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The Decline of an American Furniture Maker

Posted by Beth Macy on

Reprinted from July 2014 New Yorker Magazine

In the mid-twentieth century, Bassett Furniture Industries, in Bassett, Virginia, was one of the largest wood-furniture makers in the world. Its name was the one often inscribed on the back of the bedroom suites behind Door Number Three on “Let’s Make a Deal.” The Baby Boom was on, and people needed to furnish the homes they were buying in the suburbs.

Bassett employed thousands of local people in several factories in town. The J. D. Bassett Manufacturing Company, one of the firm’s subsidiaries, built mid-priced bedroom and dining-room furniture, and Bassett Superior Lines made the company’s lower-priced suites. In between, other plants specialized in chairs, tables, and fiberboard supplies.

Then, in recent decades, came a familiar challenge: Bassett was undercut by imports from Asia and under pressure from shareholders to improve its profit margins. By 2007, it had closed all the plants in Bassett and decided to focus on importing wood products from lower-wage factories in China, Vietnam, and Indonesia. These days, Bassett Furniture places more emphasis, in the U.S., on retail stores, called Bassett Home Furnishings, where it sells mostly imported wood products and custom-made upholstery. In Bassett’s home county, the company now employs only two hundred and fifty people or so. Counting those stores, corporate and warehouse facilities, and its two remaining factories—both outside of Bassett—it now employs fifteen hundred people, down from ten thousand workers at its peak in the eighties.

The Bassett factory closings came not long after many of the region’s textile plants had closed for the same reasons. Between 2001 and 2012, more than sixty-three thousand U.S. factories closed—furniture and clothing mills, shoe and machine-tool factories. There were few places in America where the job losses felt as concentrated as along the eight-mile stretch of the Smith River that is home to Bassett, in the red-clay foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. In that area, some nineteen thousand workers in the region were displaced between 1990 and 2013.

The situation in Bassett is unusual, though. Unlike in many mill-towns-turned-ghost towns, Bassett workers know about a group of workers similar to them, in a town much like theirs, that has managed to thrive despite the effects of globalization.

That town, seventy miles away, is called Galax. It is the workplace of John Bassett III, a onetime heir to Bassett Furniture who, in 1982, was elbowed out of Bassett—the company and the town—by his older brother-in-law, Bob Spilman, who had visions of his son, Rob, succeeding him as C.E.O.

There, John Bassett resurrected a struggling furniture company called Vaughan-Bassett. In 2003, he organized the filing of what was then the world’s largest petition against China over “dumping,” the illegal practice of selling exports to the U.S. that are priced lower than the cost of their materials. He won. (I document the battle in my forthcoming book “Factory Man.”) Vaughan-Bassett ended up with forty-six million dollars in anti-dumping duties, a development that allowed John Bassett to keep his factory going at the same time as his relatives in Bassett were closing most of theirs. (Bassett Furniture received $17.5 million in duties but used most of the money to buttress its retail expansion.)

Today, Vaughan-Bassett is an outlier in its industry—one of the last bedroom-furniture makers left, as well as the largest. Vaughan-Bassett employs seven hundred people in Galax.

The landscape of Bassett, meanwhile, is deserted. During my initial visit, in 2011 (I returned many times in the following years), I was greeted by a crooked “closed” sign in a café window and an African-American graveyard whose headstones were cloaked in kudzu. Bassett Furniture’s plants sat abandoned on the sides of the company town’s major roads, cordoned off with chain-link fencing and razor wire. At the old John D. Bassett High School, retirees met for exercise in the gymnasium, and residents came weekly for free soup and gently worn clothes. Not long ago, a civic leader was approached outside a pharmacy by a stranger offering a hundred dollars if she’d purchase the cold medicine pseudoephedrine—an ingredient for cooking methamphetamine. Every displaced line worker I interviewed told me that if John had stayed at Bassett some of the town’s factories— especially Superior—might still be running.

Bassett Furniture’s C.E.O., Rob Spilman—the son of Bob, who pushed John out of Bassett—believes the closures, however painful, were needed in order to keep Bassett from having to shut down. “We’ve been a public company since 1930, with shareholders that have to get profits,” he told me. “At the end of the day, we are not a social experiment.” Vaughan-Bassett, in Galax, is privately held; Bassett Furniture is public.

In 2011, Henry County Sheriff’s deputies arrested a thirty-four-year-old man named Silas Crane for breaking into the J. D. Bassett plant. The brick building held copper wiring that Crane intended to rip out and resell on the black market. But he accidentally set the place on fire, burning himself and a trove of warehoused charity goods.

Bassett Furniture was in the process of razing the abandoned Superior building when it, too, caught fire one blustery afternoon in March, 2012. Winds were so strong that the conflagration could not be contained, and the adjacent Bassett Table Company became engulfed, too. Firefighters did manage to keep the flames away from a nearby company warehouse that was stocked with the imports that had rendered the two factories—and the seven hundred workers who’d once worked in them—obsolete.

Displaced workers from across the county drove old pickups and dented sedans to pay their respects, getting as close as they could to the smoke and flames.

False rumors had been circulating, before the fire, that Bassett planned to ship the bricks from the Superior building to China. Maxine Brown, a laid-off worker, told me, “China could get our jobs, our timber, our whole nine yards. But when the building caught fire I thought, At least that’s one brick you won’t get.”

Over the next year, dozens of people stopped by the charred remains of the plant to collect a keepsake brick. It wasn’t just nostalgia that brought them. Sure, they were proud of the work they’d done in those factories, of the friendships they’d formed while culling lumber and carpooling to save on gas. But the people of Bassett also wanted proof of how badly things had ended for them.

Economists, politicians, and others had predicted that trade liberalization, in the nineties and aughts, would help American workers whose wares would theoretically be exported to China’s growing consumer class. Like most Americans, the people of Bassett might never fully understand the intricacies of why things didn’t work out that way. There was China’s movement to artificially lower its currency to give its exports an advantage over competitors, the underpriced “dumping” of Chinese goods, and Chinese government subsidies—all of which allowed Asian-owned companies to sell products at a lower price than their American rivals and expanded the U.S. trade deficit with China.

Maxine Brown and her family had moved from West Virginia to Bassett in 1967. Back then, she said, work was so plentiful that if you left your house to apply for a position in the morning “you might as well take your lunch bag with you—cause you were gonna get a job.” Now, her children and grandchildren leave the county for work. Four have served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Two live in the region but drive to North Carolina for work.

About the only thing Maxine and her husband have left of Bassett is a piece of furniture: a chest of drawers that Maxine helped fashion in Superior’s rough end, the factory department in which lumber is measured and cut. “It’s a keepsake to me, and I can look back on that and say, ‘I helped ’em make it,’ ” she said.

On one of my last reporting trips to Bassett, I stumbled upon a backhoe operator who was burying the detritus of Bassett Superior Lines in a ravine so a landowner (and distant Bassett relative) could use it to extend his lawn. “If you’d told people in Bassett ten years ago that I’d be up here today burying this plant, they’d have said you were a complete fool,” Harry Ferguson told me.

In a corner of the lot stood a neat stack of bricks he’d pulled from the pile. He picked one out and, with a degree of ceremony, chinked off the mortar before passing it to me carefully, the way one might hand over a sleeping baby or a rising loaf of bread.

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