Galax vs. The World

John Bassett III takes the Chinese furniture industry to the World Court.

When Roanoke Times reporter Beth Macy saw how rundown the Martinsville region had become after the textile mills shut down in the 1990s and early 2000s, she was shocked to her core. Martinsville was suffering. In order to manufacture their products at costs comparable to their competitors, companies had relocated to foreign countries, closing their American plants and leaving local workers unemployed.

The media had played out variations of this story for years—the steel industry’s implosion, the garment industry’s exodus to Asia, Detroit’s bankruptcy. Then Macy discovered something hopeful: one company, Vaughn-Bassett Furniture, was bucking the trend and keeping its manufacturing operations in Galax. And the sole reason was that the indomitable owner, John Bassett III, wished to keep his employees working and his community thriving.

Macy’s fascinating new book, Factory Man, is an in-depth investigation into the rise and fall of the Bassett furniture empire and the effects of globalization on American factory towns. Her book details the history of Bassett Furniture back to its formation in 1902, when John D. Bassett decided to stop shipping lumber from his sawmill to furniture factories in the Midwest so that he could make his own furniture in Virginia. Not long after, stores throughout the South filled their showrooms with his product.

Macy does a superb job of painting a full picture of the company up to the era of John Bassett III. She writes about its business practices, including its strategy of creating knockoffs and selling them at half the price when a competitor’s popular furniture set sold out.

Macy also details how Bassett factories were some of the first in the Jim-Crow South to hire black workers. Macy writes, “For the most part, they were treated with some dignity, and, relative to other jobs in the segregated South, working conditions were adequate.” However, she adds that in addition to earning lower wages, “They worked the hottest, dirtiest jobs, usually in the finishing room.”

“It was 110 years’ worth of material to wrangle,” says Macy, “with complex economic threads and family/factory feuds I compare to Mad Men in the mountains—with moonshine instead of martinis. I did not want Factory Man to be a dry business book, and fortunately for me, there was no shortage of high jinks amid the lumber stacks.”

Bassett Furniture eventually became the largest manufacturer of wood furniture in the world, and the corporation spawned several subsidiaries, one of which was Vaughn-Bassett Furniture. Then, in the 1980s, Asian companies used Bassett’s own tactic of producing furniture knockoffs at incredibly low prices. Most American furniture companies responded by changing their business models, opening stores instead of factories and selling Asian-made product bearing their own company names.

To facilitate this, corporate boards invited Asian industrialists into American plants to study production and learn manufacturing processes. One by one, factories were replaced by facsimiles of themselves in far-off lands, and the American furniture industry withered.

Bassett Furniture shut down 40 of its 42 factories by 2007, and the town it had created—Bassett, Virginia—fell on hard times. Just down the road in Galax, however, Vaughn-Bassett Furniture held fast.

Vaughn-Bassett’s owner at the time, John Bassett III, discovered the Chinese were selling a wooden dresser for $100, an amount less than the cost of its component material. “Dumping,” as the practice is called in the industry, is a violation of World Trade Organization laws, so Bassett traveled to Dalian, China, in 2002 to gather proof. He went undercover, pretending to be just another American furniture owner. A Communist party official offered to provide Bassett with the cheap dressers, but only if he would shut down his own factories. Instead, Bassett sued.

“[He’d] given China the middle finger in the court of international trade,” says Macy, “fighting to keep his 700 workers in nearby Galax, Virginia, employed … He’d orchestrated the filing of what was then the largest antidumping petition against the People’s Republic of China—and won. And he’d done it from tiny Galax, Virginia, a town better known for bluegrass and barbecue.”

With the $17.5 million settlement he won in 2003, Bassett modernized his factory with new Italian-made machinery and expanded his retail operations into new markets.

Today, the 77-year-old runs his business with as much vigor—and profit—as ever.

The Empty Quarter by David L. Robbins Amazon Publishing, $14.95

A Saudi prince has taken his daughter captive and fled into the Yemeni desert.  The princess’ husband, once a mujahideen, now pursues his captured wife with a group of tribal fighters.  A young American diplomat embroiled in the capture must also be rescued, and U.S. Air Force pararescue jumpers (PJs) compete to reach the princess first. The Empty Quarter is an adrenaline-fueled special operations forces novel that races through the Arabian Peninsula against the backdrop of Middle East geopolitics.

The Late Starters Orchestra by Ari L. Goldman Algonquin Books, $22.95

A middle-aged professor with a bad back takes up the cello after not having played it for 25 years. First, he secures a seat in his 11-year-old son’s youth orchestra, and then he’s ready for the big time: the Late Starters Orchestra of New York City—an amateur string orchestra for beginning or recently returning adult players. Their motto: “If you think you can play, you can.” The Late Starter’s Orchestra is a heartwarming memoir that reminds us that with a band of friends beside us, anything is possible.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast  Bloomsbury USA, $28.00

Roz Chast’s graphic memoir is filled with the blunt cartoons that made her a mainstay at The New Yorker. She tells with poignancy the story of her parents during their final declining years, her father slipping into dementia. Chast walks us through all the uncomfortable situations that arise as a child becomes the caregiver. This book has plenty of humor, but it is wry instead of side-splitting, and the reader comes away as one might from an Irish wake: sad and happy at the same time.

The Hurricane Sisters by Dorothea Benton Frank  William Morrow, $26.99

In South Carolina’s sultry Lowcountry, three generations of women wrestle with their complicated relationships. There is the artistic, 23-year-old Ashley; her mother, Liz, who frets over Ashley’s life choices; and the 80-year-old matriarch, Maisie, who always belittles Liz by comparing her to her long-dead sister. The family dynamics may be fractious, but when true calamity strikes they all pull together. Slightly melodramatic, the novel is a redemptive story about the strength of familial love.

More picks for your summer reading list: 

Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly
Monticello, by Sally Cabot Gunning
Richmond Noir, by A. Blossom and others
A Burnable Book, by Bruce Holsinger
The Mathews Men, by William Geroux
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