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GP 3 October 2007: The Repairmen

“Our motto is that The Apprentice School builds three types of ‘ships’: Craftsmanship, Scholarship, and Leadership.”  - Motto of The Apprentice School in Newport News, Virginia

Mr. Whitlock.  Manson Whitlock is one of those rare fellows.  They’re still around—repairmen—who actually make things whole again.  Now 90 years old, he started repairing typewriters in 1930, right in the heart of the Depression.  A few years back, he closed his big shop, but moved upstairs, his Whitlock’s Typewriter Shop still very much alive.  Not all of his old miscellany got thrown out: there is still a statue of Mark Twain, apparently the first author to turn in a typed manuscript to his publisher.  He figures he’s repaired 300,000 typewriters, give or take, over the years.  Some changes in the early years allowed him to build quite a business.  “The move allowed Whitlock to expand—at its height, the store stocked 400 to 500 machines and employed six mechanics.  Success enabled Whitlock to keep the older manuals to himself and delegate the electric typewriters to others” (Christian Science Monitor, April 26, 2007). Old-timers like Manson Whitlock can make one feel that repairmen are wonderful relics left over from the past.

Ten Thousand Springs Pavilion.  Fact is, we need them more than ever.  Sometimes for very esoteric chores.  Right about the time the Christian Science Monitor got around to writing about Mr. Whitlock, the Smithsonian down in Washington put on a show called “The Ten Thousand Springs Pavilion.”  It featured a Pavilion from Beijing’s Forbidden City, having received a most generous gift from China’s Red Sandalwood Museum, whose craftsmen made a wonderful 1/5 scale model of the Ten Thousand Springs, since presented to the Smithsonian.  After the show was over (June 3, 2007), senior conservator Don Williams needed to carefully break down the model, so that it could be prepared as a traveling exhibit.  This is no simple feat, leading him to invite his buddies in a professional refinishers group to help out.  Some 14 came to his rescue, from far and wide.  The roof alone, of the 1,400 piece replica, weighs some 600 pounds.  This saga is recounted in “Chinese Puzzle.”  The craftsmen in China did a wonderful thing, and the craftsmen in America were brilliant deconstructivists: they would feel kinship with one another.

Saving Stuff.  Even as we throw typewriters and much of our history on the junk pile, Americans aplenty are collecting all manner of thing, turning their houses and garages into little museums.  Don Williams has come to their rescue with Saving Stuff, a book which tells us how to care for practically everything—furniture, photographs, toys, silver, antiques, sports cards, recordings, comic books, fine art and sculpture, textiles, musical instruments, and what not.  We need repairmen to hold on to our past.

The New Economy.  But we need them even more to make sure America is not relegated to the dustbin of history.  Since the 1930s, we have been caught up in mass-market manufacturing and merchandising.  To sate our appetites and those of people around the world, we have churned out millions of copies of everything and sold them through general merchandisers where the retail help does not understand the products.  They’re not made very well.  Today’s washers and dryers, proudly churned out by GE and others, are meant to last about 5 years, no longer tooled to endure through the course of a 40-year marriage.  Is it any wonder that so many of us wind up in divorce, since the components of our lives are in shambles in less than a decade?  When a workman comes by the house, he whispers to us to hold on to an old refrigerator, if we have one, because it won’t fall apart before its time.

This idea of obsolescence is outmoded.  Raw materials are getting too expensive.  The prices of cars are much too high, for Americans to buy a new one every four years.  To conserve the environment and our pocketbooks, we need products that are built to last.  Women require clothing that does not wear out, even if Paris Hilton can’t wear a wrap on more than one occasion.  That means terribly good design and terribly good materials.  Furniture will have to be wrought from beautiful wood that’s the equivalent of the red sandalwood in the Smithsonian model.

Our world calls out for excellence!  Cars, and washing machines, and cellphones that are worth repairing.  And repairmen that know what they are doing, unlike the fellows who work for the big air conditioning outfits who spend most of their time trying to persuade customers to buy new, unnecessary features, such as vaporizers that ostensibly combat dry air but which also spread germs. We need houses that don’t have built-in cheap rugs that cause allergies and health problems, and which are free of window and door fixtures that swell and contract, leading to certain replacement in 10 years.  We can no longer afford to have things that wear out and that cannot be fixed.  They bankrupt the nation and the spirit.

The Discreet Charm of True Craftsmen.  There’s a car repairman out in the woods who revolted recently against Ford’s Volvo.  The car glove compartment would not stay shut, and Volvo’s only answer was to offer a new dashboard installation costing northward of $300.  He fashioned a $.50 part, and the door now is secure.

If you can make a good drawing of a piece of furniture, or of an apple espalier trellis you need as support for your antique apple trees, then a repairman will make it better every time.  He needs good measurements and good visuals, but he or she will be far more artful than the offshore manufacturer.  And the price will be unbelievably lower than that charged by the luxury purveyor whose only contribution is to wrestle with a factory in the recesses of Asia or Eastern Europe.  The repairmen can explode the myth that it’s cheaper and better to buy new furnishings in some metropolis.  As we have said elsewhere, the economics of The Long Tail have changed the way we will buy and sell things.  Until we build better for the long haul, mix in more individuality, and begin to fix what’s broken, we will know we have not quite arrived in the 21st century.

Elon University.  Our staff has begun to spend considerable time studying higher education in the United States.  In general we are beginning to understand that the smaller campuses—the modest liberal arts colleges—probably are serving the nation better, rendering more custom education and making better use of their limited resources than the over-endowed large universities.

One school we have come across is Elon University, a small, unknown college that has come to enjoy a spurt of popularity.  It is a fascinating business story as well.  Founded in 1889 with a religious orientation, it was in considerable decline a century later, virtually on the brink of closure.  But its trustees determined to renew it, and that they did, virtually creating a new college in the process.  That Elon has come of age seems to have become apparent in 1995 when former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dedicated several new buildings on campus.  George Keller recounts this story in Transforming a College: The Story of a Little-Known College’s Strategic Climb to National Distinction.

Elon comes to our attention not only because its trustees fixed something that was broken.  In recent visits by our colleagues to more than 50 campuses, we have yet to come across a school that is in better repair.  Everything seems to work.  Even on a week end, no trash, no graffiti, no bare spots in the lawn, nothing amiss.  It appears to have first class facilities.  We cannot comment on the quality of the education or of it systems, but there’s something to be said for anything—any school, company, town, or highway—that’s in excellent repair.

P.S.  The sponsor without peer of the idea that small colleges offer superior value is Loren Pope, who wrote books on the subject and had a counseling service called the College Placement Bureau to help kids go to a school that would be a good fit.  He was also an awfully good friend of Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed a house for him in Virginia when Pope was as poor as a churchmouse.  We only wish that Pope had also brought some of his zeal for architecture to the suites of college presidents who all too often cherish buildings that have absolutely no merit. Apparently Pope is made of the right stuff:  as far as we know, he still hangs out in Virginia, not so far from that first house by Wright.

P.P.S.  For some, Whitlock’s Book Store is more familiar than the typewriter business..  The book store and the typewriter shop went their separate ways when the Whitlock brothers had a falling out.  They’re friends again, but healing does take longer than repairing.

P.P.P.S.  By and large, technology and networks are flawed almost everywhere for countless reasons.  As we said in “Investment Outlook: Infrastructure,” our infrastructure in general is falling apart.  When new technology is installed, it is often used to shore up older strategies and outmoded visions, not to create something new.  But the biggest problem with systems and networks is that they are under-built to save money.  Inexperienced technology hands do not build failsafe systems: they have not seen enough stormy weather to understand that all systems fail, requiring copious back-up and other redundancies.  We have yet to find a school with a superior technology system.  By the way, the Internet itself is not built right and is rather vulnerable.  In Estonia, it was brought to its knees by hacker attacks, possibly promoted by the Russian government, a dramatic little war one can read about in “Web War One,” Wired, September 2007, pp. 162-169, 182-4.

P.P.P.P.S.  We are now all alerted to visit the Red Sandalwood Museum and all the other off-the-beaten-path museums next time in Beijing.  See Beijing’s “Ten Obscure Museums.”

P.P.P.P.P.S.  Twain, whom we quoted last week, had lots of good quotes about statistics.  He said, “Most people use statistics the way a drunkard uses a lamp post, more for support than illumination.”

P.P.P.P.P.P.S.  None of us had thought about the Eames Chair for years and years.  Then Don Williams brought it up in conversation, in hushed tones, as if it were the Holy Grail.  For him it was the modern piece of furniture that was built right—what all furniture makers should aspire to.  Apparently TV’s Dr. House, played by the marvelous Hugh Laurie, sits in several Eames.

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