Book Review: Factory Man



I grew up in Thomasville, NC, and if your first thought was furniture, you are correct. In fact, Thomasville was a two industry town. In a state known for three products – tobacco, textiles, and furniture – we had numerous knitting mills and we had Thomasville Furniture.

In the 1960s, jobs were plentiful in Thomasville. We had everything a small town could want or need. Belks department store stocked our school clothes, the Tasty Bakery baked our birthday cakes, and The Big 3 auto dealerships sold us our cars. Thomasville Furniture was to thank for much of this largesse. Then it slipped away.

Textiles left in the 80s, but furniture remained. Then NAFTA struck, and slowly those companies, who had been so loyal to their employees, moved to places not named after the town where they began. Finally, the entry of China into the WTO was the final blow to my hometown.

As I write this, Thomasville Furniture is out of business, and the grand showroom, headquarters, and giant Plant C are on the auction block, unlikely to be sold to another big employer.

Beth Macy, author of Factory Man, details Bassett VA, a company town less than 75 miles from Thomasville. Both the company and the town are named for the J.D. Bassett family. Mr. J.D. got his start in lumber before luring away the furniture industry from Michigan. Using the local resources, abundant forests and subsistence farmers, he not only made a less expensive product but also produced it faster than any of his competitors. Along the way, he raised the standard of living from poverty to middle class for his workers, while reminding his family it was these people who helped make their fortune.

Macy details Mr. J.D. and his heirs in this story of what community meant to its founder and how that was slowly dismantled by competition and greed, so, like Thomasville NC, furniture is no longer crafted in Bassett. From the ruins, though, we meet JDIII, or John Bassett III. Like his grandfather, JDIII believed in buying the best machinery, hiring the best people, and working them hard. He was eventually pushed out of Bassett Industries and started his own furniture company, Vaughan-Bassett, in nearby Galax, where he learned that no matter how efficient his production lines were, he couldn’t beat the prices offered by offshore competition dumping bedroom suites and dining room sets onto the US market.

Against his own Bassett relatives, friends, and industry insiders, JDIII charged the US International Trade Commission with shirking its responsibilities. Ms. Macy works her way through the D.C. law firms and courts to show the reader the machinations of trade law enforcement. We see retailers wanting nothing more than the lowest price. We see American furniture executives wanting nothing more than their companies’ survival, regardless where the furniture is made. And incredibly, we see a glimmer of hope for US manufactured products.

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