job, and the real reason I still get the Chicago Tribune and New York Times in print form is because their Sunday editions are basically free with a digital subscription. I read most of my news online. Even in the digital-only world, high-quality sites have had their share of troubles, indicating that the challenges facing independent media are not just about format, but about finding that elusive mix of good content plus the right audience plus sustainable funding.
That’s why I was delighted to report a story for The Distance on Bowlers Journal International, the longest-running sports monthly in the United States. It is thriving in print—advertising is up! The magazine, founded in 1913 by a Chicago shoe salesman, has a remarkably loyal base of subscribers and advertisers. Of all the stories Bowlers Journal has told, the most enduring one is that of its own longevity and close relationship with its readers. Take a listen:
WAILIN: Print media is dead. Right? We’ve witnessed the long, painful decline of newspapers and magazines and decried their inability to adapt to the digital age. Well, in certain corners of the publishing industry, print is very much alive.
KEITH: For print advertising, we’re already projecting to be up 10 percent. So you know what? The magazine world, it’s about the industries you serve. Now, if you’re broad-based consumer, that’s one thing. But you can’t assume—you can’t associate broad-based consumer publishing with what we do, which is niche-targeted publications. It’s a different world.
WAILIN: That’s Keith Hamilton, and his world is bowling. He’s the president of Luby Publishing, a company whose flagship title is Bowlers Journal International, the longest running sports monthly in the United States. It was founded in 1913, and it’s read by elite bowlers, pro shop operators and bowling center owners around the world. The circulation of Bowlers Journal has been steady at about 20,000 subscribers for the 34 years that Keith Hamilton has worked there.
KEITH: We know who our reader is. We meet our reader at the tournaments. We meet our readers at trade shows. We’re very intimate, probably one of the most intimate magazines with its readership that you can imagine.
WAILIN: The Bowlers Journal audience includes Hall of Fame players like Mike Aulby, who started reading the magazine as a teenager in the late seventies, started on the pro bowlers tour when he was just 18 and made the cover in 1985.
MIKE: You know, it’s kind of the go-to place for anything, especially the higher level of the sport, for us. We kind of kept tabs on it through there and you know, there’s one thing on the pro bowlers tour is you wanted to have a feature article in there because that was the spot where everybody in the industry would see it.
WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show: the story of a print magazine and a beloved American pastime, both of which have survived Prohibition, the Great Depression, two world wars and more, all while retaining an incredibly loyal fan base. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. Introducing the new Basecamp Three. Basecamp is everything any team needs to stay on the same page about whatever they’re working on. Tasks, spur-of-the-moment conversations with coworkers, status updates, reports, documents and files all share one home. And now your first basecamp is completely free forever. Sign up at https://basecamp.com/thedistance.
KEITH: We publish Bowlers Journal, Bowling Center Management, Pro Shop Operator, Entertainment Center News, Billiards Digest. We can have 42 issues a year come through here.
WAILIN: That’s a lot.
KEITH: It is, because we’re very lean, as you probably noticed. We’ve got six people in the office.
WAILIN: Bowlers Journal has modest origins. It began as a weekly publication, founded by a 56-year-old shoe salesman and avid bowler in Chicago named Dave Luby. The first issue was eight pages long and the back cover had an ad from Brunswick, the bowling equipment manufacturer. The company has advertised on every back cover of Bowlers Journal since that very first issue in 1913.
KEITH: Yeah, Brunswick’s an amazing supporter of this company. Loyal, loyal as the day is long. It’s one of the longest relationships in any industry, I mean, 102 years with one advertiser is pretty good.
WAILIN: When Dave Luby died in 1925, the magazine passed to his son Mort. He was a World War I veteran who loved to bowl, drink and gamble, and he married a Hollywood-raised socialite who once played bridge with legendary actress Mary Pickford. Under Mort Luby’s watch, Bowlers Journal expanded to cover billiards but also lost its beer and whisky advertisers to Prohibition, and the magazine downsized from a weekly to a monthly. To keep money coming in, Mort Luby started a wire service that covered bowling tournaments for newspapers across the country. He also started a tournament, the Bowlers Journal Championships, which are still held today.
In 1967, Mort Luby died in his sleep on a Pullman car traveling home from a bowling industry event in Houston. His son, Mort Junior, took over Bowlers Journal at the age of 25. He still visits the office once a month.
KEITH: Great man. He set out a goal of life and man, he hit it. He hit every aspect of his life. So I got a lot of admiration for Mort. He basically set my life, my career path.
WAILIN: That career path started when Keith was just a college kid looking for a summer job. His sister knew someone who knew Mort Luby Junior and heard he needed help cleaning a Chicago townhouse he owned.
KEITH: Yeah, I remember like it was yesterday. Pulling up to that townhouse and seeing Mort Luby come out. He was driving a white Buick Park Avenue back then, and you knew right away this guy was something special just by his presence. It wasn’t that I had a desire to get into publishing—or bowling. It was just a job, then.
WAILIN: That cleaning job turned into a stint working in the Luby Publishing office during Keith’s breaks from college. He had been a high school athlete, playing football, basketball and baseball. He was not a bowler. His interest in the sport — and in the publishing business — would accumulate over time. Luby Publishing helped pay for his MBA program at Notre Dame, and Mort put Keith in charge of advertising when he graduated. As he started working full-time, he set his sights on a bigger opportunity.
KEITH: I saw a path to owning the company. Even when I was green with inexperience, I saw that you know what? Mort’s going to retire soon and there’s not really anybody here with the business acumen to step in and purchase the company.
WAILIN: Keith teamed up with Mike Panozzo, a colleague who worked on another Luby Publishing title, Billiards Digest, and had more editorial and journalism expertise. In the summer of 1992, they took Mort Luby Junior to Lawry’s, a Chicago restaurant famous for its prime rib. They wouldn’t officially take over Bowlers Journal until 1994, but it all started with that dinner.
KEITH: Mort was dropping some hints, you know, when I get outta here, when I get outta here, and Mike and I took him to dinner that night, told him we were interested in the company, and away it went. Now it was a long process because you know, we weren’t wealthy guys. Mort didn’t pay great (laughs). So it took probably two years. It was that type of process to get to a proper price and I tell you what. Sometimes, you just have to go through the process. If we went to Mort day one and said, Mort here’s the deal? He would have said no way. You have to go through the rigors of the back and the forth and the understanding of what this means. What this means from a tax perspective. My MBA? I learned that buying Luby Publishing. It wasn’t so much at Notre Dame. Sorry, Notre Dame. Great school. But it was definitely that process there, taught me more than I ever could have imagined.
WAILIN: Bowlers Journal has always been for the high-end bowler, the person who travels to tournaments and spends money on products. The magazine covers professional bowling competitions and provides detailed ball reviews, working with a testing center in Florida that can control variables like humidity and the amount of oil on a lane.
KEITH: Our readers, I’m not kidding, they can own up to six bowling balls because each ball performs differently on a certain lane pattern. They can have the same ball but drill it differently, you know where you put your thumbs? They can drill in another part of the ball. It has to do with the pin and the center of gravity and all that, stuff that I don’t know but I like to think I do.
WAILIN: Keith is being modest. His specialty may be on the business side of the magazine, but he’s picked up a lot of bowling expertise. It wasn’t until about 12 years ago, though, that he really started bowling. He got into it by joining a super tough league in the outskirts of Milwaukee and a more relaxed league in Chicago.
KEITH: At the good league, the challenging league, they talked about their bowling shoes. They talked about the pins. They talked about leagues. Everybody complained about the lane oil. The casual league, nobody talked about that stuff. They played their card games based on strikes and spares and they were eating pizza.
WAILIN: At the first game he bowled with the serious league in Milwaukee, he shot an 88.
KEITH: Some of the people knew me because of the magazine, so they expect me to be a good bowler. So I’m like apologizing for my bowling because I don’t want them to think the magazine is some hack, okay, because I don’t write instruction. I write about the business side of it or I don’t tell people how to bowl. So don’t judge the magazine because I stink. So I remember getting one of those few times in my life, we’ve all been there, you get that red-faced feeling permanating throughout your entire body from head to toe. That was me. It was awful.
WAILIN: But Keith improved, and for the last eight years, he’s averaged 170. Perhaps more importantly, joining that challenging league helped him better understand his audience. And knowing the Bowlers Journal readers is what’s helped Keith and Mike run the company. They know what their subscribers want to read and how to deliver that information better than anyone else.
KEITH: For example, we cover a bowling tournament. You gotta talk about what happened behind the scenes. Here’s what led to the shot that led to the shot that made him win the tournament. Or here’s what happened in the background. Here’s the friction that was going on in the crowd that you couldn’t see on TV. As long as you deliver original information, original content, you can be in print. Make no mistake about it. And I know our industry right now—it’s still print. We had a great online magazine, great digital magazine for two and a half years, but it just didn’t have the interest, so we had to can it.
WAILIN: This doesn’t mean that Bowlers Journal isn’t looking for ways to evolve. It publishes plenty of online content and has added a podcast featuring interviews with important figures in the sport. Keith thinks the magazine will look much different in ten years. He sees the way his 22-year-old son reads everything on his phone. And the bowling industry is undergoing significant change too.
KEITH: It’s going from a league-organized play base and it’s evolving into more of a nice Saturday night out entertainment. Now instead of bowling centers, they build what we call family entertainment centers, where bowling is an important, significant part of it, but it’s about the martini bar, it’s about the fancy lounge, it’s about the games, it’s about laser tag. It’s so much more than bowling.
WAILIN: These changes put Bowlers Journal at a bit of a crossroads. The growth of these family entertainment centers exposes more people to bowling who might not have otherwise visited a traditional bowling center. But casual bowlers don’t spend hundreds of dollars on balls and shoes, and those are the kinds of people that Bowlers Journal advertisers want to reach. I asked Mike Aulby, the Hall of Fame bowler you heard at the beginning of the episode, if he’d ever bought something after seeing it in Bowlers Journal. He remembered an ad for Ebonite, a bowling equipment company, that featured Earl Anthony, one of the sport’s all-time greats.
MIKE: And there was one where he would wear a trench coat with a Magnum Force bowling ball, and I have an orange bowling ball just because Earl threw it, so through those ads, so you bet.
WAILIN: The challenge for Keith and his staff is to cover the evolution of bowling as an industry and find ways to bring more casual bowlers into the fold, while still providing the kind of deep tournament coverage and ball reviews that will keep their core readers and advertisers coming back for the next hundred and two years.
KEITH: Obviously, we have a proven product, so there’s a lot of value for the 102. But you gotta earn it. You gotta improve. You gotta evolve. You gotta change. You gotta be hungry. You can’t expect business to keep going because you’ve been around for a hundred years.
WAILIN: Readers like Mike Aulby have seen their relationship with the magazine change over the decades. Mike no longer bowls competitively, but he owns a bowling center in Lafayette, Indiana, so he’s interested in reading about business trends. And there are subscribers like Fran Deken, who went from competing on the professional circuit to being a bowling writer, tournament director and high school coach. She started bowling at age 10 and reading Bowlers Journal shortly after that.
FRAN: I was 12 years old. My dad got us a subscription, my brother and myself, and we would argue over who got to read it first.
WAILIN: When Fran was growing up in the Chicago suburbs, she and her brother would drive to the city to attend tapings of a bowling television show, where they would look for the players they saw in the pages of Bowlers Journal. Fran ended up in the magazine herself. The first time was when she won a national intercollegiate tournament as a 20-year-old student at the University of Iowa.
FRAN: I love the Bowlers Journal all these years. Some decades have been better than others, but I save lots and lots of copies of it, although I’ve moved many times so I’ve had to unload some of them. But both of us, my husband and I, we always look forward to seeing what’s in the next month’s Bowlers Journal.
WAILIN: The magazine’s subscribers are remarkably loyal. Mike Aulby buys back issues on eBay and knows people who clip the vintage ads to frame as wall art. Keith Hamilton doesn’t take those readers — or his advertisers — for granted, even though he encourages his editorial staff not to back down from covering issues that might be controversial. He just asks his writers to be fair.
KEITH: Every day when that magazine goes out, three days later, I’m sitting there like waiting, I swear to God. After all these years I’ve been in the industry, you’re always waiting. Was there something in this magazine that ticked somebody off? But you know what? What they need to understand is, first of all, we have to do that. Because if we wrote a hundred percent of the time everything is great, it loses credibility. And the things that we’re writing about won’t have any, won’t matter.
WAILIN: Bowling doesn’t have the visibility of other sports. There are no household names like Tiger Woods. There are no glamorous pop culture references, like what The Color of Money did for billiards back in the 80s, although movies like Kingpin and The Big Lebowski are cult hits. And bowling isn’t an Olympic sport, despite intense lobbying efforts from the industry, including an unsuccessful bid to get it into the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo. What bowling does have going for it is widespread consumer appeal, and that’s helped keep the sport alive.
KEITH: What’s great about bowling is that you can be male, you can be female, you can be child, you could be senior citizen. There are no barriers for you to bowl. Now, I can’t go out and play basketball anymore. I pull a hamstring just looking at the court. But I can bowl! Okay? I can bowl. My grandmother bowled up until 90. That’s the beauty of the sport, so that’s the reason that it appeals to everyone. And everybody has a good time bowling. Nobody comes back from bowling and says they had a bad time.
WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. I send out a newsletter every two weeks where I round up other interesting stories about long-running businesses. To sign up for that, visit https://thedistance.com and scroll down to the bottom to enter your email. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the leading app for keeping teams on the same page about whatever they’re working on. Your first Basecamp is completely free forever. Try the brand new Basecamp Three for yourself at https://basecamp.com/thedistance.com.
The Richardson family arrived in Spring Grove, Illinois in 1840, when brothers Robert and Frank each claimed 80 acres of farmland that had become available for homesteading. Successive generations of Richardsons tried their hand at cash crops, dairy cows and pig production. But it was the agritourism business that proved the most sustainable for the 175-year-old family farm, which today is operated by the fifth and sixth generations of Richardsons. The family sells cut-your-own Christmas trees during the holidays and operates the world’s largest corn maze in the fall. They’ve become experts in seasonal entertainment, offering a nostalgic rural escape from suburban sprawl.
Also, starting with today’s episode, I’ll be posting transcripts for each show.
WAILIN: The Richardson family has a holiday tradition. Every year on Thanksgiving, after they’ve eaten, they pick out their Christmas tree. Here’s George Richardson.
GEORGE: Take the afternoon off after our bellies have sat for a little bit from Thanksgiving dinner and go out and get our tree.
WAILIN: Lots of families put up their Christmas trees right after Thanksgiving. But there’s something unique about the Richardsons. When they pick out their tree, they just head to their backyard, where they grow Christmas trees on 130 acres of northern Illinois farmland that’s been in the family since 1840. The Richardsons are in the cut-your-own Christmas tree business, and they sell just over six thousand trees every season between the day after Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. Here’s George’s son, Ryan, who’s the sixth generation of Richardsons to work on the farm.
RYAN: So we have Scotch pine and white pine, both wonderful trees. Scotch pine’s kind of the old stature of the Midwest Christmas tree and it’s kind of phased itself out culturally a little bit. Firs have overtaken the market, and so firs are in general shorter-needled tree and the most popular’s going to be a Fraser fir and it’s difficult to grow in this particular region of the country, in the Midwest. So a close cousin of them is a hybrid tree, it’s a cross between a balsam and a fraser, and it’s called a Canaan. That’s a beautiful tree. So Frasers, Canaans, blue spruce, Norway spruce, concolor firs are beautiful…
WAILIN: And that’s just Christmas tree season. In the fall, the family operates the Richardson Adventure Farm, which includes a pumpkin patch, a zip line, a carousel and the world’s largest corn maze. Over the last 175 years, the Richardsons have grown cash crops and raised dairy cows and pigs. But what has proved the most sustainable — and enjoyable — is the entertainment business. Learn how the Richardsons found their true calling on this episode of The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. Introducing the new Basecamp Three. Basecamp is everything any team needs to stay on the same page about whatever they’re working on. Tasks, spur of the moment conversations with coworkers, status updates, reports, documents and files all share one home. And now your first basecamp is completely free forever. Sign up at basecamp.com/thedistance.
(CLIP OF ACTIVITY IN THE RICHARDSON BARN)
It’s the first Saturday of December and the Richardsons’ main barn is packed. The farm is in Spring Grove, Illinois, just a few miles from the Wisconsin border, and you can tell you’re close when you turn onto Richardson Road and see cars with trees on the roofs passing you in the other direction. Inside the barn, people are buying wreaths, homemade donuts, fudge, and holiday crafts, and drinking complimentary hot chocolate under a portrait of Robert Richardson, the first member of the family to settle here. He and his brother, Frank, were bricklayers who emigrated from England to Wisconsin in 1837. Robert was George’s great great grandfather. Here’s George again.
GEORGE: This is the original homestead from 1840, the ground that we’re standing on now. Milwaukee was the bustling port city in 1837, where Chicago was still kind of just getting organized, a little bit of a swampy mess, to tell you the truth, so Milwaukee was really the boom town at that time. When this county opened up in 1840 for homesteading, they moved down here and they each homesteaded 80 acres and then Robert subsequently bought out Frank some years later.
WAILN: While working in Wisconsin as a mason, Robert Richardson fell in love with Milwaukee cream brick — a light-colored brick made from local clay. In 1861, he built a house on his land with that cream brick, taking an oxcart up to Milwaukee to get the bricks and hauling them back to Illinois. George’s older brother, also named Robert, lives in that house today with his wife Carol. George and his wife, Wendy, live on a nearby farmstead. It’s these two families, plus George and Wendy’s son Ryan, who own and operate Richardson Farm. The business has two main parts: the Christmas trees and the fall adventure farm with the corn maze. But none of this existed until the early 1980s. That’s when George and Robert’s parents, who were pig farmers, started looking for a new business and landed on cut your own Christmas trees. Here’s Carol Richardson, Robert’s wife.
CAROL: We planted 300 trees that first year and we thought that’s all we had to do was just plant them, and we got them in the ground and then we let them go and the weeds grew up around them and the grass and we thought well, this isn’t as easy as we thought it was.
WAILIN: The Richardsons joined the Illinois Christmas Tree Association and picked up some tips on weed control, among other things. They found that they liked growing trees and interacting with customers.
GEORGE: Then in 1986, we sold like 180 trees or something like that, just put a sign out on the road and people came in and oh, they had a wonderful time going out in the field and choosing their tree and coming back in. We gave them hot chocolate and we had a wonderful time because we were making more money than with pigs and so after a few years of that, we kind of figured out that the Richardsons, we kind of liked talking to people a lot more than we liked talking with pigs.
WAILIN: Here’s the thing about Christmas trees, though. If you want to grow them, you have to think about the long term. The Richardsons buy four-year-old seedlings that are around 14 to 20 inches, and plant them in one-acre blocks of a thousand trees each. Then it’s a multi-year process of nurturing the seedlings until they get to six to eight feet in height. Here’s Ryan Richardson, George’s son.
RYAN: You have to put your money and love into them for seven or eight years before they’re even going to think about repaying you back, so you need to budget out. We’re planting around eight or nine thousand of new seedlings every single year and we take very good care of them because in the end, they’ll take care of us.
(CLIP OF WAGON RIDE)
WAILIN: Outside the barn, customers pick up their hand saws and climb onboard tractor-pulled wagons to ride out to the field. Families walk between the rows of pines and firs, looking for their perfect triangular, fragrant tree. Here’s Natalie, who’s with her husband, their three children and their dog. Until this year, they’ve always had artificial trees.
NATALIE: The last one died because (laughs) the lights that came along with it—the middle part didn’t light up, so we’d have the top part of the tree lit up and the bottom part lit up, and my husband had to get a set of lights to just cover the middle part. And we’re like, you know, I think it’s time to get a real one this year. So yeah, it’s been 20 years of us being married and we’re out here picking a nice-smelling tree.
(CLIP OF TREE BEING SAWED)
WAILIN: It takes just around a minute and a half to cut down the tree. The trunks are still pretty tender at this age, and the saws are sharp. When the tree’s down, it’s loaded on the wagon for the short ride back to the barn, where it’s put through a baling machine that secures the tree with cord.
(CLIP OF BALER)
GEORGE: Our customers, God bless ’em, they seem to be happy with what we have. They’re really loyal to us. If it’s 50 degrees and sunny the Saturday after Thanksgiving, they can spend hours with the kids and the dogs and Grandma and Grandpa choosing their perfect Christmas tree and it’s just so happy. But they will also come out if it’s 10 degrees with a 30-mile-an-hour wind and it’s just, they choose their tree a little more quickly (laughs), but they still are in a really good mood when they come back into the barn to get their hot chocolate and buy their donuts.
WAILIN: After Christmas tree selling season ends, the Richardsons spend the winter on bookkeeping and making plans for the next season. New trees get planted when the ground starts to thaw, followed by corn and soybeans, which the family still grows as cash crops. Then comes the corn for the corn maze and the pumpkins. On Labor Day, the Richardson Adventure Farm opens to the public. The farm’s signature attraction is the corn maze, which spans 10 miles of trails over 28 acres.
GEORGE: We started the corn maze out of necessity because my brother and I were raising pigs and they weren’t doing so well at that particular time, 1998. The market crashed and we lost a lot of money. We used all our Christmas tree income to pay for pig feed and we’re like, this is not what we planned on. This is not going to be very, not very much fun. So we needed something else and we kind of figured out that we liked dealing with the public, so we weren’t afraid of something like that that dealt with agritourism.
WAILIN: At that time, the late 90s, the idea of agritourism — turning agricultural activity into a consumer-facing entertainment business — was still fairly novel. But the Richardsons felt they had a knack for it, based on their success with the Christmas trees. They decided to expand their tourism business on the 540 acres they owned. They hired a corn maze designer from Idaho to help them get started.
GEORGE: He had manufactured up this huge aluminum backpack thing that must have weighed 50 pounds, with a GPS on it and a battery to operate the whole thing, and he would walk, so the GPS locator dot followed the lines of the trail on his computer screen. He would walk the pattern into the cornfield and we would take spray cans of paint and paint behind his left heel a dashed line (laughs) where he was walking. Oh man, that was fun to see the design to take shape; that was really something. Now, of course, he’s much more sophisticated. Same guy that we used our very first year, we still design the maze with him and he comes out and cuts the design into the cornfield. We plant the corn north-south and east-west, so we don’t have rows of corn, we have a nice dense stand, so it looks very good in the aerial photograph, and he still comes out when the corn is about 12 inches high, has GPS mounted on his tractor, hooked in with his computer that’s got the design.
WAILIN: The Richardsons pride themselves on their intricate maze. This year’s design was Chicago Blackhawks-themed in honor of the team winning the Stanley Cup. It’s not a true maze because there are multiple exit points, a nod to people who are short on patience or might just need to get out in a hurry to use the restroom. Others spend hours exploring it. More than half of the farm’s fall visitors come after 6 pm so they can walk the maze on a starry night, using the light from their cell phones for extra illumination. During full moon weekends, the farm stays open until midnight. And the Richardsons didn’t stop at the corn maze. You can reserve a campfire and have a picnic, feed goats and try something called zorbing, which involves getting strapped into a clear plastic ball and rolling down a hill.
GEORGE: I think we added a 50-foot long slide at first, and then we had some pedal carts. Then we added some kiddie tricycles and the 50-foot tall observation tower at the base of the world’s largest corn maze because you can get up and look at part of the design, it’s really fun. And then we’ve continued to add jumping pillows and a carousel and now we have a train ride and a 700-foot zip line, zorbing, lots of activities. We have to keep up, keep adding value to it so we fight for that consumer dollar and make it worth their while.
WAILIN: Eventually, the Christmas trees and the fall activities did well enough that Robert and George Richardson were able to get out of pig farming entirely. The only pigs you’ll find today are the ones competing in the pig races during the fall. Here’s Wendy Richardson, George’s wife.
WENDY: We do call the pig races and afterwards, people are amazed that really there are Richardsons, that the name didn’t come from the road or whatever, and they like to talk to us. They like to talk to Carol, she’s up front, one of the first people that they see. Robert’s always right around the front and they love to see there are actually Richardsons to talk to. And they like the history.
WAILIN: The ability to talk to a real-life Richardson is part of the farm’s overall appeal, which is about selling a certain kind of rural nostalgia or an idealized version of farm life, an escape from suburban sprawl. It’s romantic in all the ways that pig farming most definitely was not.
GEORGE: Sometimes my brother and I, we’ll just chuckle with each other, remembering some horrendous zero-degree day when we were trying to keep all the pigs warm or the water thawed and how different our life is now. There is nothing I miss about pigs. That was a fine business, raised my family, put the kids through college, it was just fine. But I really love entertaining people, having folks come to the farm and have a wonderful time, and it makes me feel very good.
WAILIN: Ryan, George’s son, joined the business in 2007. He had been living in Florida when the family asked him to help build the 50-foot observation tower overlooking the corn maze. At the same time, his grandfather was sick, and he had recently been a groomsman in a wedding where he hit it off with one of the bridesmaids, who lived in Illinois.
RYAN: I’m just happily living in Florida doing my thing, and then I had a tower to build, a grandpa to take care of and this girl Kristin I couldn’t get out of my mind. So that happened in like three days of each other, so I was like well okay, so I called my best buddy Marlon and said, “You better get a plane ticket, man. We’re gonna need a U-Haul. We’re gonna need to load all this stuff back up and go back to Illinois.”
WAILIN: Ryan’s the only one of his siblings who’s involved with the business, and it’s a natural fit for him.
RYAN: I’ve always been a little farm boy, always. Whenever Mom couldn’t find me in the house, you’d go look in the barn because I was totting my way out there after Dad, and that’s just kind of how I was.
WAILIN: Ryan is now married to Kristin now, and they have two children, but he’s still happily following a path that George, Robert and previous generations of Richardsons helped prepare.
GEORGE: We like to talk about our history because it is very unusual in the business world, to have a business go for this many generations. That does require sacrifices by the elder generations to make sure it gets into the hands of the younger ones and generally, the older generation has to forgo being a multimillionaire to make sure it continues. But we love seeing the business go forward, very happy to hand it over to Ryan lock, stock and barrel someday. And maybe when I’m 99, I’ll actually retire and enjoy life. (Laughs) No, I’m enjoying life now so that’s the wrong thing to say.
WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. This is our last episode of the year and we’re already hard at work on stories for 2016. If you know of a super interesting business that’s at least 25 years old, email us at email@example.com, or tweet at us. We’re @distancemag, that’s at distance M A G. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the leading app for keeping teams on the same page about whatever they’re working on. Your first Basecamp is completely free forever. Try the brand new Basecamp Three for yourself at basecamp.com/thedistance.
Basecamp values the long game: Staying independent, growing deliberately and building a sustainable business over time. Yet so much of the current narrative around entrepreneurship emphasizes breakneck growth, colossal investment rounds and—as Michael Lewis might say—the new new thing. As a result, there’s an entire group of businesses being left out of the conversation. We want to bring their stories to the forefront. That’s why Basecamp makes The Distance, a podcast about the old old things in business.
The Distance features narrative audio stories about independent businesses that are at least 25 years old. You can subscribe to The Distance in iTunes or via your favorite podcast app. We’ve visited a laundromat, a lip balm factory and a family farm, among others, and our latest episode centers on a 47-year-old ballet school founded by two women whose disciplined, no-frills approach to classical dance education laid the foundation for a long-running small business.
We release new episodes every two weeks and each story is around 15 minutes long, amounting to a small but potent dose of business inspiration with a deeply personal story at its core. Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss an episode!