Always Glad You Came

Illustration by Nate Otto

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.


Transcript

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.

The Dude abides, and so does Bowlers Journal

Illustration by Nate Otto

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:


Transcript

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.

Homestead for the Holidays

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.

If you liked our story about Richardson Farm, you might also enjoy our September episode about Silo City, a traditional family farm in Iowa covering several thousand acres. And you can subscribe to The Distance so you never miss an episode!

Also, starting with today’s episode, I’ll be posting transcripts for each show.

Transcript

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 tips@thedistance.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.

Business game en pointe

Illustration by Nate Otto

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!


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